The legendary music of Ash Wednesday
During the 10:00 hour this morning on WFCR's classical music, you can hear an extraordinarily beautiful choral work whose very broadcast, had the technology then existed , would once have resulted in my excommunication. Or so goes the legend, one of many that swirl around Gregorio Allegri's 1630-something setting of the Psalm 51, "Miserere mei, Deus". Sung in the Sistine Chapel on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent, Allegri's version of the psalm became so popular that the Vatican forbade copies or unauthorized performances. The fourteen-year old Mozart, to continue the legend, heard the work once on a visit to Rome during Holy Week, copied it down from memory, provided a copy to the celebrated English music chronicler Dr. Charles Burney, who took it back to London, had it published in 1771, and...well, you can read the basic story here, delve deeper into the scholarship here, and even see a copy of the music here.
What you'll hear today, however, is quite different from what Mozart heard, which in turn was very unlike the music Padre Allegri (like many sacred composers of the day, he was also a priest) is holding up in the above illustration. In a process resembling the children's game of telephone, the Miserere slowly shifted over the years, gradually accruing the fabulous high-soprano lines that are now its most remarkable feature. So, tune in, listen closely, and enjoy — just don't tell Father.