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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Ethically dubious, intellectually satisfying…?

When I used to live in France, I worked freelance for a while as an academic researcher, writer and editor for a number of private research companies. In theory, these companies provided model essays or primary research to students or lecturers, but in practice, I strongly suspect much of the work I and the other freelancers produced was handed in by students. Indeed companies like the ones I worked for got a lot of negative press in the UK at one time because of the rise in plagiarism from people abusing their services. I spent a certain amount of time writing primary research pieces for these companies but the dubious ethical situation increased (we would be asked to edit an essay, including content, in response to tutor comments, for instance) and there came a point beyond which I decided to only take on editorial, bibliographic or translation work from them. With one company, I stopped writing for them altogether after I was briefed to completely paraphrase an entire essay so that it was unrecognisable from the original (in other words, I was being openly asked to aid and abet plagiarism).

Whenever I look back on this time, though, I rather miss some aspects of it. And thinking about working on my writing portfolio reminded me of one of my favourite projects, which I did just before Lucy was born in the summer of 2009. And it really was just before she was born (I could hardly reach the keyboard, and I had to warn them I might not finish it if she arrived a week or two early). It was a one week deadline to research and write from scratch an 8000 word undergraduate dissertation on Gainsborough. I knew nothing whatsoever about Gainsborough; I had access to no UK research libraries; but it was a fantastic, fun and interesting project and, as the last piece of primary research writing I did for this company, it became symbolic of what that work had given me: I had inadvertently arrived at the weird situation where I had quite a useful set of skills to research pretty much anything at all from scratch (I had written university essays on everything from social work, Libyan politics, genital excision, bilingualism, album covers, the French Revolution, drug culture, Messenger skin design, childhood immunisation in Pakistan, as well as several other full-length art history dissertations.) I think I’ve held on to a certain research speed from that period. My PhD research had obviously given me the solid grounding in primary research and academic writing which makes this stuff come naturally after having done it for so long, but the surreal freelancing cranked those skills up to supernatural speeds. I still skim websites and journals very quickly and seem to be quite good at finding, and moulding into a recognisable written form, disparate source material and information and resources about any topic under the sun.

I hope I can put these skills to use again some day. More than anything else, it’s fun.

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