Even plumbed through a car radio cassette player, the top C of Allegri’s Miserere stopped me dead. Some music has weight and gravity, sucking you in and, for its duration, it is the world.
In ‘Miserere’ from Katharine Towers’ first collection of poetry, she echoes the form of Allegri’s original through the ebb and flow of each stanza. ‘Never forget’, her litany reads, ‘Never forget that they are singing for mercy’. This is disquieting, as the beauty of the music compels the listener to do precisely that. The choir are singing Psalm 50 and, in Latin, the word ‘holocaustis’ (burnt offering) recurs. Post World War Two, the lyrical and musical content jar – the more you listen to the piece, the stronger the whiff of burnt flesh.
There can often be something quite unsavoury about choirs, especially their gentlemen. Take Christ Church Cathedral choir, Oxford: a couple of years ago, indulging in a spot of liturgical tourism, I watched a tenor leering and salivating over a pretty young lady in his eyeline – the music might speak of heaven, but the singers are all blood, boners and hormones. Towers knows a thing or two about choirs and has the insight to write ‘Never forget that plain song falls short / when God can be stitched in so many colours and threads / and the chalice of pride belongs to the voice / that descants bright C, and would have us believe / it is heaven distilled and dispensed’.