The Key of Rome

Carissimi & the legendary Italian tradition


It is probably one of the greatest musical figure of the 17th century in Europe: his reputation in his lifetime goes well beyond Rome’s walls where he works and we know his music in France, Sweden and everywhere else in Europe. The musicians admire, copy, exchange his music with an intensity we would consider “viral” today!

However, we don’t know a lot of things about Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674). We can simply say that nothing could be known beforehand when he was born near Rome at the beginning of the century. In a time where one becomes generally musician according to family tradition, nothing predestined him to this: none of his family members is a professional musician, and his father works as cooper. The financial difficulties of the latter even bring him to place his son Giacomo in an institution that takes in poor children.

It is there that the child will learn music, showing extraordinary aptitudes: children have to learn singing to give a certain lustre to the services, some among the most talented learn an instrument (often the organ), and in very rare cases, composition. It is probably the path the young child followed, since he becomes an organist in Tivoli and then Assisi when he leaves this institution.

At the age of 24, he arrives in Rome where he obtains the position of chapelmaster of Rome’s Collegium Germanicum, a prestigious institution run by the Jesuits order. Twenty years later, he finally gets the position of master of the pontifical chapel. On the one hand, he is linked to the great musical centres of the city: Christina of Sweden, an exiled queen in Rome who is passionate about arts (especially music), invites him to compose many cantatas and operas for her court; and the Oratorians founded by Saint Philip Neri go into partnership with this master to create together a new musical and spiritual form which will go down in history: the oratorio. On the other hand, in a time when few international careers come to light, Carissimi, who seems to rapidly enjoy a reputation abroad, shows himself unexpectedly sedentary: even though he is solicited by other courts in Europe, such as Vienna or Venice, he declines systematically the offers to dedicate himself to his Roman activities.

Carissimi’s music is everywhere and nowhere. We have almost nothing left from his hand: music, at that time, does not belong to its author but to who orders it (and pays for it). It seems that most of his work has vanished with the misfortunes of his patrons, beginning with the dissolution of the Jesuits order at the end of the 17th century. However, he was of the most copied musician, the one which music travels across a large number of copied manuscripts during the 17th century in many countries, starting with France. We establish him as a model, we recognise his specifically Italian identity and he becomes the symbol of the Italians’ vocal music, like Corelli a few years later for instrumental music.

The influence of this great master, which music spreads all over Europe without him really leaving the Eternal City, is also conveyed by his teaching skills. His years of teaching at Rome’s Collegium Germanicum have enabled him to train generations of high-profile musicians, who have themselves spread the art of their master afterwards everywhere in Europe, starting of course with German-speaking countries. Moreover, it is said that his task for the Jesuits prevented him by contract from teaching to other students than those of the Collegium Germanicum.

However, the presence of some Italian students is proven, such as Albrici (we find his music – just like Carissimi’s – up to Sweden), and the most famous of his disciples is French. In his lifetime, all the observers tell that Marc-Antoine Charpentier studied in Rome under the direction of Carissimi. The similarity of their respective journeys, the choices of the subjects they deal with, but mainly the extremely strong art influence of the latter on Charpentier, all along his life, are confusing: Charpentier, an absolute genius of creation, drinks constantly at Rome’s fountain, where he seems to have discovered sonorous splendours, formal innovations, a way of conducting counterpoint, and serving the voice. If he continues all his life his work of imagination, renewal and invention, he is never less grateful to those who have nourished him in his youth. I have chosen to perform a rare and extremely unique piece of this master: La Peste de Milan (Milan’s plague). This piece, never published on a disc before last year, is typical of Charpentier’s art: we recognise the sensuality of the harmonies, the beauty of the intertwined voices, the ingenuity of the positioning (here in double choir, but with a thousand subtleties) and the rhetorical power of an already well-known story. And we recognise however in this piece, in a very significant and direct way, Carissimi’s art.

The transmission of his art goes through theory as well: if no treaty written by his hand has reached us, it is probably by the pen of his students that we can perceive today the density and the originality of his mind, and particularly thanks to Christoph Bernhardt (who followed Heinrich Schütz’s teaching as well). It is especially in the German-speaking countries that we trace the tradition of a musical mind that puts the word and the meaning at the centre of the composition, where rhetoric becomes the mould of the musical speech, where stylistic devices cleverly adorn sentences. Please, teach and edify are the watchwords of the Jesuits. The musical mind of Carissimi follows this tradition: music becomes a speech at the service of the text, it serves it for it to have an even stronger impact on people’s souls. His only treaty Ars cantandi can be read only in German, proof of the zeal his German-speaking students have deployed for him.

The prestige of this master and the legend born in his lifetime, and that lasted during decades, have certainly brought him more students than he really has had: we have spoken about Alssandro Scarlatti, Antonio Cesti, Johanne Philipp Krieger, Giovanni Paolo Colonna, Giovanni Battista Bassani, Giovanni Bononcini, but also Agotino Steffani, and even… Michel-Richard De Lalande ! Is has seemed interesting to me for this programme to head the choice towards composers who have served the rhetorical mind of Carissimi, with whom the link is confirmed or very likely, and finally which that time has erased the memory (in any case, more than Christoph Bernhardt’s!).

In this way, the fascinating music of Johann Kaspar Kerll (1627-1693) will find a prominent place with extracts of his Geistliches Konzerten. Brought up in Vienna, he is sent to Rome to perfect his studies under the direction of Carissimi, Frescobaldi and Froberger. He is also in touch with a science and musical theory central figure: the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Kerll has been a celebrity in is time and Bach’s sons (especially Carl Philip) still copy, study and admire his music. The tradition goes on with his students, including Bernardo Pasquini.

Another fascinating figure is the German Philip Jakob Baudrexel (1627-1691) : he might have followed the education of the Jesuits of Rome from 1644 to 1651, and therefore many years close to Carissimi. We owe Carissimi’s Ars cantandi to this brilliant student who translated it. His career brings him through several German and Austrian States. The confirmed remaining musical sources are rare, and make the listening of his pieces even more moving.

Finally, Kaspar Förster (1616-1673), born in Gdansk and conducting his first studies in Warsaw, reaches Rome from 1633: until 1636 he follows the teaching of the very young Carissimi (then aged 28!). Just like for Charpentier, Carissimi’s style, and yet very uncommon inspiration, is very clear in Förster’s pieces. His brilliant career will lead him from Poland to the Netherlands passing by Denmark. He has an atypical character, and he is enroled in the Italian armies against Turkey, he is made a great knight of Malta. We also see him (according to Matheson) in Hamburg where he goes to meet Carissimi’s other great student: Christoph Bernhardt. It is said that they sang together: a castrato from his suite sang the alto part, Bernhardt the tenor and Förster the bass while playing the organ! With Schütz and Kerll, his music is praised by Bernhardt as a model of rhetorical music.

In conclusion, it is rare that a former master provokes as much praise from his students: like in all arts, students look for a certain modernity, their own path and untie themselves from their master: here, all these composers claim a connection with Carissimi with a fervour and an boundless admiration. It is also by the hand of Charpentier (who copies the famous oratorio Jephte) that the concert ends: a score in which every note is a rhetorical gesture, of which the intensity is poignant, and the final chorus stands in the pantheon of the beauties of the world.

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