The story of
How Mozart, the Vatican, and centuries of mistakes resulted in the greatest piece of music ever written
Most works of art have similar beginnings — a great master has a spark of genius, works frantically without sleep (or struggles on it for years), and unleashes it on the world. End of story.
But the origins of a few are so good they deserve to be retold.
This is one of them.
In 1638, a singer in the Sistine Chapel Choir composed a setting of Psalm 51 to be sung there during Holy Week. That singer was Gregorio Allegri, and his setting, now commonly known as Miserere, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written.
But not only is the version we sing today significantly different from Allegri’s original manuscript — if it weren’t for one particularly precocious 14-year-old, it may never have been heard outside the Vatican’s walls.
Allegri’s Miserere was the last and the most popular of twelve different settings of the same text written for the Vatican over 120 years. It was so good that, to preserve the sense of mystery around the music, the Pope forbade anyone from transcribing it, on pain of excommunication. Only three copies were made: one for the Holy Roman Emperor, one for the King of Portugal, and one for an eminent music scholar — but these versions were so simplified from the original that the King of Portugal actually complained. The Pope wanted to keep its genius a secret — and so it remained for over 100 years.
Wolfgang’s trip to Rome
What the Pope hadn’t planned for was Leopold Mozart’s trip to Rome in 1770. And, more specifically, the attendance of his 14-year-old son, Wolfgang Amadeus.
The Mozarts popped into the Wednesday service at the Vatican, at which the Miserere was being performed. A couple of hours later, back at home, the young Wolfgang proceeded to transcribe the entire piece from memory. He went back on Friday to make a couple of corrections — and the Vatican’s secret was out.
Later on in their travels, the Mozarts bumped into British music historian Dr Charles Burney. They passed on the manuscript, Burney took it to London, and it was published there in 1771.
Mendelssohn and the copying error
But that wasn’t the end of the story. In 1831, Felix Mendelssohn decided to make his own transcription — and the version he heard happened to be sung higher than originally intended (a fourth higher, to be precise).
This wouldn’t have been of 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 put together in 1880, a small section of Mendelssohn’s higher transcription was accidentally inserted into a passage of the Miserere being used to illustrate an article. This mistake was then reproduced in various editions over the next century, eventually becoming the accepted version. And the result is the most famous and most moving passage of the piece — a beautiful top C sung by a treble soloist, pretty much the highest note found 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 woke up one day and fancied doing a bit of transcription, and lucky that one of Grove’s early editors had a momentary lapse of concentration.
Oh, and here it is again. Because it’s worth another listen.