Gregorio Allegri’s (1582-1652) setting of Psalm 51, Miserere Mei, is a choral work of unsurpassed beauty and delicacy that the Catholic Church commissioned in the 1630s for exclusive use in the Sistine Chapel. It was played only once a year sometime during the Easter season. Writing it down or performing it without authorization could get you excommunicated from the Church.
It is a piece that you are likely to hear today, especially during Lent.
But, if the Church kept such a tight hold on it, how did it go public? There’s a good story that may—or may not—be true. In any event, it’s a story worth repeating, with disclaimers.
When he was 14 years old, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart heard one of the rare performances. (The work is about 14 minutes long.) He was accompanied by his father, Leopold. Later that day, they returned to the rooms where they were staying in Rome, and the young Mozart sat down and transcribed the entire piece.
He returned for a second performance two days later and afterward made some minor corrections.
His manuscript was later given to a British historian, taken to England, and published in 1771. Thus, the world got to hear the music that was once such a closely guarded treasure by the Catholic Church.
It’s a good story, and it may be true. Several of Mozart’s biographers believe it to be so, citing “family letters” that recount the incident. But other music historians are skeptical. One reason is that the “family letters” were written by Leopold, a man who recognized the musical genius of his son and never ceased promoting it.
Another reason is that transcriptions of the music were known to exist outside the Vatican for decades before Mozart supposedly heard it for the first time in the Vatican. It is not impossible—in fact, given its popularity and fame, it’s likely—that he had heard it previously.
Still, it’s a good story, and the music is certainly worth listening to. If you have never heard it, get yourself into a quiet place, give yourself 15 minutes without interruption, and immerse yourself in the music of this video.
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