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Mozart in Rome and a Musical Theft

On April 11, 250 years ago, on Holy Wednesday, when the Eternal City is the most crowded with pilgrims and visitors, attracted by the papal liturgy of Holy Week and Easter, that musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, fourteen years old, and his father Leopold, a good musician, arrive in Rome. The young Amadè — as he called himself — would undertake three trips to Italy between December 1769 and March 1773, thus reaching the culmination of the European Grand Tour, which in the 18th and still in the 19th century was considered almost mandatory for the upbringing and formation of a “gentleman.”

In particular, “the wonder of those times” was the Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1584–1652), the famous nine-part song, in two choirs, composed by the Roman musician and priest on the text from Psalm 51, in which the penitent cries out his sins and implores divine mercy.

According to the great Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli (1791–1863), all the English who stayed at the London hotel in the Piazza di Spagna couldn’t talk about anything but what a pleasure it was to hear the Miserere in St. Peter’s with not a single instrument accompanying it. In fact, Belli wonders, in Great Britain and in all the other foreign churches, who can say, as in Rome on those three evenings of Holy Wednesday and Thursday and Good Friday: Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam? The poet recalls that on that day, they stayed on that magnam an hour and sang like that — blood of the grape! — that magnam is a word to fall in love with. First one musician said it, then two, then three, then four; and all the choir finally came out with it: misericordiam tuam.

From a letter by Leopold written to his wife on April 14, 1770, the day of their arrival in Rome, is obtained the following:

We arrived here safely at midday on the 11th. I could more easily have been persuaded to return to Salzburg than come to Rome as we spent 5 days traveling from Florence to Rome in the most appalling rain and cold wind. In Rome itself I heard that it’s been raining constantly for the last 4 months, and we certainly got a taste of this when we went to the Sistine Chapel to hear the Miserere on the Wednesday and Thursday [sic], setting off on both occasions in fine weather, only to be caught in such a terrible downpour on our way home that our coats have never been as wet as they were on that occasion. … You’ll often have heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is held in such high regard that the chapel musicians are forbidden on pain of excommunication to remove even a single part from the chapel, still less to copy it out or to give it to anyone else. But we already have it. Wolfgang has already written it down, and we’d have sent it to Salzburg with this letter except that it would require our presence to perform it; the manner of its performance must play a greater role than the work itself, and so we’ll bring it home with us, and as it’s one of Rome’s secrets, we don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands, ut non incorremus mediate vel immediate in Censuram Ecclesiæ [so that we shall not incur the Church’s censure, either now or later]. We’ve already explored St. Peter’s, and I’ve no doubt that none of the local sights will be overlooked. Tomorrow, God willing, we’ll see His Holiness preach.

What happened? Despite the rainy weather, father and son arrived in Rome from the north, passing through the Porta del Popolo and go to live in a building that was located in today’s Piazza Nicosia, as a memorial tablet reminds us since 1996: “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / In The House That Once Stood Here … Wrote Down Allegri’s Miserere[.]” In the afternoon, the two could listen to Allegri’s Miserere, sung by the Sistine Chapel Choir, conducted by Giuseppe Santi Santarelli, maestro pro tempore in 1770. Composed in 1638, that Miserere was performed twice each year, during the Office of Tenebræ, which today is called the Office of Readings of Holy Thursday and Saturday (on Good Friday, the one by Felice Anerio or Sante Naldini was sung), after the Vespers of the previous day — that is, after the sunset of Wednesday and Friday — exclusively in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Well, Mozart, as a young teenager, transcribed it by heart, just arrived home. Having returned to listen to it on Good Friday, he secretly took the transcription and corrected it during the performance.  For this musical “theft,” as well as for his other artistic merits, the young composer would not only avoid the excommunication, but would be made Knight of the Golden Order by Pope Clemens XIV, to honor Te, quem in suavissimo cymbali sonitu a prima adolescentia tua excellentem esse intelleximus — thee, whom we understand to have excelled since the earliest youth in the sweetest sounding of the harpsichord, as we read in the papal patent of July 4, 1770 (A. Cametti, Mozart a Roma, in Rivista d’Italia, Roma, April 1907).

Thus it came about that Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, in “that fair land where is heard” (Dante Alighieri, Inferno, XXXIII, 80), composed little sacred music but listened to a lot of it, and that “the miracle God caused to be born in Salzburg” — as Leopold introduced his son to the Italians and, through them, to the whole world — met the miracle of sacred polyphony, in which several voices run after each other, harmonies intertwine, instruments are silent, and vaults of the basilicas echo. The Salzburg genius would keep for a long time the memory and lesson of it — so much so that he wrote on September 4, 1776, to the famous Bolognese musician and theorist Padre Martini (1706–1787), his maestro during the Italian stay: “Our church music is rather different from that in Italy[.] … A particular course of study is required for this class of composition” (The Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1769–1791, New York, Philadelphia, F. Leypoldt, 1866 1866, p. 54).

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