As the Renaissance era came to a close in the 17th century, Gregorio Allegri composed a masterpiece of a cappella choral song that became the most popular piece performed during the Tenebrae celebration — held at the end of Holy Week, during the three days preceding Easter — in the Sistine Chapel.
The polyphonic hymn “Miserere mei, Deus” is a gorgeous piece of art, which employs two choruses to sing alternating, ornamented versions of the same chant (the text of Psalm 51), but a portion of its popularity arose when the music was forbidden to be copied and distributed. For reasons that are not completely known, as Wikipedia reports, the Vatican banned the dissemination of “Miserere” and proclaimed that the piece would only be performed in the Sistine Chapel and only during the Tenebrae celebrations.
The music would not leave the Vatican until 1770, when a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart attended Tenebrae services at the Sistine Chapel with his father and was exposed to Allegri’s “Miserere.” National Catholic Register explains that Mozart went home and, from memory, transcribed the entire piece as sheet music.
While Mozart apparently got a couple of notes wrong on his first attempt, the feat is no less impressive. Imagine listening to someone speak for five minutes and reproducing the speech practically verbatim. Mozart did that for nine singers at once, and even remembered the tones each person sang on each syllable of each word. Whatever mistakes Mozart made on his transcript were nullified the following evening, when the 14-year-old phenom returned to the Sistine Chapel to hear it again.
From there, Mozart either sold or gave the piece to a British historian, who would eventually bring it back to England where it would be published and distributed. The copies credited Mozart with the transcription, which awarded him a fresh burst of popularity and even an audience with Pope Clement XIV.
Rather than being angry at the young composer for his brazen disobedience of the ban on copying, Pope Clement XIV praised Mozart’s gumption and noted the unbelievable musical talent he displayed. For this feat, Mozart was named to the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur, a papal order of knighthood reserved for those who have served to glorify and propagate the Catholic Faith.
In the video featured above, “Miserere mei, Deus” is performed by the Tenebrae Choir, which is fitting as the song was meant for celebration of the chorus’ namesake. The Tenebrae choir does a stupendous job of performing in the original style, with two choruses placed on opposite ends of a church.
While the high notes are to die for, the beauty of the piece leaves us wondering how it might have sounded in the Sistine Chapel. After all, choral pieces treat the performance space as an instrument, and each church where the music is sung may lend different colors to the notes, all based on the building’s architecture.