This setting of Psalm 50/51 was composed for two a cappela choirs in the 1630s, when Gregorio Allegri was a member of the Sistine Chapel Choir during the reign of Pope Urban VIII. It was originally meant for use in Holy Week where 27 candles would be lit at the beginning of the Tenebrae service. When the Pope had knelt down to pray when only the final candle was still alight after the other 26 had been extinguished, then the choir would begin to sing. Since that time it has been this version that is performed annually in the Sistine Chapel.
Since 1514 there have been twelve falsobordone settings for Miserere, with the first known being composed by Constanzo Festa, and this was the final and the most popular one to be composed. The music became heavily guarded and any transcriptions of it became expressly forbidden where the person responsible would be excommunicated. Some verses set by Allegri in the 1630s and Tommaso Bai in 1714 did however leak out. When Mozart was a 14-year-old boy visiting Rome with his parents, he heard the piece performed during a service. He wrote it down from memory later on that day and returned two days later to hear it again so he could make any corrections that needed to be made. On his further travels he met up with a British historian who took the piece to London for publication. The Pope called Mozart to the Vatican soon after this had happened, but he congratulated him on his musical genius rather than excommunicating him like was feared.
After that had happened the ban on transcribing the work was lifted and it has since become an acclaimed known a cappella choral work song all around the world. Throughout the years Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn later transcribed the piece along with other unaccredited versions that have been made.
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge Recordings
EMI 5 75877 2 (CD: Allegri: Miserere; Gabrieli, et.al)
Conductor – Stephen Cleobury
Polygram 466 075-2 (CD: The Greatest Choral Show on Earth)
Conductor – Sir David Willcocks
Treble – Roy Goodman