Saturday, February 07, 2009

Miserere Mei, Deus

Its pretty rare that I write about a piece of music I've never actually heard before. In this case, however, its the story behind the music, rather than the music itself, that I find rather interesting.

Today happens to be the birthday of one Gregorio Allegri. (Yes, I know, I'm actually heading out the door to pick up his greatest hits album as soon as I have this post written.) Anyhow, Greg wrote a musical setting to Psalm 50. And it was a popular piece, (early Baroque style being all the rage at the time), so popular (and catchy too) that it caught the attention of Pope Urban VIII. It was performed annually during Holy Week in the Sistine Chapel. To preserve the mystery of the piece, it was, by Papal decree, banned from being performed outside of the Vatican. Copies of the music were destroyed and anyone toying with the idea of transcribing it was threatened with excommunication.

Unfortunately, the Vatican didn't foresee the abilities of a little uber-child by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Visiting Rome in 1770 as part of his first Grand Tour of Europe, Mozart wrote out the music by memory after hearing it played just twice. There was a little confusion over a few notes in some low string parts in measures 86-92 as someone evidently coughed loudly at that exact moment preventing Mozart from hearing. (OK, I made that last part up.) But definitely quite the feat for a 14 year-old.

Mozart's transcription was published in London the following year. Fortunately Mozart did not suffer the indignity of excommunication. (I'm guessing the fine silk coat given to him by Maria Theresa so dazzled the Pope, he decided to go easy on the kid.) Mozart was simply congratulated by Pope Urban for his astounding musical abilities and sent on his merry way.

....and that's the story behind what I like to thing of as possibly history's first boot-legged copy of music.


Fawn said...

First boot-legged copy of music! Hahaha!

I've heard this "legend" quite a few times before, but never knew the piece of music involved. That's fascinating with the extra information that it was banned from being performed outside the Vatican. I wonder if Wolfi was aware of the ban when he transcribed the piece, or if he was just so inspired by it that he had to do it?

Heather (aka Mum) said...

Not just a classroom educator I see ;) What a great story! Gotta say, I LOVE dropping by to visit...I never know what nifty stuff awaits :)

Way Way Up said...

Thanks. I always like digging around for the little stories that never seem to make into the history books.