Published: Mar 21, 2013
Rome. Easter Week.
The year: 1639 or 1790, it’s all the same.
The Matins service at the Vatican. 3 AM.
Twenty-seven candles are lit. One at a time, they’re extinguished. One candle left.
The Pope kneels before the altar and starts to pray.
And what music! The words are familiar: Psalm 51, David’s account of his affair with Bathsheba and his plea to God — "Wash away all my guilt; from my sin cleanse me." It’s the choral work that stuns. Sweeping harmonies for the choir. A top C sung by a single castrato. And, connecting them, the simplest of chants.
This "Miserere" was the glory of Gregorio Allegri (1582 – 1652), known mostly as a singer in the Papal Chapel. For this one work, written in 1638, he joins the immortals — not only is it clearly an exquisite piece, but one of the 17th century Popes decided it should be played only on Wednesday and Good Friday of Holy Week, and only in the Sistine Chapel. No one dared to copy it — the penalty was excommunication. [To buy the CD of the "Miserere" from Amazon.com, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
Thus begins the second remarkable story about Allegri’s "Miserere." In 1770, when he was just 12 years old, Mozart and his father came to Rome for Holy Week. St. Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel were obvious destinations; on Wednesday, Mozart heard the "Miserere." That night, from memory, he transcribed it. On Friday, he brought his copy — hidden in his hat —to the second performance of the piece. When he checked it for accuracy, he discovered he’d made just two mistakes. No copy of the Mozart transcription exists. It’s said he handed it off, whereupon it was copied again — and his version was then destroyed.
The truth of this story? Unknown. But only the music matters. I have heard it, on Good Friday, in a cathedral with wonderful acoustics, and it was ambrosia — music of such purity that, like David, I felt like a sinner before God. Add incense and priests and squint a little, and you’re in Rome, 300 years ago. It’s wonderfully disorienting.
For my money, the Tallis Scholars are the greatest interpreters of any music that Peter Phillips, their founder, chooses to record. I play this CD every year at Easter. But its power and beauty are such that I don’t limit it to two days a year. When I’m famished for beauty, this music calls to me. It will call to you too.