Gregorio Allegri descended from a family who had become illustrious by having given to the world a Correggio. Gregorio Allegri was born in Rome in the year 1580. After having studied music with Nanini and other good masters, he took sacred orders, and obtained a benefice in the cathedral of Fermo. About the same time he began to publish his concertos, hymns, and other sacred music. His compositions attracted the attention of Pope Urban VIII., who appointed him singing chaplain of the papal chapel. This position he retained until his death, which took place Feb 18, 1652. Allegri was a very pious priest; and he was as charitable a musician as he was a scientific one. Interested in poor prisoners, his benevolence was especially exercised in their behalf.
The most celebrated work of Allegri is his “Miserere” for two choirs, one for four voices, the other for five, which is sung in the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week. The Roman court so highly prized the exclusive possession of this famous composition, which they considered in a certain sense holy, that they threatened any one who should take or give away a copy of it with ecclesiastical penalties. Mozart eluded the prohibition, and dared to disobey. The courageous child, in his admiration of the wonderful music, listened so attentively that he was able to write it out at home; and, when he went to hear it again, he put his manuscript in his hat, where he made such corrections as were necessary. Since that time the “Miserere” has been published in London and elsewhere.
The Emperor Leopold I., who was an amateur musician, begged the pope, through his ambassador at Rome, for a copy of the “Miserere,” to be used at the Imperial Chapel. The favor was granted, a copy made, and sent to the emperor. It so happened that many very distinguished singers, who were at the time in Vienna, took part in the execution of the music, notwithstanding which it was a failure. The emperor thought that the chapel-master at Rome had sent some other than Allegri’s “Miserere,” and complained to the pope, who, in his turn, remonstrated with the director of the chapel. He excused himself by explaining to his Holiness, that the manner of singing it in his chapel could not possibly be explained by notes, or transmitted otherwise than by example. The holy father could not understand it, but the musical emperor did, and all were satisfied.
Many “Misereres” have been sung in the Sistine Chapel; but none can compare with that of Allegri. Notwithstanding its apparent simplicity, it is very difficult to execute. The arrangement of the voice parts is excellent: the conformity of the musical expression with the sense of the text is perfect; and the air of sadness which pervades the whole excites the devotional feelings of the listener.
Whoever wishes to appreciate its beauties must quietly listen to it in a church, or, better still, in the Vatican, where the time most suitable for hearing this masterpiece is Holy Week.