Miserere Mei and the young Genius (Dennis Aubrey)

Note: I recommend listening to the music below while reading this post.

This is a story of perhaps the first pirated copy of music in documented history. Gregorio Allegri (1582 – 1652) composed his Miserere Mei, based on Psalm 51, for the Good Friday service at the Vatican in 1638. The music was so sublime that Pope Urban VIII prohibited its publication under the penalty of excommunication. It was to be performed twice a year only – on the Tenebrae services on the Wednesday and Good Friday before Easter – and only in the Sistine Chapel.

For 132 years, the work was performed under those restrictions, but on April 11, 1770, a 14-year old boy changed this. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold arrived in Rome just in time for the Easter services. The story is that they attended the Wednesday performance of Miserere Mei in the Sistine. The boy was so overcome with the beauty of the choral piece that he transcribed the music from memory that very evening. The two Mozarts returned for the Good Friday performance where Wolfgang checked his transcription. He had made only two minor errors. Leopold wrote to his wife Maria Ann on Saturday and told her about the marvelous feat.

I have heard two versions of how the matter was resolved. In the first, shortly after the performances, Wolfgang gave a private concert for Clement XIV and performed the Miserere Mei on the piano. Far from being upset, the Pope was impressed by the musical precocity and praised Mozart.

The second version says that during his travels soon after the visit to Rome, Mozart met the British historian Dr. Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him. Burney took the manuscript to London and published it in 1771. When word reached the Pope of the publication, he summoned Mozart to Rome. But as in the first version, instead of excommunicating the boy, Clement XIV showered him with praise.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)  Image in the Public Domain
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Image in the Public Domain

Many historians insist that the entire story is a fabrication, that it was a publicity stunt by Leopold or that Mozart knew the music ahead of time. But personally, I would like to think that such an exquisite composition deserves an equally exquisite unveiling to the world. And it is such a good story, isn’t it?

15 thoughts on “Miserere Mei and the young Genius (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. What a pity you are not moved (or is it allowed) to use your skills in the Sistine chapel – that would be wonderful to see (as is the chapel, in its own very un-Romanesque way). This poor youtubic photo does no-one justice, and its interest has vanished long before Allegri’s glorious misery.
    However, what a lovely idea – can you supply a music clip to accompany each of your great posts? Thank you!

    1. John, my brother John Paul is a professional musician and he supplied the music for the Lux Aeterna post on Wednesday. We are talking about this – he has already recommended the music for the next post as well.

      I would love to shoot the Sistine Chapel, of course, but how complex a shoot that would be. Thanks for your suggestion and comment.

      1. Great news. I trust John Paul recommends Hildegard from Bingen.

        (I wrote that before opening, viewing and listening to your lux aeterna post. There the pictures and colours of light and your tale rather outshone the music… I’m not sold on the sung Nimrod, I fear, and suspect Elgar might have had his doubts too. But some a capella arrangements can be great – try the famous adagio of the Barber string quartet!)

        With good wishes.

      2. I need to try the acapella version of the Barber, haven’t heard that. Who knows, John, it just might end up in a post! Thanks and I return you good wishes.

  2. Dennis,
    I read your last post before you added the music your brother suggested and after reading thIs one, I went back to the prevIous one and read it again while listening to the music. These two posts remind me of a program I developed while teaching my Cathedrals course. During my travels to Europe to visit and photograph the churches, if I could find CDs of music recorded in a church I visited or music written to be performed in the church, I purchased it. Over the years I taught the course I produced 8 DVDs which I called “Sacred Sounds in Sacred Spaces.” Each DVD contains photographs of eight to ten churches (some scanned, but most my own) and a similar number of musical selections (most of which are excerpts from longer pieces, but each DVD contains one full length musical selection). Each DVD contains 75 to 80 photoraphs and is about 45 minutes long. The first 4 DVDs are each designed to show the evolution of sacred music from chant to, say, the 18th century. The 5th DVD contains excerpts from the.Gregorian Requiem and Requiems by various composers; the 6th contains Magnificats by various composers; the 7th contains excerpts from Oratorios by various composers; and the 8th contains anthems, hymns and motets by various composers. After retiring I’ve used the series many times in various adult education programs. I always get requests for copies which I am unable to honor because I developed the series for educational purposes and did not secure permission for use of the copyrighted material, although I do provide attribution data for all of the music selections and the scanned photographs. For me, the best part of using the series now is that seeing the photographs and hearing the music is like revisiting the churches!

    1. Jay, we have done some videos of our photos with music and they work so well, I can imagine your DVD’s were quite beautiful. We were able to get the rights for some of our work at very reasonable rates; perhaps you could as well.

  3. I guess that’s one approach to getting people to come to church, but it seems oddly miserly and maybe even shameful to have withheld a thing of such magnificence from being widely partaken of.

    I am familiar with the piece, but didn’t know the name of it, so thank you for sharing that reference.

    1. Kerri, I don’t think the Pope needed the music to come to the Sistine Chapel for services, but that he desired it to be preserved for such sublime settings. But information yearns to be free and Wolfgang did his part 🙂

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