Wednesday, April 15, 2015

TMFW 84 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Music Pirate

(April 15 was Easter Sunday in 1770, so what better date to tell this story...)
When Napster first came on the scene in the late 1990s, record labels freaked out with worry that piracy would kill the music industry.  (And they were definitely right that digital music changed the model - 15 years on, revenue is up and piracy is down, but the industry makes only half the money it did at its peak). 
Concern over music piracy is not a new phenomenon - as cassette recorders proliferated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the British music industry trade group BPI launched a campaign titled "Home Taping is Killing Music," complete with a cool skull-and-crossbones logo made with a cassette tape.  Even before that, as detailed in TMFW 60, the Soviet Union had a decades-long history of elaborate underground pirating of western music.
But (perhaps) the first ever act of music piracy happened more than 200 years ago, when Mozart ripped off the pope in 1770. 
The story starts in the 1630s, when Pope Urban VIII had the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri write a setting of Psalm 51 called "Miserere mei, Deus" (have mercy on me, O God).  Musical recitations based around psalms were a feature of Catholic services from at least the 15th century, and were central to Holy Week rituals called tenebrae on Holy Wednesday and Good Friday.  Versions of the Miserere had been performed at the Sistine Chapel since the early 1500s, and after Allegri's version was composed it became the standard.  
To preserve some mystique around Allegri's song, it was performed only at the Sistine Chapel, and only twice a year during Holy Week.  Distribution or unauthorized performance of the song was punishable by excommunication, and even 130 years after it was written only three copies of the music were said to exist (in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of Portugal, and the famous Franciscan composer Padre Martini.) 
But in 1770, the 14-year-old musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was visiting Rome and got to hear the "Miserere" on Holy Wednesday.  After hearing it only once, Mozart went back to his room and transcribed the whole thing from memory.  He returned to the Sistine Chapel two days later on Good Friday (remember: the only place on Earth and the other day in the whole entire year it was performed) and made some minor corrections.  And with that, Allegri's "Miserere" was freed.
Mozart's dad wrote back to his mother in Salzburg boasting of the feat: "…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...But we have it already. Wolfgang has written it down..."  
Later that year, Mozart met the British historian and composer Charles Burney, and gave him a copy of the song.  Burney wasted no time and published it in England.  One would expect that Mozart got busted for his act of piracy, but instead he was invited to a papal audience with Pope Clement XIV and praised for his genius.  The "ban" was lifted (though the toothpaste was out of the tube at that point anyway) and the "Miserere" was thereafter performed widely.  You can hear a version of it on YouTube here.  It's pretty good, I guess.
So the next time you hear someone lamenting the modern problem of music piracy, tell them that it's all Mozart's fault.  
BONUS FACT:  Mozart LOVED scatological humor, writing about it in 40 letters and incorporating it into several of his works.  There is so much out there that "Mozart and scatology" has its own Wikipedia page.
BONUS FACT 2: Mozart was only 35 when he died.  In that short life, he composed over 600 works. (What have you done with your life, man?)

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