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The Tudor Choir

Mozart: the original music pirate.

Think corporate control over music is a hassle now? Consider the 17th century's Devotional Rights Management. In the 1630s, the pope commissioned Gregorio Allegri to compose a musical setting of Psalm 51 for Easter week at the Sistine Chapel. His soaring, sinuous "Miserere" still sends tingles up the spines of even the most secular listeners when the sopranos spiral up to a startling, ecstatic high C. Sung at 3 am as the last of 27 candles was extinguished, it felt like the aural equivalent of celestial ascension.

In keeping with its centuries-long strategy of controlling access to heaven, the church wanted you to have to sit through mass to get either the song or the salvation. So the pope, in a move that makes the RIAA look tame, made copying or performing the score punishable by excommunication. For more than a century, its legend spread, drawing multitudes of listeners to the Vatican annually for the only chance hear Allegri's famous choral tune.

Like any music-loving teenager, the 14-year-old Wolfie Mozart just had to hear the most famous music in the world, and on a 1770 visit to Rome, he did—and was spellbound. And like any music-loving teenager, he wanted everyone else to know about it as well. Lacking a mini-recorder or a MySpace page, he did the next best thing: That night in his hotel, Mozart wrote down the Miserere from memory, returned to hear it again two days later (the score concealed in his hat) and corrected the errors he'd made the first time. He slipped it to a publisher in England, and from there it spread faster than a Phish bootleg on the Internet.

Ironically, for all the trouble it took to free the music, its most famous feature—those transcendent high Cs—may actually be a mistake resulting from a later copying error, not by Mozart. But the wrong version sounds so beatific that most performers, including Seattle's superb Tudor Choir, which hits town on Friday, still use it.

The choir's program contains more Sistine music from that most ethereal of composers, Palestrina, and Tudor-era English music by Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and John Taverner. The choir has received international acclaim for its performances, and this concert will likely be one of the season's most heavenly musical experiences. A warning: The use of recording devices is strictly prohibited. Furtive scribbling is probably OK.


St. Mary's Cathedral, 1716 NW Davis St., 228-4397. 8 pm Saturday, March 29. $15-$30.