Peter Phillips

Art of myth-making

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The story of Allegri’s Miserere has probably become the most engrossing myth that great art of any kind has to offer. From the mists of time when it was first heard, through the threat of terrible punishment — excommunication — to those who might betray it, to the touch of divine intervention that Mozart brought it, it has everything to stimulate the pens both of those who want to rationalise it and those who are more inclined to fabulate on an inspiring theme. It helps that the music itself is so powerful, to which many figures, past and present, have paid tribute: Mary Shelley, for example, described how ‘the soul is carried away into another state of being’. Evidence of its modern status is given by the ArkivMusic online list of recordings, which identifies that there are exactly a hundred of them, surely putting it in a category by itself.

The problem is that every time someone writes anything about it we seem to get just that little bit further from what actually happened in the first place, and that bit further down the path of turning it into what we want it to be. This is the natural process of myth-making. In the case of the Allegri, it has gone on for nearly 400 years, and is set very fair to continue indefinitely. I wonder where we will have got to by the turn of the next century; but although I hate to spoil a good story by the tactless recitation of the facts, there are elements in this one that are promoted by wilful thoughtlessness.

The most persistent piece of nonsense has to do with Mozart’s contribution. There is no doubt that on 13 April 1770 (a Friday, presumably Good Friday) he went to the Sistine Chapel with his father Leopold and memorised what he had heard. He went home to write the music out and then (more doubtfully) returned the next day with the manuscript hidden in his hat, to check what he had done. Given that he was 14 at the time, this seems pretty incredible, and it suits the myth-makers to make an even better story out of it. A recent article in the TLS by Kelly Grovier is typical: ‘The incident...would have hinged on the precocious composer’s ability to memorise a setting of dauntingly ornate complexity.’

But the Miserere isn’t dauntingly complex. It is actually very straightforward, half of it consisting of chant (which anyone could have looked up — not that Mozart would have needed to) and the other half of chords harmonising the chant. On to this substructure it had become the tradition for the leading singers of the Sistine Chapel choir to embellish their lines within the given harmonies. This was done on the spur of the moment, which makes something of a nonsense of our current mania for hearing exactly the same embellishments every time (the version we have got used to was first heard in the 19th century, and was certainly not what Mozart heard). He might have had trouble remembering every note which the coloraturi sang in that particular performance, but that wouldn’t have mattered since the embellishments would have been different the next night and anyway he would easily have secured the core of the composition, which is repeated five times without variation.

As aural tests go this is generous: when I was taking the relevant exams at school we only got the extract three times. It’s a wonder it hadn’t been done before; but then maybe the threat of excommunication really did deter people, a truth that plays conveniently into the hands of the myth-makers, who, Amadeus-like, are inclined to make Wolfgang into a naughty little boy.

Some rather obvious further questions follow from this, though I’ve never heard them asked. If the embellishments were always improvised they would have been different on the second night, when Mozart was supposed to have gone back to check his transcription, which strongly suggests that these were not what Mozart was there to steal. Then there is the issue of the hat and the manuscript paper: what was he doing in the Sistine Chapel with a hat in the first place, and, if everything had to be so secret, why did he risk exposure by taking the paper out — which presumably he did or why take it with him? And since when was the Miserere sung two nights running?

One hates to be a party pooper, but this wonderful story does not get any better for attracting so much hot air. However, I can attest to the power of the mythologising. According to the Arkiv list of recordings I have directed eight of the hundred, when I could swear I have directed only three. Well, I never said this wasn’t a bandwagon worth climbing on to.