Friday, April 2, 2010

Miserere Mei: The Singers and the Song

Kathleen Roberts Skerrett
Grinnell College
Amid the sickening invective and defensiveness that is spiraling around the Catholic Church, I have been listening to a piece of liturgical music:  Gregorio Allegri’s (1582-1652) beautiful setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei.  During the Good Friday liturgy, it is usually sung in a darkened church, with the congregation on its knees facing an altar that has been “stripped” of all beautiful vestments.  This liturgical context always makes the spirit downcast; everything is so bare and empty; if one is fasting too, the whole thing makes you feel very frail, as though your religion might be easily carted away. 

Allegri’s music itself is an unspectacular setting to one of the penitential psalms appointed for Holy Week.  But its performance in the Sistine Chapel each Good Friday in the 17th century made it famous throughout Europe.  There is no extant copy of Allegri’s score—indeed there is a beloved story that the Vatican would not allow any score to circulate until Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard the piece and transcribed it from memory.  So we do not know exactly how it was performed, with what embellishments, though we do know it was the embellishments improvised by the choir that made it famous.  When it is sung today, the congregation anticipates a cadenza sung by a gifted soprano that trills up to a high C, and then pours one liquid note after another descending like a tear.  A high C is a very high note for a human voice; if castrated male singers originally improvised this descant, it would have given a preternatural impression we can scarcely imagine.

But though we have no score, we do have a list of the male singers of the Vatican choir who would have sung Allegri’s Miserere.  (I am indebted to Prof. Philip Cave for this reference.)  Beside each name, some anonymous official wrote brief annotations about the singers--Jacobus:  “acceptable [voice] but desires women; he is to be warned”; Mathias:  “gambler and wastrel and disorderly”; Bartholomeus:  “the worst kind of heretic”; Joannes: “poor, but deaf and acceptable”; Simon: “ill, infamous and poor”; Fredricus:  “rich, acceptable; keeps a mistress”; Franciscus:  “has fled because of debts”; Antonius:  “apostate; has no voice”.  There are more such notes, though many of the individuals attracted the official’s indifferent appraisal “bonus”.  We do not know whether the annotations accurately reflect the character or situation of the singers; indeed, the annotator seems to be as interested in the economic burden the indigent ones would impose on the Vatican pension plan as he is in their various heresies and indiscretions.

In any event, though, these summary appraisals expose the vulnerability of human spirits, their isolation and responsiveness, their incoherence and frailty.  They expose as well the cold light in which one person can sum up the confusions of another in a single pitiless gaze.

The music that ravished Europe’s penitent soul was sung by a bunch of reprobates. Such “dissonance” will surprise no one who has been actually involved—and I say this with love--in religious communities.  There is always complex life going on beneath the liturgical flow, obsessions and resentments and infidelities that haunt our moments of unselfconscious praise.  Such life cannot be captured or quarantined as hypocrisy or degeneracy or perversion.  Faith lives in closest proximity to the unbidden things that move and constrain us.

Last night, on the Canadian news program The National, Prof. David Seljak said it best:  In response to the widening sex scandal, attend to the victims now, console and care for the children and the adult survivors, constrain the perpetrators; the reputation of the Church can be rehabilitated following, and as a result of, demonstrated responses worthy of the faith.

There is a prayer that every Catholic knows, fitting for a penitential season:  O Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.


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