The fourteen-year-old Mozart didn’t see himself as being a music pirate, mind you. He was just doing the thing he so excelled at, with his musical genius and photographic memory, back in the spring of 1770. He and his father Leopold were in Rome, working their way through Italy for the month as the young Wolfgang performed and studied and learned. Their timing was perfect: Rome during Holy Week. This was the only time and place you could hear Allegri’s famous “Miserere mei Deus” being sung. In the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, to be more exact, as part of the exclusive Tenebrae service on Wednesday and Friday of Holy Week. It was a big tradition; since 1514, a total of twelve Misereres had been chanted/sung at this service. This twelfth one, a setting of Psalm 51, composed by Gregorio Allegri in the late 1630’s for Pope Urban VIII, had become the mainstay, far and away the most popular Miserere. To attend this service and hear this music was a big deal. Visitors, musicians, and travelers would arrange their schedules well in advance to be sure and catch a performance.
Why the big deal? Mystery and inaccessibility have a way of adding cachet to any piece of music, particularly one so strikingly gorgeous, at once austere and lushly inviting. The Vatican knew it had a winner on its hands with Allegri’s Miserere and, wanting to preserve its aura of mystery and exclusivity, forbade replication, threatening anyone who attempted to copy or publish it with excommunication.
But the teen Mozart was hungry for a challenge, and, well, you know Mozart. He was… spirited. Free-thinking. Not prone to doing exactly as he’d been instructed if he didn’t see the rationale behind it. So, as he and his father attended the Wednesday Tenebrae service, he listened to the incredible choral music, and after the performance, his brain set to work. Late into the night, he wrote it out from memory, note for note. And we’re talking twelve minutes of choral, contrapuntal music. There are two chorus parts, divided at times by two, to create four groups of singers. On top of that are four solo voices that create their own quartet voice. All this stuff going on, a cappella, and Mozart got it all. He went back on Friday night to give it a double-check. All it needed was a few minor tweaks.
I recently got the chance to hear a performance of Allegri’s “Miserere,” in San Francisco’s Davies Hall. It was an astonishing experience. I’d used my annual subscription’s upgrade pass for a seat right in the center of the premier orchestra section, which I’d done to enjoy the piano soloist in the night’s second piece (coincidentally, a Mozart Piano Concerto). What a stroke of good luck; I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect seat for the “Miserere.” The singers, a joint effort of the Pacific Boychoir and the San Francisco Symphony Men’s Chorus, lined the aisles on either side of my section. The four solo voices sang from the farthest front terrace section, above where the orchestra is usually seated. The different sections of the main choir alternated during the Gregorian Chant sections, and came together for the polyphonic parts. The result was utterly transporting.
I can’t offer Sensurround stereo listening, but pretend that’s what’s happening, shut your eyes, crank up the volume, and give this a listen. The first twenty seconds alone will just slay you.