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Musica sacra

The penitential pews of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on a mid-winter’s evening are the perfect venue for a concert titled Miserere, Latin for ‘Have mercy’. A couple of hours sitting on cold, uncomfortable benches is enough for most people to plead for respite. And yet the rewards of this concert amply compensated for any discomfort, with some inspiring music enjoying the benefits of the cathedral’s soaring acoustic.

The Melbourne Chorale’s well-designed program comprised three a capella pieces, each titled Miserere. It included familiar works by Gregorio Allegri and Henryk Górecki, and the world premiere of a new piece by the Australian Jesuit composer Christopher Willcock. These three works all have a religious theme, though each evidences a different approach to asking God for mercy.

Allegri’s Miserere is a setting of Psalm 50–51, the Latin text of which begins with the words ‘Miserere mei’. It was composed in the early 17th century for use in the Sistine Chapel during matins on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. Allegri’s setting has become one of the most famous works in the choral repertoire, firstly for its awe-inspiring music, but also for the story of how a young Mozart allegedly made a transcription of the secret score after a single hearing. The work’s popularity was much increased by the 1963 recording by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, featuring the boy  soprano Roy Goodman singing the angelic treble line with its ethereal high Cs.

Górecki’s Miserere is a very different work, written in 1981 as a response to brutal suppression of a demonstration by the Polish Solidarity movement. Górecki’s text consists of just five words: ‘Domine, Deus noster, miserere nobis’. The work builds layer upon layer for more than 30 minutes repeating the simple acclamation ‘O lord our God’, before releasing its tension in the humble supplication, ‘Have mercy on us’.
Like the Allegri, Christopher Willcock’s work is a setting of the psalm in Latin. It is a text this composer should know well, for when not composing Willcock teaches Liturgical studies at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Given the intense feeling in this psalm it might have been expected to set the English translation of the text, with its beautiful and powerful phrases such as ‘My sin stands ever before me,’ and ‘Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow’. But this work is a commission that arose from Willcock’s tenure as the Melbourne Chorale’s Composer in Residence for 2004, and the choir’s artistic director Jonathan Grieve-Smith wanted a work that would act as a companion to the often performed Allegri version. There are thus many deliberate parallels between the two settings, such as the use of Latin, and dividing the choir into three groups with structural interplay between the various parts.

Willcock is in no sense merely derivative, however. Perhaps the most important structural change is Willcock’s use of repetition. Rather than proceeding through the text of the psalm in a purely linear fashion, key words are repeated throughout the work, beginning with the opening ‘miserere’. Willcock repeats this word at the end of the text to reinforce the mood of supplication, which can otherwise get lost in the psalmist’s (King David) sometimes egotistical outpourings. Other phrases highlighted include ‘Asperges me’ and ‘Libera me’.

This is something that possibly comes out of Willcock’s pre-compositional process, as he explains: ‘I write out the text many times, and the head grabs phrases as the hand writes them out.’ Importantly too, Willcock tries to leave time between his initial preparation for a work and the ultimate composition: ‘Images take hold between the thinking, and the writing.’

As well as the structural repetitions, Willcock makes several phrases into dramatic acclamations, such as ‘Amplius lava me’ (Wash me thoroughly) and ‘Averte [faciem]’ (Turn your face away). Willcock’s liturgical interests seem to be at work here, giving the psalm a role closer to something like the Kyrie.

The actual music has a contemporary feel, without being of any particular school. There are many close, dense harmonies within the three choir parts, with a focus on suspended seconds. As in the Allegri there is a final harmonic resolution, but only of sorts, as the sopranos centre on a single unison note.

The first performance of the work was a great success, with Grieve-Smith directing the choir in a focused and controllable performance. Perhaps Willcock’s setting might become a regular feature of Holy Week services at St Pat’s. Just a pity Mozart won’t get to hear it.

Martin Ball is the Melbourne music critic for The Australian.



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