Sensual Secrets of the Vatican

Last month I welcomed my colleague Martin Davids to Ithaca to join me in a program improvised music for violin and organ in Cornell’s non-sectarian Sage chapel decorated inside and out with various layers of neo-Gothic ornament. In the apse behind the altar is a collection of humanist figures of a distinctly non-secular, or perhaps even pagan, deportment. The only image of Jesus to be seen seems to be a later addition to the ensemble: he leans over the outside of a secondary portal to the chapel, and is often wreathed in ice this time of year.

Marty plays a Milanese violin from 1750 by the famed Ferdinando Alberti on loan to him from a harpsichord-playing heiress with an affection for baroque music: that refined, yet exuberant, instrument is a nobleman with all the right papers, and a high insurance bill reflecting his lofty pedigree. The organ at the front of the chapel was acquired by the university nearly a decade ago at auction in San Francisco.  I was playing a concert at the University of California, Berkeley and a recently retired music professor told me that he’d sent his antique organ across the Bay Bridge to be sold to the highest bidder at an auction house.

The next day he and I visited the organ, which had gone badly out of tune on being trundled over the Bay and was made to sound still worse because the auctioneers had put it in the Oriental rug room, the worst possible acoustic environment for any musical instrument, but especially bad for the organ, which thrives off ambient surroundings and is suffocated by lavish textiles: the organist are always fighting churches to remove pew cushions, carpets, and other incursions of the American living room into the religious domain.

Built by an otherwise unknown fellow named Augustus Vicedomini in 1746, this small but lovely organ sounded like a leaky accordion coming down from an all-night vodka bender when I played it at the auction house. The organ had originally been painted a muddy red, earthy and welcoming. After the professor had gotten the thing out of Italy in the 1980s—responding to the exodus of such organs to northern collectors and conservatories, the Italian government had put many of them under historic preservation and forbidden their export—then had it painted in a pompous blue with gold leaf highlights found on 18th-century French harpsichords.

The professor emeritus was expecting, or perhaps only hoping for, two hundred thousand dollars, but Cornell got it for just over forty thousand—a steal for a handcrafted instrument from the classic age of Italian organ making.

In spite of its froofy French dress, there’s no disguising in the sound of the organ its humble Neapolitan origins. This is a classic immigrant’s tale: arrive in this country and fit into your surroundings, in the Vicedomini’s case the look of the Early Music Movement in Berkeley. An Italian peasant becomes a California yuppy with a taste for French finery.

This violin and organ make an interesting pair: two Italians of very different stripes—the aristocratic northern and the upwardly mobile southerner scrubbed clean and lightened during a couple decades on the Coast before getting shipped back to the unforgiving climate of Upstate New York with its bone-dry winters and humid summers.

Together they get up to a fair amount of mischief including dismantling that closely guarded secret of the Counter-Reformation Vatican, Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, heard in Holy Week and for several centuries a must-see and –hear for those on the Grand Tour.  The popes zealously guarded this important musical component of their brand by refusing to have it published or letting it be circulated in manuscript.  Mozart is said to have violated the papal edict against copying the precious work by writing it down after one hearing, though doubts have been cast about this anecdote. The piece is a series of magnificent six-part harmonies marked by heart-rending dissonances and ambrosial resolutions,  over which the text of the 51st Psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God” is declaimed in speech-like rhythms.  These expansive sonorities are interleaved with plain chant recited over a single note with a simple melodic termination.

Mendelssohn was just one of the tourists that made the required pilgrimage to hear—and see—this piece in the Sistine Chapel. He too transcribed the Miserere, and left a letter describing the elaborate staging from the which the music drew so much of its legendary power:

“With each verse a candle is extinguished and the entire choir intones a new psalm fortissimo—the Canticle of Zachariah in D minor.  Then the last of the candles is snuffed out an the Pope descends from his throne and prostrates himself on his knees in front of the altar; all join him in kneeling and utter a ‘Pater noster sub silentio.’  Immediately after this, the Miserere begins, as soft as possible. I consider this the most profound moment of the entire ritual, an opening so beautiful it cannot be described.”

For Mendelssohn these chords revealed the deepest power of music.

The music is highly repetitive, with the four relatively short harmonic patterns repeated many times over the course of the piece.  The version that Mozart and, later, another 18th-century traveler, the Englishman Charles Burney, were able to abscond with lay out the basic chord structure. But even in the sanctity of the Sistine Chapel the mischievous impulses of human creativity began to paint over the purity of Allegri’s nearly-mythical original.  Roman musicians of Allegri’s 17th-century were especially famous for their skills at ornamentation, making elaborate glosses of harmonic schemes, such as that heard in the “unadulterated” Miserere that long ago took its place in the canon of choral masterpieces. Open up any treatise on ornamentation from the period and you’ll be amazed at how lavish these decorations can become; restraint hardly seems to be considered a virtue for these musicians. That some composers bristled at the spontaneous interventions of performers only shows how widespread and elaborate the practice of ornamentation was.

Almost all of the large number of recordings of the Miserere are marred by a specious devotion to the piece’s allegedly sacrosanct text. Few things are as boring as the Choir of King’s College Cambridge and its epigones plodding over the treadmill of chords in misplaced holy reverence. Many other choirs have committed the same sin of deference on recording. Such  stuff is hollow, not holy, boring rather than uplifting. The BBC television presentation of the piece by The Sixteen under Harry Christopher claims to be “original.”  I would use the word cryogenic.  One pass through the chord progression is indeed heavenly, the second terrestrial. By the third its digging its own grave.

Research over the last decade has shown that the singers of the Sistine Chapel kept bending the sacred Miserere musical text to their creative wills.  A mind-blowing and throat-bending version of the Miserere as it had evolved by the 19th century is available from the Ensemble William Byrd (Astrée, 2002). Here the high-renassaince sonorities are bracingly spiced with elaborate bel canto singing: virtuosic and leaps and harmonic inflections in which Gesualdo meets Bellini tossed off with the crowd-pleasing flair of a street musicians.  This is the wake-up call the Miserere had long needed after hibernating through dozens and dozens of recording sessions and English choir tours.

In his Italian Journey Goethe raved about sublimity of the piece, and was  especially pleased that there was no organ in the Sistine Chapel to despoil the pristine grandeur of the Miserere.

Goethe’s praise of purity was just one more encouragement for Cornell’s vintage Italian organ and the visiting violin to heap on the Roman-style runs and trills at the altar of the Miserere, to replace the plainchant with fugues and fantasies, to disport ourselves in the rampant sensuality of this piece which yearns to spur creativity rather than stifle it.  The piece as sanctified relic disappears in performance. That the counter-weights for the hand-drawn bellows of the old organ jumped their pulleys and left Mr. Vicedomini gasping for breath at the end of our little concert may have been God or the Pope—or both—trying to shut us up, but the tide has already begun to turn against musical perfection and the chaste respect for hallowed notes. Allegri’s Miserere is just one of many classics ready to be reborn.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at