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The motet Miserere: a history and first copy of...

So, whenever you hear Allegri's Miserere today, remember how lucky you are - lucky that the Mozarts chose a good time to visit Rome, lucky that Mendelssohn transcribed the motet a quarter higher, and lucky that one of the first editors of Grove's Dictionary of Music had a momentary loss of concentration!

The story of Miserere: the famous motet and its first "pirated" copy...

Miserere is the name of the famous motet to the text of Psalm 50 by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. Miserere was written during the pontificate of Pope Urban VIII, around the 1630s... The motet was intended for use exclusively in the Sistine Chapel during the Dark Matins of Holy Week. The work was written to be performed by two choirs: a five-voice choir and a four-voice choir. As is well known, this work could not be used outside the Sistine Chapel... Fortunately, in the 1830s, the ban on distribution of the score was lifted! Thus, the motet became one of the most popular a cappella choral works actively performed today!

However, already in the 70s of the XVIII century three authorised copies were published! The first belonged to Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor. However, the most remarkable and incredible legend tells how the 14-year-old Mozart managed to decipher the work after hearing it only once (although... it would be more accurate to say 2 times). Although this legend was disproved in the 20th century, it has the right to exist, if only because the story seems truly amazing and fantastic!

The birth of Miserere

Grigorio Allegri
Grigorio Allegri, by Miserere

How did Mozart, the Vatican and a century of error lead to the creation of one of the greatest pieces of music ever written by man? Legends are made about it... and thousands of people today will be able to hear Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, described as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written... This motet posed a real challenge to the world of music! And the beautiful legend begins with the chorus of the Sistine Chapel.....

The story of Miserere dates back to around 1638, when a singer in the Sistine Chapel choir composed a passage from Psalm 51 to be sung there during Holy Week. That singer was Gregorio Allegri, and his setting, widely known today as Miserere, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written... But the version we know perfectly well today differs significantly from Allegri's original manuscript! And had it not been for one particularly precocious 14-year-old, it might never have been heard outside the walls of the Vatican....

The Legend of Miserere and Mozart ...

Portrait of young Mozart
Portrait of young Mozart

Written by Gregorio Allegri, the motet was the last and most popular of twelve different settings of the same text written for the Vatican over 120 years ago... It was so good that, in order to maintain a sense of mystery around the music, the Pope forbade anyone to transcribe Miserere on pain of excommunication! Only three copies of the motet were made: one for the Holy Roman Emperor, one for the King of Portugal, and one for a prominent music scholar, but these versions were so simplified from the original that the King of Portugal actually complained. But the Pope wanted to keep his genius a secret. And so it was... Until 1770.

What the Pope did not plan was Leopold Mozart's trip to Rome in 1770. And in particular, the presence of his underdeveloped 14-year-old son Wolfgang Amadeus. The Mozarts appeared at the Vatican service on a Wednesday: the same Wednesday at which the Miserere was performed... After a couple of hours back at home, the young Wolfgang set about transcribing the entire piece from memory. He returned on Friday to make a couple of corrections - and the Vatican's secret was out! Later in their travels, the Mozarts came across the British music historian Dr Charles Burney. They gave him the manuscript, and he took it to London, where it was published in 1771. But the story didn't end there.....

Mendelssohn and the copying error

Felix Mendelsohn
Felix Mendelsohn

So... The story continued. And so, in 1831, Felix Mendelssohn decided to make his own transcription. And it happened that the version he heard turned out to be sung higher than originally intended (a quarter higher, to be exact)! And this would hardly have had much consequence had it not been for an innocent mistake made 50 years later. When the first edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians was being compiled in 1880, a small passage from Mendelssohn's higher transcription was accidentally inserted into the passage from Miserere used to illustrate the article! This error was then reproduced in various editions over the next century, eventually becoming the accepted version. And the result is the most famous and probably the most moving passage of the piece - the beautiful upper C sung by the violin soloist, the highest note in the entire choral repertoire.

So, whenever you hear Allegri's Miserere today, remember how lucky you are - lucky that the Mozarts chose a good time to visit Rome, lucky that Mendelssohn transcribed the motet a quarter higher, and lucky that one of the first editors of Grove's Dictionary of Music had a momentary loss of concentration!

Interesting facts...

  • Today, Miserere is the most popular and most frequently recorded piece of Renaissance music!
  • The earliest and most famous recording of Miserere was made in March 1963 by the choir of King's College, Cambridge, conducted by David Willcocks: it was sung in English. This recording was originally part of a gramophone record called Evensong for Ash Wednesday, but Miserere has subsequently been reissued on various compilation discs.
  • In 2015, the Sistine Chapel Choir released its own first CD, including a version of the 1661 Sistine Codex Miserere recorded in the Chapel itself.
  • Performing Miserere usually takes between 12 and 14 minutes.

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