During last week’s discussion of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, some of you mentioned Allegri’s Miserere, so that is this week’s choice.
Miserere mei, Deus, Latin for ‘Have mercy on me, O God’ is a setting of Psalm 51. The Italian composer Gregorio Allegri composed it during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, probably during the 1630s, for use in the Sistine Chapel.
It is written for two choirs, one of five and one of four voices, and is an example of Renaissance polyphony. One of the choirs sings a simple version of the original Miserere chant; the other sings an ornamented commentary on this.
At some point, it became forbidden to transcribe the music and it was allowed to be performed only at certain services at the Sistine Chapel, thus adding to the mystery surrounding it.
According to the popular story (backed up by family letters), 14-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was visiting Rome in 1770 when he heard the piece during a service. Later that day, he wrote it down from memory, returning to the Chapel two days later to make minor corrections.
Within three months Mozart’s feat had made him famous. He was summoned back to Rome by Pope Clement XIV, who awarded him the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur.
Some time during his travels, Mozart met the British historian Charles Burney, who obtained the piece from him and took it to London, where it was published in 1771.
It has since become one of the most popular a cappella choral works.