How Mozart leaked a secret score to the public

Baroque theme
The Vatican’s once hidden splendor. © Charles Thibo

The Vatican and its many secrets – we didn’t need Dan Brown, author of the bestseller “The Da Vinci Code”, to lift the veil that hid what the Papal State wanted to remain unknown. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did it before. While he stayed in Rome in 1770  he heard Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere”, which is performed annually during the Holy Week by the Papal choir. He memorised the ornamented sections, kept secret up to then, copied them to paper and had them published through a middleman, the organist, composer and music scholar Charles Burney.

“Have mercy on me, O God”

Allegri was a singer in the Papal choir and a composer of both liturgical and secular music; he lived from 1582 to 1652. The “Miserere” was written in or around 1630, towards the end of Allegri’s career. The ornamented parts, leaked by Mozart, alternate with a five-part falsobordone chant, a technique of singing psalms in harmony, following simple chord progressions. The earliest falsobordoni were harmonizations of Gregorian chants, they were a common recitation style from the 15th to the 18th century. The Latin text “Miserere mei, Deus” (“Have mercy on me, O God”) is a setting of Psalm 51 of the Old Testament.

You may wonder why the Vatican meant to keep secret the score of the ornamented sections while the falsobordone chant was accessible to anyone who could read music. It may have to do with the Vatican’s principle reflexion on aesthetics and the expression of faith. Formally elaborate music, with a focus on beauty, brilliance or virtuosity, could distract from the sacred content. If enhancing faith was the goal of all church music, music with too many ornaments could distract from the message. Worse, it could lead composers and performers to take pride in their performance… and pride is a Deadly Sin. But was that the real reason. Perhaps the Papal choir itself was so proud of this music that it wanted to keep just for itself? Clearly in the Papal state the temptation of devil is lurking behind every pillar!

Form follows function

As a consequence of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent (1545-1563), Pope Gregor XIII had ordered to cleanse sacred music “from all barbarism, ambiguities, contradictions and unnecessary ornaments” to glorify God’s name in earnest, in an “understandable and pious way”. Allegri’s “Miserere” had been composed more than 50 years later and to avoid a contradiction between doctrine and the common practice of the church, the spreading of Allegri’s score was to be restricted to the Sistine Chapel.

The Tallis Scholars have made a heavenly recording of Allegri’s “Miserere” which I warmly recommend to you, regardless of your position towards faith and Christianity. It is of an exceptional beauty, perfection in the field of harmony and melody. If the success of the Protestant Reformation may explain the rigor of Pope Gregor XIII and his successor’s, the secrecy that cloaked Allegri’s score was utterly unnecessary. This piece is not a temptation of the devil. It embodies the Catholic Church’s temptation to reach your soul. You have been warned!

© Charles Thibo

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One thought on “How Mozart leaked a secret score to the public”

  1. I prefer trebles in Allegri’s “Miserere”. The Tallis scholars are wonderful but I tend to find women’s voices too hard in this piece. I actually have a recording of the original “Miserere”, performed by the Sistine Chapel Choir. It’s truly wonderful and significantly different from the version we all know.

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