I don’t remember the first time I heard Allegri’s Miserere, a setting of the text from Psalm 51. Probably in the car while my mother drove us around the Anchorage suburbs, meditating through the potholes and the deep snow and the seasonal depression. I do remember the first time I listened to it, though. At the National Cathedral, some few years back. I don’t recall what group was singing it, and I suppose it doesn’t really matter.
For those not familiar with this piece: It is written for two choirs, made up of 4 and 5 voices respectively, who sing alternately and almost at each other in a call-and-response that is reminiscent of folks songs or Basotho hymns. Later they join in a nine-part polyphony that sends shivers down your spine, melodies weaving in and out and around each other, finally arriving at a single, crystal-clear, resolved chord.
It was in the middle of this call and response — one choir at the altar, the other in the balcony under the Rose window, surrounding us in a rich, deep, echoed sound only cathedral acoustics can provide — that I remembered how happy good music makes me. How happy it makes my mother.
I’m not much of a prayer; but I will sit and listen to the same piece over and over again, thinking about the way it makes me feel, and the way it makes me think. I reckon my experience is pretty close to praying. In this Lenten season, I reflect on my own relationship with the church, with my faith, and ultimately, with God. I like to think it lives in music.
Link to a Tallis Scholars antiphonal performance of Miserere
Links to the appointed readings for today: