Miserere

Mozart’s illegal copy of Allegri’s Miserere

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“But lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts: and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.” ~ Gregorio Allegri

Writing down ‘Miserere’ by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri, was punishable by excommunication, but 14 year old Mozart committed it to memory…

Miserere, by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), is a setting of Psalm 51 composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, probably during the 1630s, for use in the Sistine Chapel during matins as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. It was the last of twelve misereres composed and chanted at the service since 1514, and the most popular. The Vatican wanted to preserve the music’s reputation for mystery and inaccessibility so it was forbidden to be transcribed and was only performed at those particular services. Writing it down or performing it elsewhere was punishable by excommunication.

According to a popular story (backed up by family letters), the fourteen-year-old Mozart was visiting Rome when he first heard the piece during the Wednesday service. Later that day, he wrote it down entirely from memory, returning to the Chapel that Friday to make minor corrections. Some time during his travels, he met the British historian Dr Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771. Mozart was summoned to Rome, but instead of excommunicating the boy, the Pope showered him with praise for his feat of musical genius and the ban was lifted.

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