Carissimi and the Oratorio

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“There is yet another kind of music, which is completely unknown in France, and which for that reason well merits my giving you a detailed account. It is called stile récitatif. The best that I have heard has been in the Oratory of San Marcello, where there is a congregation composed of the most important gentlemen of Rome, who consequently have the means to assemble the rarest that Italy produces; and in fact the most excellent musicians pride themselves on being there, and the most competent composers solicit the honor of having their compositions heard there… The voices would sing a story from the Old Testament in the form of a spiritual play. Each singer represented a personage of the story and expressed the intensity of the words with extreme aptness…the singers imitated perfectly the different personages…I can not praise enough this musique récitatif.”

Thus the Frenchman André Maugars described the music he heard during his visit to Rome in 1639. What most impressed him about this music is exactly what still impresses us today: its dramatic intensity, produced by the flexibility of the recitative style.

The term oratorio initially referred to the hall in which confraternities gathered to pray, give informal lectures, and sing and hear sacred music. An outgrowth of the Catholic counter-reformation of the sixteenth century, the Oratorian movement was founded in Rome by St. Philip Neri, one of the most charismatic and original characters of his time. A man who combined mystical inclinations with a sociable and enthusiastic nature, Neri recognized the many practical benefits of integrating spiritual exercise with recreation. In 1554, he began to hold informal meetings in a granary over a side aisle in the church of San Girolamo della Carità, and initiated day-long walking tours of holy sites in Rome, interspersed with picnics and singing. These events were called the outdoor oratory, and eventually were attended by crowds of thousands. Indeed, the movement grew to be wildly popular among lay people and clergy alike, spreading throughout Italy and Europe, and were eventually instituted by the Pope as the Congregation of the Oratory.

The music of the first oratories were laude, the traditional devotional songs of confraternities from the middle ages. These were based on poetic texts, and many were in dialogue form. As the Oratorians expanded, music became an increasingly important part of their gatherings; professional performers and composers became involved, either as members or employees, and publications of music especially intended for the Oratory began to appear. By the seventeenth century, music in oratories attended by noble and cultivated patrons had begun to reflect the aesthetic trends introduced by the Florentine Camerata, and the developing Roman opera, most notably, the use of stile recitativo. The preface to one seventeenth century publication rather archly admits that the function of music in the oratory was “to draw the sinner with a sweet deception…”, presenting through the most seductively beautiful means subjects for spiritual reflection. The influence of the lauda continued to be strong, though the term itself gradually disappeared; dramatic dialogues of the kind used in the oratories were called concerti sacri, affeti spirituali, sinfonie sacri, and very occasionally, by mid-century, oratorios.

By 1629, when Iacomo Carissimi arrived in Rome, there were at least five oratories active in the city. Carissimi had taken the post as maestro of the highly esteemed music program at the German College, a seminary for the education of German-speaking priests, and he also was in charge of the music for the collegiate chapel of Sant’ Apollinare. As his reputation grew, Carissimi was invited to provide music for the oratories as well, most notably for the prestigious Confraternità del Santissimo Crocifisso at the Oratorio of San Marcello, which was attended by the finest gentlemen in Rome. His oratorios were also performed before the exiled Queen Christina of Sweden at private chamber concerts. Carissimi’s oratorios were very likely to have been heard in church services as well as in the oratories themselves, since dramatic dialogues or other oratorio-like pieces were often substituted for prescribed elements in Mass and The Divine Office at the time. This practice, and other perceived musical abuses, such as the hiring of professional castrati at the German College, and increasingly expensive and ostentatious music in services aroused enthusiasm for reform in Pope Alexander VII. “The present pope, two years ago, forbade the stories in music, not wishing that anything be sung in church that was not contained word for word in Holy Scripture or in the breviary…Signor Carissimi has not obtained permission to have printed those which he has composed, ” wrote a visitor to Rome in 1663.

Indeed, no oratorio by Carissimi was ever published, and the autograph manuscripts, which remained in the possession of the German College, all disappeared in the early eighteenth century. None of the oratorios can be certainly dated, and all of their texts are anonymous. But the works were held in such high esteem that manuscript copies were circulated throughout Europe, and in fact, more oratorios from Carissimi survive than from any of his contemporaries. Jephte was the most widely admired of Carissimi’s works, with over 25 complete scores extant, and 15 more fragments, most of which are the stunning final chorus. A copy of Jephte exists in Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s hand.

A contemporary wrote of Carissimi: “He surpasses all others in moving the minds of listeners to whatever affection he wishes. His compositions are truly imbued with the essence and life of the spirit.” Carissimi was arguably the most influential composer of the seventeenth century: a list of his students reads like a Who’s Who of significant composers of the next generation, including Alesandro Scarlatti, Colonna, Cesti. Through Charpentier his influence was felt in France, and through Bernhard and Steffani, in Germany. The music scene in Restoration England was dominated by Italians who had worked with Carissimi and he was paid the ultimate compliment of plagiarism by Handel. Many of his students contributed to the formation of the Neopolitan opera that was crucial in the development of the international Baroque style in the next century; perhaps for this reason Charles Burney, writing a century after Carissimi’s death, speaks of him as a modern, while referring to Monteverdi as an ancient.

The texts of Carissimi’s oratorios are anonymous; they could have been written by the composer, or possibly by one of his colleagues at the German College. While the story of Jephte comes from the Book of Judges, the text “Incipite ad cymbalum…” is drawn from the Book of Judith. Whoever arranged the texts of Carissimi’s oratorios, they convey a consistent sensibility, rooted in humanism, and with a fine awareness of drama. The themes are complex, suffering and joy are inextricably mingled, and defeat and victory are ambiguous. Pervading all of these works and uniting them into related facets of seventeenth century spirituality, is the vision of an ultimate mystical union of the human with the divine: Jephte’s daughter, wandering disconsolately on the mountain, grieving for the lover she will never have, is transformed in this vision into the Bride who at last sees her Beloved springing toward her on that same mountain.

Adapted from program notes written by Susan Harvey for Magnificat’s 1995 program “with a sweet deception,” which included Historia di Jephte along with other oratorios of Carissimi.

Background image detail from Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, Return of Jephtah, ca. 1700.

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