Today, as it has been for centuries, the Miserere will be performed as part of the Holy Wednesday Tenebrae service at the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Gregorio Allegri’s eerily beautiful a cappella choral work is now one of the most recognisable pieces of classical music. However, for more than a century after its composition it would have been one of the hardest pieces to hear. To preserve the aura around the Miserere it was only permitted to be performed in the Sistine Chapel itself and even then only twice a year: on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday.
Maintaining such restrictions required drastic measures. The punishment for transcribing the Miserere or performing it outside those two particular services was excommunication.
However, this attempt at official secrecy proved futile when faced with possibly the most precocious musical genius ever:
Three authorized copies of the work were distributed prior to 1770 – to the Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, to the King of Portugal, and to Padre (Giovanni Battista) Martini. However, none of them succeeded in capturing the beauty of the Miserere as performed annually in the Sistine Chapel. According to the popular story (backed up by family letters), the fourteen-year-old Mozart was visiting Rome, when he first heard the piece during the Wednesday service. Later that day, he wrote it down entirely from memory, returning to the Chapel that Friday to make minor corrections. Some time during his travels, he met the British historian Dr Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771. Once the piece was published, the ban was lifted; Mozart was summoned to Rome by the Pope, only instead of excommunicating the boy, the Pope showered praises on him for his feat of musical genius.
This story struck me because it shows the technical underpinnings of creative brilliance: that the ability to turn himself into a human Wikileaks that recorded and reconstructed the work of others was apparently linked to Mozart’s ability to produce apparently wholly original works.