The Story Behind Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere

06th March 2019

It is the stuff of legends….and thousands of our cathedral visitors and worshippers will today get to hear Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere – described as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written and with its top note of C – a real challenge in the choral repertoire.

Listen and watch the choir of King’s College Cambridge perform Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere here.

The legend starts in the Sistine Chapel Choir back in 1638 when Allegri a singer there, composed this setting of Psalm 51 to be sung there during Holy Week.

It was so good that, to preserve the sense of mystery around the music, the Pope forbade anyone from transcribing it, on pain of excommunication.

But in 1770 Leopold Mozart brought his then young son, Wolfgang Amadeus to Rome who heard the piece and famously transcribed it note for note.

He – according to legend – bumped into British Music historian Dr Charles Burney and passed on his manuscript. Burney took it to London where it was published in 1771.

And the story continues that in 1831 Felix Mendelssohn decided to make his own transcription – and inscribed (by mistake) a version to be sung a fourth higher – which would have been fine if it was not for a small section of this higher transcription accidentally being used to illustrate an article in the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians being put together in 1880.

And the result is the most famous and probably the most moving passage of the piece — a beautiful top C sung by a treble soloist, pretty much the highest note found in the entire choral repertoire.

So, whenever you hear Allegri’s Miserere, remember how it was brought to you!…Stuff of legends.

Listen to it here.