Nowadays, Allegri's Miserere is one of the most famous choral works in the world of classical music, enjoyed by millions, performers and listeners alike. But the piece was once the preserve of the very few, sung only within the hallowed confines of the Sistine Chapel during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week, and never published for performance anywhere else.
Gregorio Allegri's setting of Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus: Have mercy on me, God) was composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII (r. 1623-44), who insisted on the Sistine Chapel's exclusive use of the music.
One hundred and fifty years later, in the spring of 1770, the fourteen-year-old Mozart and his father pitched up in Rome, where they stayed in a house in Piazza Nicosia. The house no longer stands, but a plaque in the piazza records their stay. It also commemorates the prodigious musical memory of the young Mozart. After attending a service at the Sistine Chapel, where he heard a setting of the Miserere, he returned home and, from memory, wrote down the entire piece.
Father and son left Rome in May, but in June they were summoned back by Pope Clement XIV (r. 1769-74), who showered praise on the young composer, awarding him the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
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