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The Most Excellent Iacomo Carissimi

November 1st, 2011

“The most excellent Iacomo Carissimi, a composer of great fame, most worthy maestro di cappella of the Church of S Apollinare of the German College for a period of many years, outshines others in originality and in case of compositional style, moving the spirits of the listeners into many moods; for his compositions are full of life and vivacity of spirit.”

Writing in 1650 in his widely circulated tome Musurgia Universalis, Athanasius Kircher was unreserved in his praise for his fellow Jesuit Iacomo Carissimi and drew on many of the master’s works to exemplify the use of music to express emotion and touch the affections of an audience. His reputation as a composer and teacher was promoted by the singers he worked with and his many students, most notably Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Händel famously plagiarized some of Carissimi’s works and Charles Burney, writing over a century after the composer’s death, devoted more space to Carissimi in his General History of Music than to any other composer of the 17th century.

The son of a barrel-maker, Carissimi’s exact birth date is unknown, but it was probably in 1604 or 1605 in Marino, near Rome where he was baptized on April 18, 1605. Little is known of his life before he is listed as a singer at Tivoli in 1623. Two years later he was organist there. His first appointment as maestro di cappella came in 1627 at the S. Rufino Cathedral in Assisi. The following year he was called on by Bernardino Castorio in Rome to fill the post of maestro di cappella at the German College there, a prestigious post in which Victoria and Agazzari had served earlier. Carissimi spent the rest of his life at the college and he was ordained to the priesthood in 1637. His responsibilities included training the choirs and providing liturgical music for the adjoining S. Apollinare chapel.  His official salary of 5 scudi (in 1634) probably reflects only a fraction of his actual income. In 1655-56 he was given the title maestro di cappella del concerto di camera by Christina, the Queen of Sweden in exile in Rome.

During the 1650s he also composed and conducted for the Oratorio del S. Crocifisso. Among his prominent pupils were Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Johann Kaspar Kerll, Christoph Bemhard, and possibly also Johann Philipp Krieger. That he was in a comfortable situation, both financially and professionally, is suggested by his rejection of several opportunities for prestigious employment, including the post at St. Mark’s in Venice on Monteverdi’s death in 1643 and the position of maestro for the emperor’s son, Leopold Wilhelm of Brussels. Carissimi chose to remain in Rome, and after 44 years of service to the College he died a rich man.

The musical ensemble of the German College included around ten singers and enjoyed a richness of musical activity rare even in Rome. Outside musicians often supplemented the capella for major feasts and the instrumental tradition was stronger than in almost all other churches in the city. Soon after its reestablishment, with a significant endowment, by Pope Gregory the XIII in 1573 the German College became a model for liturgical practice for Jesuit institutions throughout Europe. It was an exceptional case, blessed with both an enthusiasm for liturgy and the financial resources necessary to employ excellent musicians for liturgical adornment.

None of Carissimi’s was published during his lifetime, and the autograph manuscripts, which remained in the possession of the German College, all disappeared in the early eighteenth century.  The oratorios cannot be dated with certainty 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. A copy of Jephte exists in Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s hand (the title page is shown here.) 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.

Carissimi is best known today as a composer of oratorios and indeed his works for the Oratorio of S Crocifisso are among the finest dramatic music of the century. It is therefore somewhat surprising to learn that it was his secular cantatas, circulated in numerous manuscript copies that spread his fame throughout Europe. The term cantata, a loose designated for any vocal work with an Italian text, first appeared in a collection published by Alessandro Grandi shortly before 1620 in Venice but by the 1630s Rome had become the center of composition for this new genre. Some of Carissimi’s most dramatic writing is found in the setting of Domenico Benigni’s Suonerà l’ultima tromba, most likely written for performance at the noble house of the Barberini in the 1640s. The text warns of the impending last judgment. It incorporates several examples of word painting into a complex structure.

  1. November 12th, 2011 at 21:35 | #1

    What amazing music! I just got back from listening to your Berkeley performance at St Mark’s Episcopal. Wow…

    Thank you, also, for often selecting pieces like this with profound spiritual overtones. I was moved and nourished by the words and their meaning as well as the music…


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