Ensemble Jacques Moderne - Joel Suhubiette
Monique Zanetti, Herve Lamy
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Modesty & Fame
On 21 July 1773 a Papal brief of Suppression (Dominus ac Redemptor) from Clement XIV proclaimed the dissolution of title Jesuit order. The Collegio Germanico in Rome closed immediately and its archives, which had been set up specially by Pope Clement X to protect composers' original manuscripts, were dispersed. Just before his death, Carissimi had asked for his works to be kept in the College chapel dedicated to St Apollinaire; a decision which proved to be disastrous.
However, this catastrophe did not affect Carissimi's fame which was widespread throughout Europe. His pupils were all extremely talented: those at the College, like Johann Kaspar Kerll and Johann Philipp Krieger, as well as his private pupils, who included the Italians Pietro dito Antonio Cesti and Alessandro Scarlatti, and the Frenchman Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
They painstakingly copied his works and distributed them even beyond the Channel: the finest collection is to be found at Christ Church, Oxford. Charpentier was influenced throughout his life by the work of his master, and he wrote down his masses relying on his memory, and that is how Carissimi's music came to France.
Carissimi's fame during his lifetime spread even further after his death. He was held to be the greatest composer of the seventeenth century: 'The greatest master we have had for a long time', according to the Mercure Galant in 1681; in 1740 the German Johann Matheson described him as 'the musical orator' of Italy; Handel had no scruples about ' borrowing' the final chorus of Jephte and reproducing it note for note in his own oratorio 'Samson*; at the beginning of the nineteenth century Carissimi remained 'an admirable master' in the eyes of the English historian Charles Burney. Coleridge (Table Talk, 1833) considered his music to be 'ethereal', and 'the beauty of his melodies and his harmonies' was still being cited at the beginning of the twentieth century.
While he may have been rich and famous at the time of his death on 12 January 1674, though 'tail and thin, of a melancholy disposition and prone to gout', and 'friendly in his dealings with other people' according to his successor Ottavio Pitoni, throughout his life the celebrated Carissimi remained conscious of his humble origin as the son of a modest cooper, or barrel-maker. In the small town of Marino near Rome he was baptised on 18 April 1605. At the age of twenty-four he was appointed to the post he was to hold for the rest of his life, at the Roman basilica of S Apollinare Collegium Germanicomm Httngaricum, an important centre belonging to the Jesuit order.
This College was set up in the sixteenth century by St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Company of Jesus, to enable young Germans to prepare themselves for the priesthood at the time of the Counter-Reformation. The post was prestigious, even if not among the most important, and had already been occupied by fine musicians such as Tomas Luis de Victoria. It was also a demanding post that could only be filled by a suitably pious person. It was necessary not only to be a composer and to organise the church's music, but to train the young singers of the college, including German, Hungarian and Italian students, working there since the college opened its doors to impoverished scholars attracted by its reputation for fine teaching. Carissimi was a dedicated teacher who did not shirk even the most menial of tasks. He was loved and held in affection by his students, and his courtesy astonished all who met him.
There are other clues that reveal an unusually modest attitude to his career: in 1637 he acceded to the priesthood, refusing to be appointed successor to Monteverdi at the Basilica San Marco in 1643, which would have made him the most influential personality in Venice after the Doge. He also declined posts as Kapellmeister of the most prestigious German courts, and always 'with the utmost modesty'.
His music, however, adorned the magnificent ceremonies in the splendid establishments frequented by the Italian nobility, such as the oratory of the Archconfraternity of the Holy Crucifix (San Crocifisso) of the church of San Marcello, where his famous historiae sacrae (sixteen of which have survived) are known to have been performed during Lent in 1650, 1658, 1659 and 1660, and possibly other years as well. In 1649 Jephte made him famous throughout the whole of Europe. Queen Christina of Sweden, an enlightened and emancipated woman who became the Egeria of Rome after her abdication, was overcome by emotion on hearing Il sacrificio d'Isaaco and Giuditta. She appointed Carissimi 'maestro di capella del concerto di camera', offering him in addition a gold necklace bearing the insignia of her recently-founded Royal Academy. She had good taste: her next 'coup de coeur' was a gift of one hundred and fifty violins, to be put at Corelli's disposal !
Parade & Piety
Roman opera was exceptionally successful. In churches and oratories, oratorio held similar attractions, undergoing a. new surge of enthusiasm that was to serve the cause of the Counter-Reformation. It was a kind of sacred music closer to people and more attractive, tinged with poetic inspiration that helped people to renew their ties with religion which until then had been hindered by formal constraints. Churches saw a tenfold increase in their activities. At S. Apollinare, Carissimi had at his disposal a harpsichord, violins, lutes, a spinet, trumpet and a lira da braccio. And what of the oratory of S. Marcello? It aroused the admiration of all who came to listen to music there, like the French violinist Andre Maugars, one Friday in Lent in 1639: 'I cannot find sufficient words of praise for this new recitative; one must have heard it in situ to appreciate its merits'. The novelty of it, as far as French listeners were concerned, was the Italian art of 'speaking while singing' or 'recitar cantando', that is to say the art of underlining the meaning of a text by means of a new, simple monody, or single voice, accompanied by a bass-line and following closely the subtleties of the literary text.
As a matter of fact, this religious genre followed the same pattern of evolution as opera, because it. was there to serve first and foremost communities consisting of mainly the laity in their places of prayer: the oratories. These Christians were reluctant to meditate, and preferred listening to stories. If oratorio required neither stage nor costume, and if the action was narrated by a character called il storico and by the chorus as in the drama of classical antiquity or in the medieval Mysteries and Passion Plays (its origin), the drama of biblical texts always had a theatrical dimension, particularly in the liturgy for Lent and Holy Week (the role later served by oratorios) with the three usual characters: the narrator, Christ and the crowd (turba).
From 1550 until his death in 1590, St Philip Neri busied himself with meetings for prayer and spiritual exercises, which became increasingly popular with young Christians in Rome; he became the founder of the Congregazione dell'Oratorio and held his meetings first at San Girolamo della Carita and then at the oratory of Santa Maria della Vallicelia in the heart of the city of Rome. His friends Giovanni Animuccia and Palestrina, as well as several others, sang and composed laudi spirituali which, at this period in their development, were strophic hymns using polyphony, sung before and after the sermon. This arrangement was to be adopted in the oratorio itself, narrating events of the Old and New Testaments. The spiritual laude were sung in the vernacular, and were the origin of the oratorio volgare; they gradually developed into a dialogue structure using allegory, and were influenced by the reform of musical drama that was taking place in Florence at the same time.
At this time, another circle of acquaintances, the academia della camerate firentina, met in the house of the patrician Giovanni Bardi; in the company of the poet Ottavio Rinuccini were the musicians Jacopo Peri, Giulio Caccini. Emilio del Cavalieri and Vincenzo Galilei, They believed that music should be on a par with language, that elaborate polyphony altered the meaning of the words, and that the Greeks who had no knowledge of polyphony possessed music closer to their own ideals.
Music adopted a more modest status; its importance was reduced to that of a long recitative, noble in character and characterised by beauty, gracefulness and emotion: the stile rappresentativo, appropriate for opera; recitar cantando as well as the appearance of human 'affections' in music involving the famous sprezzatura manner of speeding up or slowing down the vocal line according to the emotions expressed in the text. These erudite musicians thus broadened that aspect of humanism which takes all human emotions into account, including sensitivity. Music was characterised by expression and dialogue, clashing harmonies and unprepared dissonance, all of which were formerly held to be synonymous with ugliness, but were now associated with anguish. The Florentine reformers and humanists soon established themselves as the parents of baroque music with its trend towards expressivity. Hesitating between two worlds they often used Platonic allegory to express affects, for example the Rappresentatione di Anima, e di Corpo. The Intermedio terzo, or miniature oratorio, derived from the canzoni spirituali & intermedi spirituali (1628) by Pietro Paolo Sabbatini, maestro di capella of the oratory of the Archiconfraternita delta morte, maintained this tradition. The allegories are still midway between the Renaissance and the Baroque. The text is also helped by a consummate mastery of prose and an extremely rich combination of affects. In the Intermedia terzo, suffering (associated with sin) may be sung by either a man or a women; Suffering discourses with the Angel. In this particular performance, the music has been thought of a kind of counterpoint to the relationship between Jephte with his maiden daughter. According to Christian tradition, they represent the sinner and Christ sacrificed on our behalf The Historia di Jonas and the Historia di Jephte may have been written before this period, or possibly served as a catalyst for Carissimfs activities at the archconfraternity of the Holy Crucifix, that rich Pygmalion of Latin oratorio, a direct competitor of the ceremonies in the vernacular instituted by St Philip Neri.
Simplicity & dramatic effects
In both these works, as in all his compositions, Carissimi showed his taste for fine but sober structures: his style was vigor ous, even sometimes rather terse in the choruses. He went straight to the point, serving the text as faithfully as possible; he may even have been responsible himself for the libretto of the passages in prose or in verse which link up the quotations from the Vulgate.
Carissimi's oratorios remain traditional in their outward form, with rapid recitative, duets (although more frequently cast in the form of dialogue), trios, ariosi and episodes of chorale-like solemnity. The element of unity is to be found within the work itself, in its internal pulse. The composer gives his music an epic character, with fast-moving action, particularly stressing the reality of the dramatic narrative, with situations that are precise yet subjective. He ranges freely between objectivity and emotion - the impersonal role of the narrator (historicus) and the lyrical outpourings that make him take part in the action. The narrator relates his story from within, as it were: he embodies the Nation in the story, sometimes on his own, sometimes in a small group, sometimes representing a crowd (dialogue chorus), and sometimes the characters themselves.
In Jonas the narrative begins right at the heart of the story. One is immediately made aware of an ever-present metaphorical explanation of the text. As soon as Jonah shirks his responsibilities and sails away, a double choir describes the violence of the waves, the imitative homophonic writing suggesting their violent crashing against each other, and then depicts the stark terror of the sailors. Their prayers to their gods are conveyed by an upward-creeping semitonal movement and dissonant voice-parts, which provide an overwhelming manifestation of the expressive genius in Carissimi's harmony. The recitative of the narrator (historicus) contains a moving 'dormiebat' passage that underlines the parallel with Christ in the storm on the sea of Galilee. Then the agitation returns. In the thick, of the action, Carissimi, with a. masterly stroke, makes Jonah sing an act of self-accusation; he is cast into the sea by the sailors. The listener's attention is drawn to a. series of falling thirds and fifths in the bass (the historicus is associated with God who determines the action) over more than one and a half octaves, to illustrate the notion of Jonah being swallowed up by the whale: 'ut deglutiret Jonam'.
Jonah's prayer from the belly of the whale is one of the finest examples of an aria in Carissimi's works. The audacious, declamatory melodic line is constructed in a well-balanced and rigorous manner, with plenty of scale-passages ranging beyond the compass of an octave, wide intervals and modulations to remote keys.
Jonah repents, God orders the whale to vomit him upon the dry land, and a duly-chastened prophet accordingly sets off to preach against the city of Nineveh. The action is complete, but Carissimi has not forgotten to provide a further touch of emotion in the final chorus, which depicts the repentant inhabitants of Nineveh and their tender piety and blissful serenity after conversion. The emotion of this happiness shows that Carissimi is clearly at ease and every bit as inspired here as in the more pathetic style that brought him fame, emphasising the rich nature of his musical qualities as an artist and a Christian.
In Jephte there is no introductory material; without any hesitation, one is plunged into the covenant with God and its treacherous implications. The narrator tersely explains the circumstances leading to the battle between Jephte, King of Israel, and the Sons of Amman. The warlike, insistent arpeggio figuration based on the prevailing tonic major provides the atmosphere for all the recitatives in the first part of the oratorio. In an extended and rather more grand version of this figuration, Jephte solemnly promises that, if his army is victorious, he will sacrifice to the Lord as a burnt offering the first person he encounters coming forth from his dwelling. The chorus goes into battle with many common-chord-based ascending fifths and thirds. A magnificent bass solo encourages the enemy to flee, and its dactylic rhythms are taken up by the following six-part chorus, anticipating the wholesale dispersal of the Ammonites as they are put to the sword. Then comes the chromatic lamentation of the defeated enemy. The harmony is quite beautiful, in fact rather beguiling to modern ears, although it would certainly have been more incisive to contemporary audiences. The bass then resumes the narrative (God speaking through the voice of the Historicus?), employing the same authoritative triadic motif. Jephte's daughter appears and sings a cheerful hymn of thanksgiving. The six-part chorus in bright tonic major brings this hymn to a triumphant conclusion, a masterly stroke of theatrical production in which Carissimi concentrates on the joyful news of victory. Quite suddenly the scene changes, and the minor-mode narrative emphasises the reaction of Jephte and his sorrow on recognising the implication of his promise to God. Descending thirds together with diminished fourths and fifths underline the strength of the emotion experienced by father and daughter as they are drawn aside from the crowd, A particularly sober chorus of transition describes how the daughter repairs to the mountains to bewail her fate. The aria 'plorate' and its expansion by the chorus bring the oratorio to its conclusion in a masterpiece of polyphonic writing which expresses the profoundest sorrow. The expressive lyrical phrases represent the delights of suffering, and the sensuality of the words and harmony. It is hard to think of another conclusion where the dissonance and chromatic language of the chorus has such a telling, poignant effect. The chorus is based on the most important words previously sung by the unhappy daughter, and ends with a protracted setting of the word 'lamentamini' repeated continuously in phrases of lamentation.
Lyricism & sobriety
Carissimi succeeded in creating a special atmosphere in his oratorios through his gift of simplicity and concision, converting biblical narrative into a religious epic poem that is short but strong in impact The Jesuit music historian Athanasius Kircher (Musurgia universalis, Rome, 1650 VII 603-606) expressed his admiration in the following terms: He surpasses all other composers by his invention and his ability to direct the minds of his listeners towards the emotion of his choice. Kircher added that Carissimi's works were full of nobility and vivacity thanks to the rich nature of their spirited delivery. Such deep psychological insight and economy of means gave Carisstmi's works incomparable elegance and even Lecerf de la Vieville, who was a great detractor of Italy, recognised them as 'du naturel et du gout'. The noble character and deeply expressive aspects of Carissimi's music are due to his religious sobriety. One is quite mistaken in wishing to contrast him with the impassioned Luigi Rossi. Carissimi is also lyrical and impassioned of course, but with great simplicity. He is to music what Caravaggio is to painting - the culmination of dramatic expression employing the simplest means.
To rely on dramatic impact, to understand the psychological impact on one's public enough to employ the simplest emotions with the utmost force, and at the same time inventing new and beautiful harmonic effects without calling traditional idiom into question-is this not the art (albeit without a religious dimension) of Giacomo Puccini?
Even the least knowledgeable listener might allow himself to be moved to tears, and thus appreciate the impact that Carissimi had on his own contemporaries.
- Cedric Costantino