Mozart's Copy of Allegri's 'Miserere'
I have always thought it very odd that arguably the most famous Mozart copying of another composer's work has never been listed in the Köchel Catalogues. I refer to his copying from memory of the Miserere of Gregorio Allegri. All the other Mozart copies are listed in the Koechel Catalogue (Anhang A in K6), including a lost "Lauda Sion" by Michael Haydn. Even copies known to be in Leopold Mozart's hand are found in the Catalogue (K.Anh 71-88). Mozart's copying of Allegri's Miserere is better documented than any other of the copies he made. So to partially right this wrong, I present the story of Mozart's copying of the Miserere.
Leopold Mozart wrote his wife in Salzburg from Rome on April 14, 1770:
"You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers in the chapel are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, to copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already, Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. So we shall bring it home with us. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands, so that we shall not incur the censure of the Church now or later".
The news of Wolfgang's writing down this "secret of Rome" must have caused some apprehension in Salzburg. Wolfgang's mother apparently related this to Leopold and her son, in addition to sending them a newspaper article, in a now lost letter. Leopold amusingly replied in a letter on May 19, 1770, from Naples:
"On reading the article about the Miserere, we simply burst out laughing. There is not the slightest cause for anxiety. Everywhere else far more fuss is being made about Wolfgang's feat. All Rome knows and even the Pope himself that he wrote it down. There is nothing whatever to fear; on the contrary, the achievement has done him great credit, as you will shortly hear. You will see to it that the letter is read out everywhere, so that we may be sure that His Grace hears what Wolfgang has done".
So what was this achievement that did Wolfgang "great credit", and that Leopold wanted to make sure "His Grace" knew what his son had done? We learn the details of the story in Friedrich von Schlichtegroll's obituary notice of Mozart in 1793. Schlichtegroll had asked Mozart's sister Nannerl for material in the spring of 1792, and from her received this information:
"On Wednesday afternoon they accordingly went at once to the Sistine Chapel, to hear the famous Miserere. And as according to tradition it was forbidden under ban of excommunication to make a copy of it from the papal music; the son undertook to hear it and then copy it out. And so it came about that when he came home, he wrote it out, the next day he went back again, holding his copy in his hat, to see whether he had got it right or not. But a different Miserere was sung. However, on Good Friday the first was repeated again. After he had returned home he made a correction here and there, then it was ready. It soon because known in Rome, and he had to sing it at the clavier at a concert. The castrato Christofori, who sang in the chapel, was present".
The "famous Miserere" was that of Gregorio Allegri. Allegri was a Tenor and composer in the cathedrals throughout Italy, finally reaching Rome in 1630. After a short time in Rome he attracted the attention of Pope Urban VIII, who appointed him to a vacancy among the Contori of his chapel . Allegri held this post until his death. His surviving published works consist of three volumes of motets and a number of pieces in anthologies. Of the man, I think Allegri would like to be remembered as Adami of Bosena said of him: "He was of a singular gentleness and sweetness of soul and habit".
Allegri's famous Miserere was written during his time in Rome. In its basic form this psalm setting is a simple falsobordane chant in 5-parts. But it is transformed by the interpolation of ornamented passages for a second, 4-part choir of soloists, whose highest part reaches a top C, rare at that period. These passages were a closely guarded secret of the papal choir for many years.
Mozart's copy of this Miserere is lost and there has never been a trace of it. Only a single reference to the copy is known from the immediately following time period. In a letter to an unnamed music publisher (Berlin, January 14, 1809) the composer Karl Friedrich Zelter wrote the following:
"Of the Miserere of Allegri someone here in Berlin possessed a copy, which the sel. Mozart in Rome had written down the performance. If this copy is actually authentic, so must the Rome performance at that time have been frightfully bungled...".
It appears that Zelter did not consider this copy to be Mozart's. Wolfgang Plath searched the holdings in the Berlin State Library and could find no copy of Allegri's Miserere that could be brought directly into connection with Mozart. Two of the copies preserved there do read "The Miserere with the changes of the Papal Capellist, which Mozart supposedly had copied"; however one manuscript dates from ca. 1844 and the other from ca. 1822.
Was this copying of Wolfgang's everything Leopold made it out to be? The answer is a qualified yes. The music was not totally inaccessible other than by ear. Three authorized copies were made by the church prior to 1770--one for the Emperor Leopold I, who sent a formal request of a copy to the Pope, which was granted him; the Emperor had the work performed with much ceremony by the choir of the Imperial Chapel at Vienna. According to the singer Santarelli the effect was so disappointing that he conceived himself the victim of a trick on the part of the copyist, and complained to the Pope that some inferior composition had been palmed off upon him. Another copy of the Miserere was made for the King of Portugal; and most significantly for Mozart a third copy for Padre Martini. The English musical historian Charles Burney obtained a copy--probably from the singer Santarelli-- and published it in 1790.
As for the music itself, Ivor Keys explains "the setting involves chanting in chords, using similar successions each time; so that there was no contrapuntal weaving, though perhaps some melodic decoration of the cadences. Provided that the whole psalm was performed, even if only alternate verses were sung by the choir, Wolfang would have heard the same formula ten times in succession"--we learn from Leopold's letter that Wolfgang heard it performed twice. Thus "the recognition of the chord-sequence would not be unduly difficult for a prehensile ear; the precise allocation of their constituent notes among the voices would be the major achievement".
It is surprising that Mozart's autograph copy of the Miserere has been lost and has no history. Other relics from this time--as in particular Mozart's acceptance work from Bologna--were carefully preserved in the Mozart house. As no manuscript of Mozart's copy has every been catalogued anywhere, Plath wonders if perhaps the Salzburg Archbishop learned of the deed of the young Mozart and disapprovingly had confiscated the "illegal" copy. This would mean that Mama Mozart was correct in the fears she wrote her husband of in 1770.
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