The Key to Rome

Carissimi & the legendary tradition of Italy

He is probably one of the greatest figures of music in 17th century Europe: his fame during his lifetime went far beyond the walls of Rome where he practiced, and his music is known in France, Sweden, and everywhere else in Europe. Musicians admired, copied, and exchanged his music with an intensity that would be described as “viral” today!

However, relatively little is known about Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674). We can simply say that nothing was planned in advance when he was born near Rome at the beginning of the century. At a time when one generally becomes a musician by family tradition, nothing in his family predestined him to it: none of his family members were professional musicians, and his father was a cooper. His father’s financial difficulties even led him to place his son Giacomo in an institution for poor children.

It was there that the child learned music, certainly showing an unusual disposition: where children had to learn singing to give a certain lustre to the services, some of the most gifted learned an instrument (often the organ) and in very rare cases, composition. This was probably the path taken by the young boy, since on leaving this institution he became organist in Tivoli and then in Assisi.

At the age of 24, he arrived in Rome where he obtained the position of Kapellmeister of the Germanic College of Rome, a prestigious establishment held by the Jesuit order. Twenty years later, he was appointed to the position of Master of the Papal Chapel.

On the one hand, he was linked with the great musical centers of the city: Christine of Sweden, queen exiled in Rome and fond of art (particularly music), invited him to compose numerous cantatas and operas for her court, and the Oratorians founded by St. Philip Neri associated with this master to invent together a new musical and spiritual form that would mark history: the oratorio. On the other hand, at a time when rare international careers were being born, Carissimi, who seemed to enjoy a reputation beyond the borders, was surprisingly sedentary: solicited by other courts of Europe, such as Vienna or Venice, he systematically declined the offers to devote himself to his Roman activities.

Carissimi’s music is everywhere and nowhere. There is almost nothing left of his hand: music, at the time, does not belong to its author but to the one who commissions it (and pays for it). It seems that most of his work disappeared with the misfortunes of his patrons, starting with the dissolution of the Jesuit order at the end of the 17th century. Nevertheless, he was one of the most copied musicians, the one whose music is found in a large part of the manuscripts copied in the 17th century in many countries, starting with France. He was set up as a model, he was recognized as having a specifically Italian identity, he became the emblem of Italian vocal music, like Corelli of instrumental music a few years later.

The stature of this great master, whose music travelled all over Europe, without himself ever really leaving the Eternal City, was also due to his qualities as a teacher. His years of teaching at the Germanic College in Rome enabled him to train generations of first-rate musicians, who in turn spread their master’s art throughout Europe, beginning of course with the German-speaking countries. Moreover, it is said that his position with the Jesuits contractually prevented him from teaching anywhere but to the students of the College.

However, the presence of some Italian students is attested, such as Albrici (whose music can be found – alongside that of Carissimi – as far away as Sweden), and the most famous of his disciples is French. During his lifetime, all commentators report that Marc-Antoine Charpentier studied in Rome under Carissimi. The proximity of their respective paths, the choice of subjects they deal with, but especially the extremely strong influence of the art of the latter on Charpentier, throughout his life, are confounding: absolute creative genius, Charpentier drinks constantly from the fountain of Rome, where he seems to have discovered sound splendors, formal innovations, a way of conducting the counterpoint, and serving the voice. If all his life he pursues his work of imagination, renewal and invention, he is never less indebted to those who nourished him in his youth. I have chosen to present a rare and extremely original work by this master: La Peste de Milan. Unreleased on disc before last year, it is typical of the art of this master: one recognizes in it the sensuality of the harmonies, the beauty of the intertwined voices, the fantasy of the arrangements (here with a double choir, but with a thousand subtleties) and the rhetorical power of a story already known to all. One recognizes there however in a very pregnant and direct way the art of Carissimi.

The transmission of his art also passes through theory: if no treatise has come down to us from his hand, it is probably through the writings of his students that we can glimpse the density and originality of his thought, and in particular through Christoph Bernhardt (who also followed the teaching of Heinrich Schütz). It is especially in German-speaking countries that the lineage of a musical thought that puts the word and the meaning at the heart of the composition is traced, where rhetoric becomes the matrix of the musical discourse, where figures of speech intelligently decorate the sentences. To please, to instruct and to edify are the watchwords of the Jesuits. The musical thought of Carissimi is in line with this lineage: music becomes a discourse at the service of a text, it serves it so that it marks the souls all the more. His only treatise, Ars cantandi, can only be read in German, proof of the zeal his German-speaking students had for him.

The prestige of this master and the legend that arose during his lifetime and for decades earned him certainly more pupils than he actually had: Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Cesti, Johanne Philipp Krieger, Giovanni Paolo Colonna, Giovanni Battista Bassani, Giovanni Bononcini, but also Agotino Steffani, and even… Michel-Richard Delalande! It seemed interesting to me for this program to orient the choice towards composers who served the rhetorical thought of Carissimi, whose link is attested or very probable, and finally whose memory has been erased by time (in any case, more than that of Christoph Berhardt!).

Thus, the exciting music of Johann Kaspar Kerll (1627-1693) will be given pride of place with excerpts from his Geistliches Konzerten. Raised in Vienna, he was sent to Rome to perfect his studies under the shared guidance of Carissimi, Frescobaldi and Froberger. He also came into contact with a central figure in science and music theory: the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Kerll was a celebrity of his time and Bach’s sons (Carl Philip in particular) still copy, study and admire his music. The lineage continues with his students, including Bernardo Pasquini.

Another fascinating figure is the German Philip Jakob Baudrexel (1627-1691): he is said to have been taught by the Jesuits in Rome from 1644 to 1651, and thus to have spent many years with Carissimi. It is to this brilliant pupil that we owe Carissimi’s Ars cantandi, which he translated. His career took him through several German and Austrian states. The surviving attested musical sources are rare, and make listening to his works all the more moving.

Finally, Kaspar Förster (1616-1673), born in Gdansk and having studied in Warsaw, joined Rome in 1633: until 1636 he followed the teaching of the very young Carissimi (then 28 years old!). As with Charpentier, Carissimi’s vein is very clear and his inspiration very original. His brilliant career will lead him from Poland to the Netherlands, passing by Denmark. Atypical character, he was engaged in the Italian armies against the Turks, he was made a grand knight of the Order of Malta. He was also seen (according to Matheson) in Hamburg where he met the other pupil of the great Carissimi: Christoph Bernhardt. It is reported that they sang together: a castrato from his suite singing the alto, Bernhardt the tenor, and Förster the bass accompanying on the organ! Along with Schütz and Kerll, his music is praised by Bernhardt as a model of rhetorical music.

In conclusion, it is rare that an old master arouses so much praise from his pupils: as in all the arts, a pupil seeks a certain modernity, his own way, and detaches himself from his master: here, all these composers claim a filiation with Carissimi with a fervor and an admiration without limits. It is also through the pen of Charpentier (who copies the famous oratorio Jephte) that the concert ends: a score whose every note is a rhetorical gesture, whose intensity is poignant, and whose final chorus is in the Pantheon of the world’s beauties.

With the support of la vie brève – Théâtre de l’Aquarium.