Allegri’s Miserere and some happy mistakes

I discovered a strange musical fact the other day, which is that the high C in Allegri’s Miserere shouldn’t be there at all, and is due to a transcription error. Surely one of the happiest errors ever made!

If you don’t know the piece, or can’t picture how high a high C is and what might be special about it, set aside a few minutes to discover it. It is worth your time.

I’ve chosen a version with a young boy chorister instead of an adult soprano – adult sopranos do sing it (I heard a version by The Sixteen recently, who are touting themselves around a lot at the moment, particularly if you listen to Classic FM) but there’s a special purity in the voice of a treble.

Oddly it was in the Youtube comments that I discovered that the high C wasn’t originally written by Allegri. In all likelihood, it is due to  Mendelssohn, who transposed everything up a fourth which was how he had heard it performed. Then, when one section of Mendelssohn’s transcription was stuck back together with some other sections the wrong way round – an error which was cemented in the 1880 edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians – the result is the heart-stoppingly strange and beautiful version which has remained with us ever since. A more careful account of how this happened can be found here.

Even more extraordinary is the popular legend of how the work came down to us. Apparently the score was kept secret, and its revelation was an excommunicable offence. It seems that the fourteen-year-old Mozart heard the piece in the Sistine Chapel, where it was regularly performed, made a transcription from memory when he got home, and it is this transcription which finally made it into the public domain with its publication by Dr. Charles Burnley in 1771. Here and here are some sources.

I intend to keep an eye out for other happy mistakes which, in fact, have created cultural artefacts of great beauty, or which had long-lasting positive effects on the world. If you know of any, please tell me about them. In the meantime, a piece about unintentional inventions, and finally, particularly for the translators among you, a fun piece from Cracked about mistranslations that changed the world.

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