Sunday 26 February 2012

Pancakes and seventeenth-century music

Supermarkets and today’s secular culture make much of Pancake Day and it was doubtless celebrated with higher sales of sugar and lemon in the commercial world, and an array of experimental toppings in households up and down the country. I would like to think that lots of the pancake eaters know that they are really celebrating Shrove Tuesday, and that the pancakes offer them a simple way to use up foodstuffs which would not form part of the Christian’s Lenten fast that starts the following day.

Ash Wednesday now appears to be the poor relation of Pancake Day, even though there are people who continue to choose to give something up – often luxuries such as chocolate, cake or alcohol – between then and Easter in lieu of Jesus’ forty days’ fasting in the Wilderness. However, when all of the self-righteous abstemiousness is forgotten and the religious celebration of Ash Wednesday is considered, there is only one name on the lips of anyone who knows anything about cathedral music.

Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652) was a singer in the Papal Chapel for the final twenty or so years of his life, but he is only remembered for his setting of Psalm 51, the Miserere, which people know for containing a top C (two octaves above middle C) for a treble or soprano soloist. The composition is surrounded by mystique as rumour tells it was only performed in the Sistine Chapel and the ornamentation of the soloist’s part (in which the top C occurs), or abbellimenti, was never written down but passed from generation to generation of soloists. The other famous story that frequently accompanies the work is that Mozart supposedly wrote down the entire piece from memory having heard it sung at its annual performance in Rome; there is, apparently, no copy surviving in his hand though.

Although the top C is unlikely ever to have been written by Allegri, it is now firmly part of the piece’s mythology, and every year top Cs flood out of cathedral services up and down the country on Ash Wednesday. While those who know will expect to hear the Miserere sung, few are likely to give much of a thought to the soloist.

In the majority of the cathedral choirs, the top C will be sung by a young boy, probably aged around 11 or 12. Their chorister colleagues – probably numbering a further 17 at most – will speak about him doing the solo in reverent whispers, but his other contemporaries at school will have little idea what pressure has been placed upon him. The solo is technically and physically demanding and cannot readily be performed well by just anyone. To the soloist, this is equivalent to shooting the deciding penalty in a football match or a Masterchef contestant cooking a dish for a roomful or Michelin-starred chefs. But the soloist has to do it five times during the course of the piece.

A recent sound snippet of a rehearsal at Truro Cathedral indicates that their performance included a top E, and the edition we used at Lichfield Cathedral extended to a top D. The recording and I can testify that both instances were, respectively, achieved gracefully by the young singers.

Two hours before the service, the soloists would appear typical carefree youngsters, possibly out playing football, or stuck in lessons at school, but in the services they are living up to the demands of continuing a tradition and upholding the Miserere’s mystique some 400 years after it was written.

As a postscript, I must add that I know many other performances will have been given in which the soloist was a soprano. There is no way in which I want to undermine the work they will have had to put into their rendition, but I do feel there is a marked difference between a professional soprano (who has probably been an Oxbridge choral scholar and studied singing at music collage) and an eleven year old living up to the demands of the piece, and this should not be forgotten.

For people interested more detail about the Miserere, an excellent essay can be found at There is also a variety of performances available on YouTube for anyone who does not know the work.

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