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.
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?