When Mozart Disobeyed the Pope

Barbara Krafft (1764–1825), “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”
Barbara Krafft (1764–1825), “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart” (photo: Public Domain)

In his lifetime, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed more than 600 works including symphonies, concertos and operas. From his earliest years, he had an ear for music; the child prodigy began composing at only four or five years of age, and completed his first symphony by the age of eight.

But did you know that he disobeyed an edict of the Pope—thus risking excommunication? Mozart was raised a devout Catholic; but when he was only fourteen, he pirated a musical composition which had been commissioned for use exclusively in the Sistine Chapel.

In the 1630s, Pope Urban VIII had enlisted the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri to write a hymn to be sung during matins in Holy Week—as part of the Tenebrae service on Holy Wednesday, and again on Good Friday.  Allegri set to music the Miserere, taken from Psalm 51.

For 140 years, that edict was respected—and the Miserere was heard only by those attending services in the Sistine Chapel. Then, during Holy Week in 1770, the teen-aged Mozart traveled with his father to Rome, where he attended matins on Holy Wednesday. For the first time, he heard the Miserere sung, as Allegri had intended, by two choirs. After the service, he returned home and—skilled as he was in musical composition—he wrote down the entire work from memory. There may have been a few glitches in his recollection; but he returned to the Sistine Chapel on Good Friday and listened once again, then corrected any errors in his transcript.

What happened next is unclear. Mozart apparently either gave or sold the manuscript to the British historian Charles Burney, who took it to London where it was published in 1771. Mozart gained fame for the work around the world, and news of his talent even reached Rome. Pope Clement XIV, leader of the Church at that time, summoned Mozart to the Vatican. But instead of excommunicating the boy, as his predecessor Pope Urban might have done, Pope Clement seemed to really appreciate Mozart's initiative. The Holy Father congratulated Mozart for his musical talent, then named him to the Chivalric Order of the Golden Spur, a papal order of knighthood conferred upon those who have “rendered distinguished service in propagating the Catholic faith, or who have contributed to the glory of the Church, either by feat of arms, by writings, or by other illustrious acts.”

Allegri's Miserere has, since the lifting of the ban, become one of the most popular a cappella choral works. In 2015 the Sistine Chapel Choir released its first CD, which included a performance of Allegri's Miserere performed live in the Sistine Chapel.