What the Allegri Miserere obsession tells us
Updated: Apr 27
Byrd Ensemble, directed by Markdavin Obenza
Left to Right: Christina Siemens, Sarra Sharif Doyle, Joshua Haberman, Thomas Segen
The Allegri Miserere never fails to draw in good crowds, many of which do not listen to early music. Unlike every other piece in the Renaissance oeuvre, the Allegri Miserere is mainstream. It was my personal gateway into Renaissance music, even though it is arguably baroque.
The Allegri is not a complicated piece. It repeats a few minutes of music many times. But what many come to witness is the breathtaking high C sung by a solo Soprano. It's a stunning moment, like watching an Olympic athlete complete a dismount perfectly, over and over again. We treasure this most rare and exquisite moment in all of choral music.
I am in the business of drawing people to music. The first step, in my view, is understanding a person's relationship to music and the Allegri phenomenon provides some interesting insight on what draws us to music.
It's not about the musical complexity. The music is repetitive and very easy to read. (Although difficult to tune, mostly due to the vertical note spacing). What draws people to music is rarely its complexity, in fact, complexity can have a deterring effect. It's actually not about the high C. I bet you if I wrote a similar piece right now with a high C—actually lets up the ante—high D, it would not come close to the Allegri in prominence.
The Allegri is a cultural monument. People come to hear the Allegri like they come to see the Mona Lisa. Its cultural significance has reached critical mass and we need to hear it. A recording isn't good enough, only a live performance can deliver the full transcendent experience we seek—same for the Mona Lisa. What makes the Allegri Miserere powerful is much more than the music itself.
We know that people have the capacity to experience music on a deep level and even develop a spiritual relationship with it. The hard part is creating the conditions for that to happen. We need to be in a certain state of mind to appreciate music in this way, not just passively on a Spotify playlist. An employee working hard on a deadline will not be in the right state of mind to appreciate music fully, but perhaps a person in a state of reflection staring at the timeless architecture of a building that will be soon be resonating a high C sung by a single human voice, might form a deep relationship with music. After all, music and art have one purpose—to make you feel something. Getting people in that state of mind is the challenge.