Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Mozart's Miserere and Stephen Wiltshire - strokes of genius

During the Holy Week, I am always reminded of the story of the Miserere mei, Deus, (Have mercy on me, Oh God) the beautiful choral work composed by Gregorio Allegri. It is a setting of Psalm 51 and is performed in the Sistine Chapel during matins on Wednesday and Friday of the Holy Week. Soon after it's first publication, the Vatican ordered that it be performed only at those 2 services and forbade anyone from copying the work. The punishment for its performance or replication was excommunication. At the age of 14, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Rome and heard the Wednesday performance. Possessed of a character that was naturally set against authority and rules, he went home and transcribed the whole piece from memory. He then went for the Friday service with his music and corrected his mistakes. Later on during his travels, he met and Englishman who took the piece from him and published it. It is said that when the Pope heard of Mozart's feat, he was so amazed at the young man's genius that he forgave him and lifted the ban on the piece. Now while this piece from the Renaissance period is not as elaborate as some of the choral works from the Baroque and Romantic periods of music, this feat is still an amazing example of Mozart's musical genius and memory. 

And recently I came across the story of another young man with a similarly amazing memory though in a different sphere of art. Known as the Human Camera, Stephen Wilshire has become world-renowned for his ability to draw cityscapes in great detail, purely from memory. He also amazing musical memory and the rare ability to identify the exact pitch of a single note. He has published 3 books and has been appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to art. And he also happens to be autistic, speaking his first word 'paper' only at the age of 5. It is truly a humbling and inspiring story. This is his website and following is the video of one of his feats of memory. (HT: Challies)


  1. Moral of Mozart's story: If you're a SPRH and are inclined to flout rules, you'd better be a genius!

  2. You're right UB - and I do think you would fit all those three criteria.