Missa Cantantibus organis: Allegri Miserere & the music of Rome

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Program: #11-13, Air Date: 03/21/11

Before the great Palestrina's death in 1594, seven Roman musicians came together to write a twelve-part mass based on the elder composer's motet Cantantibus Organis; this is the centerpiece of this new recording by the Cardinall's Musick.

NOTE: All of the music on this program came from the recording Missa Cantantibus organis: Allegri Miserere & the music of Rome featuring The Cardinall's Musick directed by Andrew Carwood. The recording is on the Hyperion label and is CDA67860. The U.S. distributor is Harmonia Mundi USA:

For information about this ensemble (which has been on the program since the group was founded over 20 years ago) consult their web site:


This disc features music from late sixteenth-century Rome and ranges from Allegri’s Miserere, surely the best-known and best-loved work of this period, to a rarely-performed or recorded oddity. Seven Roman musicians came together (or were brought together) to write a Mass-setting where they each contributed different sections. The resulting work, the twelve-voice Missa Cantantibus organis, is a tribute both to Cecilia (the patron saint of music) and to Palestrina. The seven composers each take themes found in Palestrina’s motet of the same name and use them as the starting point for their new compositions. Palestrina himself is among the seven, with Giovanni Andrea Dragoni, Ruggiero Giovannelli, Curzio Mancini, Prospero Santini, Francesco Soriano and Annibale Stabile being the other six. All seven composers were prominent maestri in Rome and most appear to have had contact with Palestrina either as choristers or pupils. --Andrew Carwood (see more below)

1. Salve regina (Anerio)
2. Missa Cantantibus organis
2. Kyrie eleison (Stabile)
3. Christe eleison (Soriano)
4. Kyrie eleison (Dragoni)
5. Gloria (Palestrina)
6. Domine Deus (Anon.)
7. Qui tollis (Dragoni)
8. Credo (Stabile)
9. Crucifixus (Stabile)
10. Et ascendit in caelum
10. (Soriano)
11. Et in Spiritum Sanctum
11. (Giovannelli)
12. Sanctus (Santini)
13. Agnus Dei (Mancini)
14. De lamentatione Jeremiae
14. prophetae (Allegri)
15. Miserere mei, Deus
15. (Allegri)
16. Incipit lamentatio Jeremiae
16. prophetae (Allegri)
17. Cantantibus organis
17. (Palestrina)
18. Gustate et videte (Allegri)

Late sixteenth-century Rome was a vigorous and energetic place, stimulated in part by the way in which the Catholic Church had responded to the gauntlet thrown down by the religious reformers of Northern Europe. Two new priestly orders had arisen—the Jesuits and the Oratorians—both with fire in their bellies and a great zeal for evangelism. Lavish works of architecture, art, literature and music revealed a Church which was neither damaged by the Reformation, nor in retreat, but striding forward with ever greater confidence. Both prelates and aristocrats were patrons of the arts and they were often in competition to employ the finest musicians and to put on ever larger events. One of the ways in which Roman musicians responded to these demands was to develop the art of polychoral music, with two, three or even four choirs performing together, either to produce a massive choral sound or to allow rhetorical ‘discussion’, with one choir answering another, sometimes taking the harmonies in another direction, or jumping in with new material, or being kept silent only to enter with greater force a little later.

This was a new direction for music, different to the style inherited and developed by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–1594), one derived essentially from Flemish composers such as Josquin Des Prez. Imitation was at the centre of their work: a melody would be sung in one voice and then copied a few beats later by another part at a different but complementary pitch, followed by yet another voice and so forth. This style can be seen in a late form in the motet Cantantibus organis (1575) by Palestrina, where the opening intervals of a fourth or a fifth are imitated in each voice part and many themes emerge during the course of the piece, all of which are playfully repeated in a true musical democracy. The new polychoral style was often more concerned with homophony, when a single choir could declaim the text with all voice parts moving essentially at the same time and another choir could respond. Palestrina embraced this style wholeheartedly, producing in his later publications many pieces for two choirs and some for three.

Palestrina trained as a chorister at S Maria Maggiore in Rome and his first appointment was in 1544 as organist of S Agapito in Palestrina (the town from which we derive his name). By 1551 he had returned to Rome as magister cantorum of the Cappella Giulia and was admitted to the Cappella Sistina in 1555, only to be dismissed in the same year, a casualty of Pope Paul IV’s new regulation that married singers were not suitable members of his choir. As a result he became maestro at S Giovanni in Laterano but returned to S Maria Maggiore in 1560. In April 1571 he once again became maestro of the Cappella Giulia where he remained until his death. He was the pre-eminent composer of his generation and had a wide influence on all musicians who came into contact with his music. He was therefore an obvious choice to be at the centre of a new project when seven Roman musicians came together (or were brought together) to write a Mass-setting where they each contributed different sections. The resulting work, the twelve-voice Missa Cantantibus organis, is a tribute both to Cecilia (the patron saint of music) and to Palestrina. The seven composers each take themes found in Palestrina’s motet of the same name and use them as the starting point for their new compositions. Palestrina himself is among the seven, with Giovanni Andrea Dragoni, Ruggiero Giovannelli, Curzio Mancini, Prospero Santini, Francesco Soriano and Annibale Stabile being the other six. All seven composers were prominent maestri in Rome and most appear to have had contact with Palestrina either as choristers or pupils. They were also all members of the Vertuosa Compagnia dei Musici di Roma, a society designed for mutual support, organized in 1584 and officially founded the following year under the patronage of Pope Gregory XIII. This society was the forerunner of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia.

There is no evidence that the Mass was written for the Compagnia, although it is tempting to speculate. Stylistically, the Mass belongs to the end of the sixteenth century, with several of the composers writing for three choirs, and, as Palestrina contributed the opening movement of the Gloria, it must have been written before his death in 1594. The fact that there seems to be no other example of a Mass written as it were by committee suggests that it may have been designed for a particular event. Could it be that the Mass was written to celebrate the establishment of the Compagnia in 1585? Certainly there is a later example of composers from the Confraternity collaborating together, when Felice Anerio (maestro of the Compagnia in 1589) organized works by various composers into a volume entitled La Gioie. Could Anerio have had a hand in bringing the composers together?

The Mass has a number of odd features. The setting of the ‘Domine Deus’ in the Gloria has no composer ascribed to it in any of the sources. It has been suggested that it might be the work of Palestrina (who wrote the preceding section) but this seems unlikely on stylistic grounds. Then there is the bizarre state of the Sanctus. Prospero Santini composed an impressive opening section but his setting stops after the words ‘Pleni sunt caeli et terra gloria tua’ and there is no setting of the Hosanna nor of the Benedictus in any of the three extant sources. In addition to this, one source contains a second Sanctus by Curzio Mancini (less successful than the one recorded here) but this also stops at the same place as Santini’s setting. Perhaps one of the composers missed a deadline, or was another composer invited to contribute but failed to do so? Less unusual is the short Agnus Dei by Mancini which has only one invocation, using the words ‘miserere nobis’. Certain institutions such as St John Lateran traditionally did not include the ‘dona nobis pacem’ in their liturgy and this practice may have been repeated elsewhere.

Annibale Stabile (c1535–1595) was the writer of the first section of the Kyrie, the first section of the Credo and the ‘Crucifixus’, and as such is the most prominent composer in the piece. He described himself as a pupil of Palestrina and spent most of his life in Rome where he was maestro at S Giovanni in Laterano (1575–1578), then at the German College (1578–1590) and finally at S Maria Maggiore (1591–1594). From February 1595 until his death he was in the service of King Sigismund III of Poland and died in Cracow.

The ‘Christe’ section was set by Francesco Soriano (1548/9–1621) as was ‘Et ascendit’ from the Credo. A chorister under Palestrina at S Giovanni in Laterano, Soriano became a priest in 1574 and was maestro at S Luigi dei Francesi in Rome from 1570. He was dismissed from this post in 1581 (his too frequent absences being cited as the main problem) and subsequently moved to Mantua where he served as maestro from 1581 to 1586 (interestingly there was an attempt to remove him from this post also in 1583). The remainder of his career saw a return to Rome and employment at the three major foundations: S Maria Maggiore (1586–1589, part of 1595 and 1601–1603); S Giovanni in Laterano (1599–1601) and the Cappella Giulia (1603–1620).

Two sections were contributed by Giovanni Andrea Dragoni (c1540–1598)—the final portions of the Kyrie and the Gloria. In a dedication of 1575 he pays tribute to the education he received from Palestrina and his entire life was centred on Rome where he was maestro at S Giovanni in Laterano from 1576 until his death in 1598. Much of his music was in the Lateran library but has subsequently been lost.

Ruggiero Giovannelli (c1560–1625) provided music for the culmination of the Credo and he may also have been a pupil of Palestrina (although there is no definite evidence for this). He became maestro at S Luigi dei Francesi in 1583 and from 1587 also directed the music at the English College. From 1591 to 1594 he served as maestro at the German College. In 1589 he was in charge of music for the Oratorio della SS Trinità dei Pellegrini and at some time entered the service of Duke Giovanni Angelo Altemps (the patron of Felice Anerio). In 1594 he succeeded Palestrina as maestro at the Cappella Giulia but resigned this post in 1599 when he joined the Sistine Chapel Choir as a singer. He served as secretary of the Cappella Sistina in 1607, treasurer from 1610 to 1613 and was elected maestro in 1614. He retired on 7 April 1624.

The incomplete Sanctus is in a setting by the little known Prospero Santini (fl1591–1614). Thus far history has given us neither a birth nor a death date. He was maestro di cappella of the Congregazione dei Preti dell’ Oratorio and principally a composer of laude and canzonette spirituale.

Curzio Mancini (c1553–after 1611) was the composer of the Agnus Dei. He was a chorister at S Giovanni in Laterano until February 1567 and may therefore have spent a little time studying with Palestrina. In 1576 he organized the Holy Week music for the Oratorio del Gonfalone in Rome and did the same for the major feasts between February 1577 and March 1579 at SS Trinità dei Pellegrini. From 1589 to 1591 he was maestro at S Maria Maggiore (in succession to Soriano) and from June 1592 to May 1593 was maestro at Santa Casa, Loreto. He must have been adept at large-scale organization as in 1596 he put together the splendid Corpus Christi celebrations at the Confraternity of San Rocco and from June 1601 to October 1603 he was maestro at S Giovanni in Laterano. He returned to Loreto in October 1603 and then again to S Giovanni from 1608 until June 1611: nothing more is known of his biography.

If Felice Anerio (c1560–1614) was involved in drawing together the Missa Cantantibus organis for the Compagnia, he was exceptionally modest in not including any of his own music. He was successively a choirboy at S Maria Maggiore and at St Peter’s (under Palestrina). Service at various Roman churches followed, including spells as maestro at the Spanish S Maria di Monserrato and the English College, before he was appointed composer to the Papal Chapel on the death of Palestrina in 1594. In the early 1600s Anerio acted as maestro to Duke Giovanni Angelo Altemps, and it was in this aristocrat’s library that one of the sources of the Missa Cantantibus organis was discovered, perhaps strengthening the case that Anerio was somehow involved in its creation.

Anerio’s setting of the Salve regina contrasts a high choir with a low one, something unusual in Roman double-choir music and more reminiscent of Venetian compositions of the period. The restrained setting matches well the imploring mood of the text while Anerio relies for expression on the sharpening of thirds and the juxtaposition of major and minor harmonies, something which underlines the poignancy of the words.

The remainder of the music on this disc is either written by or inspired by Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652). His early training was as a singer at S Luigi dei Francesi and his first position as maestro was at Santo Spirito in Sassio, Rome. On 6 December 1629 he joined the Papal Choir and was elected maestro di cappella just two years before his death.

There are two sets of Lamentations by Allegri in the Sistine Chapel Archives, both scored modestly for four voices. The Holy Saturday setting is the most restrained. A standard SATB choir articulates the words with clarity and simplicity but Allegri does allow himself the occasional gesture, the odd chromaticism or harmonic shift, and so shows his true character. The setting of the first Lamentation on Maundy Thursday is more adventurous and is scored for an SSAT ensemble which allows Allegri to enjoy the possibilities of suspensions between the two upper parts, especially at the words ‘Plorans ploravit in nocte’.

The meditation on the Eucharist Gustate et videte shows yet another new direction for late-Renaissance writers with its use of basso continuo and a selection of verses for duos and a trio. It is also unusual in that it uses a refrain. The various texts are drawn from a variety of sources: Isaiah 60: 16, a variant of Genesis 49: 20, a versicle and response from the service of Benediction and the Introit from Corpus Christi. The motet concludes with a rousing coda mixing words from Proverbs (used as a Tract for Corpus Christi) with an invitation to become spiritually over-full or ‘drunk’ (‘inebriamini’) with the sacramental blood of Christ.

The piece known as ‘Allegri’s Miserere’, a setting for nine voices of Psalm 51, has a bizarre history. It is highly unlikely that the widely accepted twenty-first-century version was ever written down by the composer and it has come into being as a result of a number of factors. Allegri wrote a relatively restrained setting of the words of Psalm 51 and his singers would have been expected to adorn his original with ornaments and embellishments, probably getting more florid as the piece went along. The setting was traditionally sung during the Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel until the 1870s, and the ornaments used by the singers to decorate Allegri’s original were famously not written down but passed from generation to generation. Various attempts were made by prelates, noblemen and musicians (including Leopold I, Padre Martini, Mozart, Burney and Mendelssohn) to procure a ‘correct’ version of the piece. The versions which these people heard or saw or published served only to confuse the issue. There was no reliable ‘urtext’ edition on which to draw and it was only with the gradual rediscovery of various sources and manuscripts that a version in Latin with Allegri’s original and a single set of ornaments for the soloists together with interpolated plainsong verses was produced by the late Dr George Guest at St John’s College, Cambridge in the late 1970s. Since then, regular performances of the Miserere in English cathedrals and chapels have firmly cemented the piece as an essential part of our musical heritage.

Regardless of its authenticity (if such a thing can be said to exist) the magic of the piece relies on the juxtaposition of the original falsobordone written by Allegri with the ornaments or abbellimenti added in the solo writing and the plangent tones of the plainsong verses (sung to the chant ‘Tonus Peregrinus’ which is quoted in the topmost voice of Allegri’s original). The biggest debate rages about the famous high ‘C’. It can be said with some certainty that a composer of Allegri’s generation and education would be highly unlikely to write the ungainly interval of an augmented fourth in the bass part in the solo section. Yet only with this interval does the top ‘C’ become possible and the top ‘C’ is now the sine qua non for the listener! Contemporary taste and bravura must have played a part in the ornaments that singers chose to use when improvising in the Papal Chapel and the ornaments heard by the young Mozart could have been a world away from the version sung by Allegri’s own choir in the early seventeenth century. Perhaps they found a way of embellishing up to top ‘C’ without the unacceptable harmonic shift, a shift which although ‘breaking the rules’ sounds to our modern ears unremarkable.

-- Andrew Carwood © 2011

Composer Info

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/6–1594), Annibale Stabile (c1535–1595), Francesco Soriano (1548/9–1621), Giovanni Andrea Dragoni (c1540–1598), Ruggiero Giovannelli (c1560–1625), Prospero Santini (fl1591–1614), Curzio Mancini (c1553–after 1611), Felice Anerio (c1560–1614), Gregorio Allegri (1582–1652)

CD Info