Now that the Allegri Miserere season is fully launched – the text is suitable for Lent – it seems fitting to ask why every choir in the land thinks it incumbent on them to sing this piece of music, for 150 years only ever sung within the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It never used to be so. The local cathedral choir might periodically have had a go at it – and St John’s Cambridge always broadcast it on Ash Wednesday – but nowadays performances by secular and liturgical choirs alike have reached epidemic proportions, a kind of top C fever. This is all the stranger when one reflects that most of these choirs will sing much worse than usual in attempting it. Why bother?
Because it has acquired the status of a must-have accessory. This is partly to do with its colourful history (Mozart’s memory, castrati, excommunication, the morphing of the original composition into what we have today) and partly because performing it has become a challenge everyone wants to talk about, to join the ranks of those who have sung the Allegri in public. It is almost as if those who belong to a choir which has not attempted it have fallen behind in one of the big experiences of life.
The trouble is that five solo top Cs in 12 minutes is a test of nerves which very few people, especially children, are equal to. The result is often an embarrassment – the pitch sinking, the chant wretched – in which people nonetheless still manage to hear enough traces of a famed beauty to perpetuate the need to hear it again. They may perceive it as if through a glass darkly, yet their determination to worship anything which is entitled ‘The Allegri’ has become as much a part of the mystique of its story as Mozart writing it down from memory or doctored soloists inventing fabulous embellishments which soared to the very vault of Michelangelo.
But there it is: a piece of music which is of general interest for only a fraction of its length; which was only in small part composed by Gregorio Allegri, who himself is a composer of no importance today and anyway didn’t write the interesting bit; which was originally intended as a succession of improvisations but can now only be sung with any acclaim if exactly the same version is performed every time; which has acquired a theatrical element (hiding the solo choir) apparently representing the practice of performances in the Sistine Chapel but which in fact does not, as anybody who knows the layout of the Chapel could have worked out; and which is now an almost exclusively British institution.
In short we are in the process of doing one of those things we love to do: mint a new British ‘tradition’. No matter that this music is of foreign origin: so are the Royal Family; and indeed singing it will become like the service at the Cenotaph or the celebrating of the Queen’s official birthday, which people swear blind have been happening from time immemorial, deaf to any proof that they were started within the last hundred years. The only difference is that the Allegri tradition, on its current scale, started in the last ten years.
Soon we will be told that not to sing the Allegri in Lent, or to do it in any other form, is shameful, showing little respect for what is dear to ‘the British’. Meanwhile the number of experts on this topic is set to multiply splendidly. Since the real story of how the British Allegri came into being is complicated even by the standards of byzantium, I anticipate a great deal of hot air.
Published in the Spectator, dated 14th March