Saturday, February 13, 2010


Is it too early to think of repenting? After all, Mardi Gras’ “bontemps” are only just really beginning to roll, both here and in New Orleans (though they have pretty well been rolling there ever since the Super Bowl). Still, it is always worth contemplating our destiny, here and eternally, in good times and in bad (as the marriage vows put it). In that light, I offer the single piece of music most identified with Ash Wednesday, performed by the choir that did the most to make that identification: Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge. But first, a few comments…

Far and away the most ‘traditional’ version for this choir to sing has been an adaptation into English). The classic performance of this is by the choir led by (Sir) David Willcocks, their long-time director. The performance here, however, is to the Latin text, which is Allegri’s original setting—a piece specially composed for and jealously guarded by the Sistine Choir for performance on Good Friday. You can read the story about this piece and the young Mozart elsewhere.

Watching this performance as well as listening to it, notice the cathedral-like size and scope of what is the chapel of King’s College—founded by King Henry VI in the 15th century. Notice, beside the stained glass, the use of what is called “fan-vaulting.” The barrel-arch, called Romanesque or Norman in style, soon was replaced by the Gothic, or pointed, arches which allowed for much greater height in cathedrals. Fan vaulting added to this capacity because it helped distribute the weight of the ceiling and walls that much more efficiently (as did their exterior companions, the “flying buttresses”). They were therefore decorative and functional.

Notice, too, that this choir (as it has always been) is purely male—the high notes are sung by boy sopranos (especially gloriously, in this composition). For a version by "mixed choir" to equally wonderful effect, I recomment the pioneering performance (also to the Latin text) by "The Tallis Scholars" on the Gimell label.

Remember that in the midst of this architectural and musical wonder, the text (which is Psalm 51) is fundamentally about confession of sins. Finally, if you are a person who has enjoyed (if that is the right word) reading Lord of the Flies, know that this is the kind of choir envisioned by Golding on the island: yet more need to repent??


  1. Thank you for a beautiful commentary which allowed my imagination
    to place me in the Kings College chapel listening to the soaring voices of the all boys' choir -- "Miserere" by Gregorio Alleghi, from the text of
    Psalm 51.


    Thank You.....