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This week, one of the most famous pieces of music and an interesting link to another.



It was around 1638 when Gregorio Allegri made a setting of Psalm 51, the Miserere mei, Deus. Pope Urban VIII reserved its use for the Sistine Chapel during the Holy Week services by papal decree. It is written for two choirs (one of four voice parts, the other five), ending with a nine-part polyphony. It was the twelfth setting of the text used and was highly prized.


Three copies were made: the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I; John V of Portugal; and the Franciscan friar, Padre Martini owned these editions, but they lacked much of the detail and ornamentation of the version sung in the Vatican. The King of Portugal apparently complained that his copy was not as beautiful as the version he had heard in the Sistine Chapel.


It is important to bear in mind that the written music in this period was often a springboard for the performers. Decorations were improvised or rehearsed in and the actual performed music developed and altered from the printed copy. The choir had sole access to the music and they seem to have developed the performance over many years, adding embellishments to the music with each year's performance. The actual sung pitch may have moved up or down a few steps at different performances.


As a brief aside: it turns out that the famous top 'C' was the result of one of the sections of the Miserere being moved up a fourth and inserted into the original - an error that has persisted in modern editions of the work.


So how was the Miserere shared outside of the Vatican?


There are various accounts, but one of the most popular and satisfying has to be this one:


At the Easter of 1770, something happened that altered the history of this highly regarded and carefully preserved piece. Whilst touring Italy, a father took his 14-year-old son to the Wednesday service and the Miserere was performed. Following the service, the father and the boy went back to their lodgings. Here the boy was able to notate the famous work. They returned to the Good Friday service where he was able to listen once more and make a few minor adjustments for his copy.


Apparently, the transcription was very good - so good in fact, that when news of this piracy reached the ears of Pope Clement XIV, he summoned the boy back to Rome, not to censure him, but to award him the Order of the Golden Spur, a Papal Order of Knighthood issued to recognise distinguished service in propagating the Catholic Faith.


Is the story true? Could a 14-year-old transcribe 12 minutes of music from one hearing? How accurate was the transcription? Did it contain all the ornamentation? There is some debate about all of these questions - and we will explore them a little more in later blogs.


In either case, copies of the Miserere eventually began to be published and this sublime piece was shared with the world.


And who was the boy? He was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and we'll be exploring his Requiem very soon.