In the 1630s, Italian composer Gregorio Allegri wrote a composition called the Miserere. Made for two choirs, one of five singers and one of four, the Miserere ran roughly 10 to 15 minutes. It was rarely performed — it was reserved for use during two Holy Week (the week before Easter) observances in the Sistine Chapel. To maintain the exclusivity of the Miserere, the Pope decreed that it may not be written down nor performed elsewhere, upon penalty of excommunication from the Church. That ban lasted over a century, with the only exceptions being three instances of performances, licensed by the Pope, to area leaders (such as the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I).
A 14 year old boy ended it. That boy was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Mozart (above) was already an accomplished musician and composer. By age 8 — six years prior — he had composed his first symphony, one of 600 pieces of music he’d compose over his nearly 36 years of life. But in 1770, Mozart did something different, playing the role of Elizabethan-age tape recorder. Mozart attended the first of the two Miserere performances and did what any child prodigy would do: he wrote it down, from memory, having heard it only once. His version was not quite perfect, but any mistakes were easily rectified — Mozart simply attended the second performance and corrected his errors.
A year later, Mozart gave (or, perhaps, sold) his transcription to an English music historian named Charles Bruney. Bruney published the composition. With the Church now being unable to effectively prohibit the Miserere‘s performance, it lifted the ban. Instead, the Pope, Clement XIV, focused his attention to Mozart, summoning him to the Vatican.
Thankfully, Pope Clement XIV’s sense of reason overcame any anger — instead of excommunicating the prodigal composer, the Pope praised his genius. Today, the Miserere remains popular — as, of course, does Mozart’s work.
Bonus fact: Mozart died just a few weeks before his 36th birthday. He is buried in a common grave and, one authority claims, no mourners attended the burial. But do not take those facts as a reflection upon Mozart’s reputation while alive; both are consistent with the Viennese burial customs of the late 18th century.
From the Archives: Happy Birthday (c): The Miserere is no longer under copyright (nor the papal equivalent), but it may surprise you to learn that the song “Happy Birthday” is.
Related: The Miserere, available on CD or as a digital download, with 8 other songs.
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