Right on the heels of Thomas Tallis comes what may be my favorite work of Renaissance music. In the 1630s, Gregorio Allegri produced what for more than a century was considered—widely considered—to be the most beautiful music ever composed. As most of us will recall, chasing after obscure bootlegs even before the CD age, scarceness itself enhances the perceived specialness of the music (example: Led Zeppelin’s Hey Hey, What Can I Do, a much-revered song until everyone could get their hands on it). Well, the OG bootleg was Allegri’s Miserere, composed for the Pope for services in the Sistine Chapel. Successive popes all conspired to keep the score under lock and key for more than a century, making it more legend than anything else. Want to hear it? Go to Rome, get invited to service at the Sistine Chapel and hope you attend on the right day. That was until the 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart secured a pass to a performance. Famously transcribing the score entirely from memory, he used his transcription as his ticket to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. At least that’s the story as I remember it and after finding some of my other treasured stories of musical history to be little more than myth, I have no desire to discover whether or not this story has been debunked. It’s a good story and should remain as such. Likewise, I have no desire to ponder the details of its composition, trace its origins, note its effects, or do anything other than revel in its absolute magnificence. It is still performed annually during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel. Attending that performance might just be at the very, very top of my bucket list (knowing full well that this will never happen). But until then, I have the Tallis Scholars and their justly famous recording from the 1980s.
Gregorio Allegri, Miserere:
Polyphony is comparatively rare in contemporary music, but always finds a special place in my heart when I hear it. I am a sucker for an achingly beautiful polyphonic melody. No band in the rock era does polyphony better than The Beach Boys. And it never got any better than the ending of the most gorgeous song in history: God Only Knows. There is no better parallel to the high Cs in the Miserere than this Brian Wilson classic.
The Beach Boys, God Only Knows: