Gregorio Allegri's fame rests on the success of one composition, an extraordinarily effective setting of the Miserere, written for the papal choir in Rome and reserved for many years to be sung only by its members during Holy Week.
Surviving records show that young Gregorio, who was born in 1582, trained as a boy chorister and in 1604 entered the service of the church of S Luigi dei Francesi in Rome as a tenor. His musical education was enhanced by lessons with the eminent Roman composer Giovanni Maria Nanino, with whom he studied counterpoint after the manner of Palestrina. Allegri's career was nurtured at Fermo, where he served as singer and composer at the cathedral from 1607 to 1621, and thereafter at Tivoli Cathedral, where Carissimi was organist.
It appears that Allegri was appointed maestro di cappella of the church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome, in the late 1620s, from where he was later invited to become a member of Urban VIII's papal choir. Many of his a cappella works, including two six- and two eight-part masses, two settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and a fine Te Deum, were crafted to suit the acoustics of the Sistine Chapel and satisfy the prevailing aesthetic of austere musical simplicity favoured by the papacy. The composer's Miserere, with its mix of sonorous choral chant and delicately ornamented sections, remained an exclusive and carefully guarded part of papal worship until the English antiquarian Charles Burney arranged for its publication in 1770 (the year in which the 14-year-old Mozart also copied it out from memory).
Allegri's masses were re-copied in various papal manuscripts for almost a century after his death in Rome on 7 February 1652, suggesting that they remained in the repertoire long after his more adventurous, small-scale and modern church concertato works, published in Rome in 1618 and 1619, had passed into obscurity. He was buried in the Chapel of Santo Filippo Neri, in the Chiesa Nova at Rome - the traditional resting place for members of the papal choir.
Andrew Stewart © BBC