Choral Music for Palm Sunday: 'Miserere' Composer Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere" is a piece of choral music so powerful that a 17th-century pope decreed it could be played only during the week leading to Easter — and then only in the Sistine Chapel.

Choral Music for Palm Sunday: 'Miserere'

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We're marking Palm Sunday today with a beautiful piece of music. So lovely in fact, that a 17th century pope decreed it could be played only during Holy Week and only in the Sistine Chapel. To play it under any other circumstances would result in excommunication.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Our cultural concierge, Jesse Kornbluth, has picked up this gem for us today. He's at home in New York. So, Jesse, this is really, really gorgeous. Tell us more about it.

JESSE KORNBLUTH: It's 11 of the most exquisite minutes in all of music, and it was written by Gregorio Allegri, a name known to almost no one because he only did one immortal thing, and that was to compose this "Miserere" played only, as you say, during Easter week.

LYDEN: And why did the pope prohibit anyone else from hearing it on the thane of excommunication and, what, to prevent rapture? Why?

KORNBLUTH: Well, this music was performed at the Mattan's(ph) service at 3:00 a.m. during Easter week. Twenty-seven candles were extinguished, and as the last candle was extinguished, this music was played and the pope prayed. It's a piece of stunning theater and stunning spirituality. And the church realized what it had.

I mean, it's sort of the equivalent as if someone very wealthy and powerful had a private first performance of Bruce Springsteen doing "Born to Run" and said you will never play that again for anyone but me.

LYDEN: Um-hum.

KORNBLUTH: And that happened. Went on for over 100 years.

LYDEN: So how was the secret revealed, Jesse?

KORNBLUTH: The secret was revealed by the 14-year-old Mozart, who came to Rome during Easter week with his father and went to the best show in Rome, which was the Allegri "Miserere" being performed. He went on a Wednesday. That night he wrote it out in his hotel room. On Friday, Good Friday, he went back for the other performance with the manuscript in his hat, compared notes, discovered he made two or three minor errors, and corrected his transcript.

Then he met someone and it got out in England in about 1771.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: You know, Jesse, I'm just thinking we always refer, of course, to Latin…or not always refer but sometimes refer to Latin as a dead language, and then you hear it sung and you realize how it breathes and lives.

KORNBLUTH: Let's also create the context of the words here, which were immensely powerful. David has transgressed, he's lost a child and now he's praying to his heavenly father. And he says in this Psalm 51, wash me thoroughly for my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin for I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is ever before me.

You couldn't be more prostrate than this.

LYDEN: Jesse Kornbluth is our head butler, and you can find more of his cultural recommendations on his Web site, Jesse, thanks so much.

KORNBLUTH: Thank you, Jacki. Good holiday.

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