Allegri’s Miserere and Mozart’s Memory

Mozart's 'illegal' copy of the Miserere (

On this Third Sunday of Lent, it is fitting to remind ourselves of Allegri’s Miserere, his unsurpassed musical setting of Psalm 51, recited in Lauds (Morning Prayer) every Friday. Composed around 1638, under the patronage of Pope Urban VIII, the sublime piece was performed only on certain occasions in the Sistine Chapel, its score held in great secrecy, adding allure to its mystery.

As the story goes, the secret held until a 14 year old Mozart heard the score in 1770 during his performance tour in Italy; after this one-time listen, he went back to his chamber and transcribed the entire piece from memory, returning to make minor corrections, while also transcribing the work for other instruments. Far from being criticized for what we might now consider copyright theft, the young genius was showered with praise, bestowed with the Order of the Golden Spur by Pope Clement XIV later that same year.

Since then, the Miserere has been transcribed numerous times, including by Mendelsshon and Liszt, and is now one of the most performed of choral works, its beauty transcendent, one that be found even in the midst of suffering: Miserere mei, Domine, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam, Have Mercy on Me, O Lord, according to Thy great mercy…

And here is a performance in the Sistine Chapel itself, with a more ‘real-life’ sound – one can hear the reverberation in the huge space – with the annotations from Mozart in 1771: