Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Mozart and the Miserere

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Mozart and the Miserere

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Secret Harmony" by Kelly Grovier, in The Times Literary Supplement, June 8, 2012.

IT'S GOOD FRIDAY, 1770. PILGRIMS HAVE filled the Sistine Chapel for the rite of the Tenebrae. At the altar, the priest is extinguishing the candles meant to represent Christ's life on earth. Ringing through the chapel is one of Europe's most famous pieces of sacred music, Gregorio Allegri's 17th-century work Miserere Mei, a polyphonous choral setting of Psalm 51. Among the rapt pilgrims are 14-year-old Wolfgang Mozart and his father, Leopold. Young Mozart is not just transfixed by the music; he is committing it to memory. After the service, he will transcribe the score of the coveted work, executing a prodigious feat of musical mastery.

It will also be a major affront to the Roman Catholic Church. The church so highly prized the Miserere Mei that anyone who copied even a part of it risked excommunication, writes Kelly Grovier, a poet and cofounder of the European Romantic Review.

The work's significance goes back to Psalm 51's origins as an act of penance by King David for committing adultery. Later, in medieval London's criminal underworld, Psalm 51 became known as the "Neck Verse"; the ability to recite its lines to jailers could free the convicted of the death penalty. At the end of the 15th century, the psalm was elevated to a new level of fame: Days before his execution at the hands of Vatican agents, Florentine preacher and reformer Girolamo Savonarola produced a bracing commentary on the work that quickly became an influential Christian text. …

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