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VOCES8 has some jaw dropping high notes in Holy Week hymn

VOCES8 sings Allegri's Miserere

VOCES8 | Fair Use via YouTube

J-P Mauro - published on 04/13/23

As the story goes, this is the tune that a 14-year-old Mozart heard once and then went home and transcribed the entire work from memory.

VOCES8 has an extraordinary rendition of Allegri’s “Miserere Mei, Deus,” a worthy addition to any Easter music playlist. The song is a 17th-century hymn for Holy Week that was at one time only performed by the choir of the Sistine Chapel.

The work was composed in the 1630s by Gregorio Allegri, a Catholic priest, who was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII. The hymn, which translates to “Have mercy on me, O God” and is a setting of Psalm 51, was written for two simultaneous choirs, which is why four of VOCES8’s singers step to the side mid-performance to sing short sections of the piece.

VOCES8 puts their reputation as the world’s premier sacred choir on display with a reverent rendition of the hymn, complete with “falsobordone,” or those sections of chant that resemble operatic “recitative.” While it was originally intended for nine singers, listeners would be hard pressed to hear the difference as VOCES8 covers ground enough to give the illusion of nine.

The work is especially notable for the to-die-for high notes that come toward the end of each verse, but it is also well known for a bit of a musical myth that has sprung up regarding Mozart’s first hearing of the tune. In April 1770, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s father wrote to his wife that his 14-year-old son heard the piece at a Wednesday service in Rome. As the legend goes, the young Wolfgang went back to his hotel and transcribed the piece perfectly, after just one hearing. 

This is an incredible musical feat, one that is almost believable when taking into account Mozart’s immense talent as a musician. Still, historians argue that, while the piece was rarely performed in public, it had been around enough that the young composer could have heard it previously. For instance, the tune is on record as having been performed in London around the same time that Mozart was known to have visited the city. 

While it is possible that Mozart had heard the tune more than once, his ability to reproduce the score without any references impressed Pope Clement XIV so much that he invited Mozart to Rome. There, the Pope showered Mozart with praise for his musical genius and awarded him the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur, which was an honor similar to knighthood, granted for distinguished service to the Catholic faith. 

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