September 30, 2014

Music and Mystery of Faith

Currently, I am listening to one of my favorite compositions while having a cup of tea. Please allow me the indulgence of sharing this piece, as well as a little background information.

This haunting and solemn composition, written by Gregorio Allegri, is a grand, complex, and emotive creation. This is not surprising, considering Allegri’s background. Born in Rome in 1580, he is related to the Italian Renaissance painter Correggio. Allegri worked as a priest at the cathedral at Fermo. He was also the resident composer and choral director. Allegri is described as often considered a model of how Christians should use their vocation to exalt God. Described as "a model of priestly piety and humility, a father to the poor, the consoler of captives and the forsaken, a self-sacrificing help and rescuer of suffering humanity" (Joncas).

Renaissance was a time known of innovation and the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman classicism not only in visual arts or architecture, but also music. Innovations, such as the development of vocal polyphony, can be heard to this day in Gregorio Allegri’s, Miserere Mei. The Miserere Mei is believed to have been written in the late 16th century, in Italy, though variations had been written in the 15th century. The song was used annual Easter celebration. One Wednesday and Friday, a special mass, attended by the pope, would start at 3AM, in which 27 candles were extinguished one at a time until only one remained. It was then, that the mass would culminate with the pope kneeling at the altar while the Miserere Mei was performed.

Allegri, not only wrote choral pieces, he is also credited for writing one of the earliest known string quartet. His most famous piece, the Miserere Mei, is written in a style known as polyphony. This is when a line of music is “stacked” by octave, creating a sense of depth in the music. Polyphonic hymns served to lift up the souls of Renaissance Christians. This is not unlike the goal of the dome of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. However, Miserere Mei  is a more humble offering of creative vision, as is lyrically taken from Psalm 51, a Psalm asking God for forgiveness and differs to his greatness. Considering Allegri’s reported background and demeanor, it is no surprise that he would create an art that exhibits piety.

Allegri’s, Miserere Mei was shrouded in secrecy. The Vatican made it illegal to transcribe the composition and regulated when and where it could be performed. To break this law would mean excommunication from the Church. It is logical to surmise that the reason for this secrecy was similar to the reason behind the secrecy of Brunelleschi’s dome; to reveal the technical details would devalue the work, thereby making it "common." By making these works uncommon and irreplicable by the general public, their spiritual significance would be enhanced. This, after all, is important to a religion such as Catholicism whose own doctrine espouses and proclaims “The Mystery of Faith.” To what degree would faith be shattered if we knew how it all worked? What interest would be left? Mystery helps make something special.

It is, by far, my favorite piece of music. A perfect way to start the evening.

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