Falsobordone, the Miserere of Allegri, and a most bizarre musicological error


Bradshaw, Murray C. "The Falsobordone: a Study in Renaissance and Baroque Music", Musicological Studies and Documents, (1978)


  • Gio. Matteo Asola , Falsi Bordoni (Venice, 1575) [gaspari]. Untexted Falsi Bordoni in four voices, including pieces by Vincenzo Ruffo.

  • Paolo Isnardi, Omnes ad Vesperas Psalmi, qui Falso (ut aiunt) Bordonio (Venice, 1585) [gaspari]. Falsi Bordoni in four parts with written-out texts.

  • Girolamo Vespa, Hieronymi Vespae de Neapoli... Falsi Bordones super tonos, (Venice, 1589) [gaspari] . Falsi Bordoni in four parts in the eight tones.

  • Giovanni Battista Bovicelli, Regole, passaggi di musica (Venice 1594) [imslp]. Falsi Bordoni in four parts and Falsi Bordoni for one voice with diminutions.

  • Cesare de Zacharia, Patrocinium Musices... (Munich, 1594) [BSB]. Dozens of Falsi Bordoni in all the tones.

  • Ed. Angelo Gardano, Falsi Bordoni omnium Tonorum (Venice, 1601) [gaspari]. Dozens of Falsi Bordoni for 4, 5 and 6 voices in different tones. In SCORE.

  • Lodovico da Viadana, Cento Concerti Ecclesiastici (Venice, 1602) [imslp]. Falsi Bordoni for 4 voices, as well as solistic Falsi Bordoni with diminutions.

  • Giovanni Paolo Cima, Concerti Ecclesiastici (Milan, 1610) [imslp]. Falsi Bordoni for 4 voices with basso continuo.

  • Francesco Severi, Salmi passaggiati per tuttle le voci (Rome, 1615) [BNF]. Solistic Falsi Bordoni with basso continuo and diminutions.


Ben Byram-Wigfield, Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere, online research available on ancientgroove.co.uk


  • Ed. Charels Bureny, La musica che si canta annualmente nelle funzioni della Settimana Santa (London, 1771) [imlsp]

  • Ed. Pietro Alfieri, Il Salmo Miserere posto in musica da Gregorio Allegri e da Tommaso Bai, Publicato cogli Abbellimenti per la prima volta (Lugano, 1840) [imslp]

  • Letter of Mendelssohn from June 16 1831. Reproductions of this letter is found in several places; see here for the original german, and here for an english translation.

  • William Smyth Rockstro, "Miserere", Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, first edition, 1880 [archive.org] [imslp] [html version here].

PERFORMANCES (randomly selected):


1 [01:47] We mentioned the practice of “Cantare super librum” - “singing upon the book” in our episode “improvisation around 1600“ (see 15:13), as well in ”Gregorian chant” (see 17:30).

2 [03:51] In practice, the notes before the recitation note, called “intonation”, are sung only for the first verse, and the other verses starts directly on the recitation note. Only in Magnificat and Benedictus texts the intonation is sung for every verse.

3 [05:32] Giovanni Battista Rossi, Organo de cantori (Venice, 1618 [but written 1585] [imslp]), p. 79. Quoted in Bradshaw, The Falsobordone, p. 48.

4 [06:10] We mentioned the council of Trent in our episode “Gregorian chant” (8:10). See also Bradshaw, The Falsobordone, p. 46

5 [07:00] Antonio de Cabezón, Obras de musica para tecla, arpa y vihuela (Madrid, 1578) [imslp]. The example played is an excerpt from "Fabordon del primer tono Ilano", fol. 13'.

6 [07:26] Bradshaw, The Falsobordone, p. 79.

7 [07:45] Francesco Severi, Salmi passaggiati per tuttle le voci (Rome, 1615) [BNF], pp. 3-4.

8 [09:20] See our episode “Aspects in early 17th-century monodies” (4:27).

9 [10:55] William Smyth Rockstro, "Miserere", Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, first edition, 1880 [archive.org] [imslp] [Online version of the article here].

10 [11:52] Ed. Charles Burney, La musica che si canta annualmente nelle funzioni della Settimana Santa (London, 1771) [imlsp]

11 [12:11] Enrico Correggia, "Genesi di una leggenda: Il Miserere di Allegri", in Choraliter, no. 55 (May 2018), p. 39 [article available on Enrico Corregia’s website]. Here is an English summary made by Enrico for those who cannot read his article in Italian:

The source of the Mozartian episode is a letter Leopold wrote to his wife from Rome on April 14th 1770. The writing is quite confusing: in the opening he says he went "to St. Peter’s, in the Sistine Chapel" to attend the Matins of Holy Wednesday. He also adds that they have not yet credited (moreover, arriving the same day, they would not have done in time for access to the services) and that they would begin to hand out letters of recommendation from the following Monday.

But we know that in that year the services were held in the Pauline Chapel of the Quirinale and the controls were particularly strict, especially for foreigners [Lady A. MILLER, Letters from Italy, describing the Manners, customs, antiquities, paintings, &c., of that country, in the years 1770 and 1771 to a friend residing in France by an English woman, Edward Dilly, London 1777, vol.II, pp.176 and 177].

In addition, Leopold writes that he would have already sent the copy to Salzburg if there was no penalty of excommunication.

Now, a Latae Sententiae excommunication should at least be ruled by canon law or an official document. Which does not appear under the Pontificate of Urban VIII (when the Miserere was composed: we do not have the Editio Princeps, but the date given by Alfieri in its edition, that is 1638, is plausible; I tend to exclude, while remaining possible, the hypothesis of 1629, the year in which Allegri entered the Sistine Chapel) nor under his successors.

The first document I found about it is a letter that Richard Pokocke, an Anglican bishop, wrote to his mother (British Library, Add. Ms. 19939, f.10r) on April 21st 1734. And the fact that he is an Anglican should not surprise. In those years, in England, there was a rather active round of executions of the Miserere.

The Earl of Egmont, for example, writes in his diary on February 27th 1735 that he went to a concert held at the Royal Society in which this piece was sung. And it speaks about the excommunication issue and the fact that the score was offered by the Earl of Abercorn, whose brother managed to get it in person (Manuscripts of the Earl of Egmont: Diary of the First Earl of Egmont Viscount Percival, Vol. II, 1734-1738, London, 1923,, p.155). From now on we have a florilegium of Miserere, as if to say that as Anglicans, they can afford it: excommunication would not do anything to them. It sounds more like a nasty little thing against the Pope.

These executions were not always as good as the fame of the piece, as evidenced ironically by a letter from Horace Walpole to Horace Mann of April 14th 1743 (WS Lewis, Warren Hunting Smith & George L. Lam, edd: Horace Walpole’s correspondence with Sir Horace Mann II, New Haven & London, 1954,, p. 211). The reference of the Mozarts to excommunication, therefore, makes me think that they may have heard the Miserere not in Rome (which seems unlikely to me for the manner in which it was exposed), but in London, on the 1764/65 journey.

The fear of seeing the boy excommunicated worried not just a little his mother who replied with a letter full of apprehension. And here comes the genius of Leopold, who replied from Naples on May 19th 1770 saying not to worry, because in Rome it brought him great prestige even at the Pope’s eyes. And he adds, in closing: "You must make everyone reading the letter and make it known to His Grace the Prince". What better publicity for a marketing wizard like Leopold to promote his son with an unproven business? The story of the excommunication, then, will become famous everywhere thanks to the work of Charles Burney who will dedicate a great chapter, in 1771, to the Miserere and its stories (in addition to providing an edition of the score, to which he had access thanks to Fr. Martini and Cav. Santarelli).

A final note. Mozart’s story was perfected by Adolf Heinrich Friedrich Schichtegroll in the Nekrolog of 1792. Here we will learn that the Miserere was transcribed in two shots and that the second time the score was hidden in the hat so that he could bring it back without anyone noticing. It is also said that Wolfgang had to sing it along accompanying himself with a harpsichord in the presence of the castrato Cristofori of the Sistine Chapel.

The fact that there is no news of him among the members of the Pontifical Musical Chapel says a lot about the validity of the source...

12 [13:22] A difference between our score and the score in Grove (and other 19th century sources) is that we use Breves for the recitation notes, where they wrote out the note values for each verse.

13 [13:36] Ed. Pietro Alfieri, Il Salmo Miserere posto in musica da Gregorio Allegri e da Tommaso Bai, Publicato cogli Abbellimenti per la prima volta (Lugano, 1840) [imslp]

14 [14:50] Letter of Mendelssohn from June 16 1831. Reproductions of this letter is found in several places; see here for the original German, and here for an English translation.

15 [16:10] Ed. Pietro Alfieri, preface: "E necessario poi sapere, che nella predetta Cappella il tono G si converte in B del diapason". In addition, in a later source from 1892 (MS 375, Capp. Sist., Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana), next to the first verse of the Miserere it says “Il tono una quarta sopra”.

16 [16:52] It is also possible that Rockstro did not change Mendelssohn’s excerpt, but that instead he had another source of it that was slightly different.

17 [17:57]The copying of the mistake is often connected with Robert Hass (1932) and Ivor Atkins (1951, version in English). It seems that the piece gained its initial fame in the 20th century, especially thanks to the recording of David Willcocks and The Choir of King's College in 1963 (who based their performance on Atkins English version) [Youtube].


Created by Elam Rotem.

Singing: Jacob Lawrence, Doron Schlefier, Elam Rotem.

Many thanks to Enrico Correggia and Marc Lewon for their knowledgeable contributions, and to Jörg-Andreas Bötticher and the Predigerkirche Basel for allowing us to film with the anonymous Italian organs (late 18. century).

Special thanks to Anne Smith And Alon Schab.