Tuesday, 15 December 2015

THIS WEEK IN MOZART HISTORY: Mozart & The Miserere

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
On December 12, 1769, a pubescent Wolfgang Mozart, accompanied by his father, Leopold, would begin the virtuoso’s - no longer a wunderkind but soon to be made a Knight - premier tour of Italy, in a series of concert excursions that would not consummate until fifteen months later, in late March of 1771.

It would be a time of high praise and both personal and professional achievement for the young composer extraordinaire - one that would see him lauded as a “True Orpheus” in Verona, a “Little Maestro” in Milan; made an exclusive member of the Magestri Compositores of the highly prized Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna, and, most impressively, presented with an Order of Knight of the Golden Spur by Pope Clement XIV himself - all of this, at the age of fourteen!

This would also mark the period in which Mozart first heard composer Gregorio Allegri’s Magnum Opus, 'Miserere Mei Deus' -  a highly ornamented setting to voce of the 51st Psalm and one which would go on to mark the commencement of Ash Wednesday. In fact, had it not been for the intuitive skill of this musical savant, the world may never have come to know the exquisite high C’s* and sublime crescendos and diminuendos employed by this choral masterpiece as we know it today.


Gregorio Allegri's transplendent "Miserere Mei Deus" featuring the celebrated "Top C" sung here by treble Ian Barter. Director
Stephen Cleobury leads King's College Chapel Choir, Cambridge. *The Top C was actually a deliciously fruitful error made by
a copyist in the late nineteenth century.  It is said to have been in G minor
in the original transcription, although even this has 
been widely debated.

It was at a Wednesday Tenebrae Service at the Sistine Chapel in Italy when fourteen year old Wolfgang first heard the highly cryptic and ornamentally-lush choral work (whilst visiting the St. Peter's Basilica with his father Leopold in Rome)**. Immediately succumbing to it’s enrapturing beauty, the young composer rushed home to pen the entire piece wholly from memory. He would return to the chapel for an encore performance two days later (on Good Friday) with his score tucked underneath his hat, whereupon he made what are believed to be only minor corrections to his transcription. So near-exact was his dictation, Mozart would find himself both honored and immortalized for his efforts.

This is of special significance, since it can be argued that the young Mozart penned the master work in spite of the secrecy surrounding the abellimenti of the piece and it's exclusivity only to the Catholic Church - and perhaps, even in a boastful and self-congratulatory spirit.

A young Mozart plays the harpsichord, age 14. 1770, Verona,
Italy by Saverio Dalla Rosa.
Three months after transcribing the Miserere, Wolfgang Mozart found himself being summoned before the Pope. Fearing excommunication for exposing such a highly guarded secret of the Church, Mozart was astonished when exhalations of praise were heaped upon him by Pope Clement XIV, and dumbfounded when he was awarded Knighthood by the Same. Mozart’s transcription would later be obtained by a publisher in London during the course of his tour of the Italian states, finding further distinction in many later composers of note (Mendelssohn, Liszt, among others), who would also transcribe the piece in the following century, effectively lifting for good the ban on the work, allowing it to prosper it’s way to infamy. It is considered today to be one of the finest biblical psalms ever set to music, and for that, we have Mozart to thank, regardless of his motivating factors surrounding the piece.

** This event was later duly recorded by Mozart Patriarch, Leopold, in the form of a letter written in April of 1770 to his wife during his stay with his prodigal son in Rome:

"…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

During this period of both concert performances and composition (Mozart would compose the opera, 'Mitridate, re di Ponto' while in Milan where it was well received, and he would later re-visit the city following his return to Salzburg in late March of 1771, composing the solo motet ‘Exultate, Jubilate’ while in the capital of Lombardy attending the Milanese premieres of his operas 'Lucio Silla' and, formerly, 'Ascanio in Alba'), Wolfgang's time with his father in Il Bel Pease would see Mozart making connections with many noble houses of Italy, visiting with his father some forty towns including Mantua, Milan, Florence and Naples.

This was to be only the beginning for this ingenious and enigmatic Classical Icon.

Mozart's motet 'Exultate, Jubilate' as sung by Māori Soprano Dame Kiri te Kanawa, and Mozart's aria for
soprano 'Al destin, che la Minaccia' from the epic 'Mitridate, Re di Ponto', as sung here by soprano
Arleen Auger, whose virtuosic use of coloratura is especially thrilling.



Read More on Mozart in my December Archives: December is the Month of Mozart!


-Rose.
 I created this timeline to showcase highlights from this period (click to enlarge).
 Mozart took a brief hiatus to Salzburg from March 28th - August 13th. *A note on
 dates:
1770/71 are combined, as most pivotal events occurred in that yearspan.



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