Sestina - The Glories of Rome (Allegri, Victoria, Palestrina and more)

To be present in the smoky semi-darkness of the Sistine Chapel during the final days of holy week during the Tenebrae services and to hear the renowned choir and singers perform the famed setting of psalm 51 by Gregorio Allegri was to have glimpsed heaven itself.

The Grand Tour was the rite of passage for any person of means in Renaissance Europe, but it was the music of the cities of Florence, Venice and Rome which provided the soundtrack to the great works of art and architecture.

In Rome the options were numerous. The Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica and the German College boasted the finest musicians and composers the world had to offer, and has provided future generations with a legacy of incredible music.

The Miserere by Antonio Allegri would have taken a very different form to the performance you are likely familiar with, as it was originally conceived to have been a series of improvised ornaments on a very plain fauxbourdon or chant. It was these abbellimenti that drew the crowds of people to the Sistine Chapel every Easter.

The ornaments (abbellimenti) were such a closely guarded secret that it was said they were never written down but only passed from one singer to the next, creating an ever changing improvised freedom of expression. So much was written about the skill and flexibility of Roman singers that they became much prized artists in the courts of the wealthy families of Europe. There is a famous story of a 14-year-old Mozart hearing the Miserere just twice and then proceeding to write down the music, although no copy has ever been found in his hand.

For The Glories of Rome, director Mark Chambers sourced some contemporary examples of ornamentation (for Vadam et circuibo and Pulchra es amica mea) to include in the performance. Both Vadam et circuibo and Nigra sum have texts from the Song of Songs and Victoria responds to the expressive, almost erotic language with two motets that word paint with music beautifully. For example listen for the rising scales on the word “Surge” (rise) in Nigra sumVadam et circuibo is in two parts and the first part of our interpretation took the form of a solo voice singing a set of ornaments written by Giovanni Battista Bovicelli, a singer and theorist, who wrote a treatise of ornamentation for singers. The second half consisted of the un-ornamented 6-voice motet.

For the second half of this performance we turned to a very different musical world. In 1589 Ferdinando de’ Medici and Christine of Lorraine were married on May the 2nd. The occasion of the meeting of two of the greatest and most powerful families of Europe deserved music to match. It is said that the stage set alone took 9 months to build and musicians from all over Europe descended on the Medici court to perform Intermedii for the play La Pellegrina.

We performed a selection of instrumental and vocal music; The last of which O che nuovo miraculo would have finished the evening’s entertainment in 1589. It forms part of the Intermedii entitled The Gift of Harmony and Rhythm to the mortals, and in it you can hear Cavalieri play with the many combinations of metre and harmony.

To conclude the evening’s concert we performed Giacomo Carissimi’s JephteCarissimi (like Victoria before him) also worked at the German College in Rome.

Gregorio Allegri Miserere
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina  Sicut cervus
Tomas Luis da VictoriaVadam et circuibo (with part I diminutions by Bovicelli)
Andrea Cima – Sonata a 3
Giovanni Pierluigi daPalestrina – Pulchra es amica mea (with diminutions by Bassano)
Tomas Luis da Victoria – Nigra sum
Giovanni Pierluigi daPalestrina – Tu es Petrus

From Una Stravaganza dei Medici 1589
Cristofano Malvezzi – Intermedio I – Sinfonia a 6 
Emilio de Cavalier  Coppia gentil  a 6
Cristofano Malvezzi  – Intermedio IV – Sinfonia a 6
Emilio de Cavalieri – O Che nuovo miraculo a 5
Andrea Falconieri – Chaconne
Giacomo Carissimi – Historia de Jephthe
Falconieri – Battalie and Passacaglie – (interspersed within music)


Musical Director & Countertenor Mark Chambers
Soprano Fiona Flynn and Caroline Jones, Tenor Peter Harris, Baritone Aaron O’Hare, Bass Brian McAlea

Violin Carolyn Hall and Colin Norrby, Bass Violin Malachy Robinson, Harpsichord/Organ David Adams