Mozart Breaks a Rule

"People err who think my art comes easily to me. I assure you, dear friend, nobody has devoted so much time and thought to composition as I. There is not a famous master whose music I have not industriously studied through many times." –Wolfgang Mozart, in a letter to a friend (attributed)

In 1770, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a fourteen-year-old prodigy who had been touring Europe as a performer since the age of six. While traveling through Italy with his father, he found himself at the Vatican during the days preceding Easter, and he heard a performance of the legendary work of vocal music titled
Miserere. The Catholic church had printed only three copies of the piece and had restricted performances to Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel. Within hours after hearing the piece, Mozart created a manuscript of Miserere from memory. He created the manuscript without the pope’s permission and then returned to the Sistine Chapel two days later on Good Friday — Friday the 13th — to hear the piece again and make corrections to his manuscript.

Miserere was one of the most safely guarded works of art in Europe, and performers were prohibited from taking the music outside the Vatican. By creating a manuscript of the music, Mozart violated a papal edict protecting it. His transcription may have even contributed to the published versions appearing all over Europe the next year. No one is certain. Historians do know, however that Mozart’s father seemed determined to abide by the pope's decree.

"You have often heard of the famous Miserere in Rome, which is so greatly prized that the performers are forbidden on pain of excommunication to take away a single part of it, copy it or to give it to anyone. But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down and we would have sent it to Salzburg in this letter, if it were not necessary for us to be there to perform it. But the manner of performance contributes more to its effect than the composition itself. Moreover, as it is one of the secrets of Rome, we do not wish to let it fall into other hands." – Leopold Mozart, in a letter to his wife, April 14, 1770

When Pope Clement XIV heard about Mozart's transcription of Miserere he did not condemn the boy for violating his decree. Instead, he recognized Mozart’s musical genius with a papal knighthood, making Mozart a Knight of the Order of the Golden Spur.

Allegri, Miserere – King's College Chapel Choir


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Many thanks to
The Greatest Music Stories Never Told by Rick Beyer for introducing me to this story.