How the teenage composer brought Gregorio Allegri’s timeless Miserere to the masses
By Geoffrey Larson
Composed early in the 17th century, Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus remains one of the most beautiful sacred choral works of all time. It was considered so beautiful, in fact, that Pope Urban VIII banned it from publication and performance outside the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel after hearing it around 1630. The work was performed only twice a year, at the end of the Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week. The penalty for unauthorized performance or publication was excommunication. With only three official copies in existence before 1770, this incredible work of polyphony (music with two or more voices moving independently) might not have survived to the present day, had it not been for the hijinks of a teenage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
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Allegri’s Miserere was notorious throughout the Holy Roman Empire for its beauty and mystery, and the rich journeyed to the Vatican during Holy Week each year to experience it. One of these pilgrims was the 14-year-old Mozart, who, upon hearing the 12-minute-long work on Holy Wednesday in 1770, promptly went and wrote the whole thing down from memory (returning to hear it once more in the Good Friday service, just to be sure). After heading home to Salzburg with the first ever piece of pirated music, Mozart introduced it to public performance.
Word of Mozart’s accomplishment spread like wildfire and within three months he was summoned back to Rome by Pope Clement XIV. The Pope must have been aware of the consequences for the future of sacred music if he were to excommunicate one of the greatest composers of his time, and instead personally congratulated the nervous Mozart on his musical gifts. From that point forward, the Miserere was published throughout Europe, in editions that increasingly departed from the original, which was actually quite simple, possessing few of the gorgeous melodic qualities that made it legendary.
In creating his bootleg edition, Mozart had captured the improvisations of the Vatican’s castrati singers: magnificent, florid melodies that expanded on the original. However, the jaw-dropping high notes that became such a hallmark of the Miserere’s brilliance weren’t present in printed editions until the early 19th century, when the composer Felix Mendelssohn heard the castrati sing them on his own trip to Rome. It’s also possible that a publisher error could have caused a portion of the work to be shifted higher, causing the famous High C that seems to fly up to heaven – a sort of divine typo.
The story of Allegri’s masterpiece shows how what was once a work of simplistic beauty was transformed through the traditions of great singers and was lifted from obscurity, from performances that spread through Europe in the 18th century to excellent modern recordings. Helped along by the work of musical greats and serendipitous circumstance, the Miserere has become an appropriately indelible part of the sacred choral repertoire, just as stunning in the 21st century as it was hundreds of years ago.
Geoffrey Larson is the Music Director of Seattle Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra.