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8.557390 - CARISSIMI: Jephte / Jonas
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Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674)
Jephte • Jonas • Dai più riposti abissi

Dedicated to the City of Marino (Rome) on the occasion of the 400th Anniversary of the Birth of Giacomo Carissimi (1605-2005).

Giacomo Carissimi began his professional career as cantor, organist and then maestro di cappella in institutions near Rome such as the Cathedral of Tivoli or the Church of S. Ruffino in Assisi. Towards the end of 1629 his career took an important leap as he took on the task in the heart of Rome as maestro di cappella at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico Ungarico with responsibility for the music of the church of Sant’Apollinare, which belonged to the German Seminary. He held this position until his death in 1674. From this highly prestigious position Carissimi won early fame throughout Europe, becoming one of the leading figures in the music of the seventeenth century.

The obligations of maestro di cappella at the College were divided between composition and the direction of all musical activities of the Seminary, and teaching. Many musicians of the time came to study with him directly, including the Frenchman Marc’Antoine Charpentier and the Germans Christoph Bernhard and Johann Kaspar Kerll, or indirectly, through the music itself, and learnt this new style of composition. It is owing to Carissimi that much of this traditional Italian style of composition was maintained throughout continental Europe for the entire seventeenth century.

Carissimi’s activity was not limited to the College only, but also included important appointments outside the Church, such as service as maestro della musica da camera for Queen Christina of Swede. He also collaborated with the Roman Oratories, particularly with San Marcello, the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso, for which it is quite probable that many of his oratorios were composed.

There is little direct information concerning performances at the College or at the Santissimo Crocifisso, but written testimony survives that gives some idea and makes it clear that both institutions had ample means for musical performance. Francis Mortopf, a traveller passing through Rome some time in the 1650s, is recorded as describing the music performed at Santissimo Crocifisso (H.E. Smither: The Oratorio in the Baroque Era): ‘… a music so sweet and harmonious which, once having left Rome, can never be hoped to be heard again on the face of the Earth. It was composed with at least twenty voices, organs, lute, viola and two violins, all of which were playing music so melodious and delicious that Cicero with all his eloquence would never have been able to describe it’.

Jephte is perhaps the best known composition of Carissimi today. Together with Jonas, it is also one of the few for which chronological references can be established, some time before 1649. The text is a free treatment of the Old Testament narrative (Judges 11: 28-38), and is much fuller than the original biblical text. The narration is entrusted to the Historicus, sung in various places by different voices. In addition to the paraphrasing of passages from the Vulgate, completely new texts provide dramatic moments.

The oratorio can be divided into two major sections. The first of these describes Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites, and the other deals with the drama of the sacrifice of his child, to which Jephthah has sworn. In the first part the chorus interventions are among the numerous dramatic amplifications of the biblical narrative. Other details such as the introduction of the word ululantes in the description of the conquered Ammonites, which is absent in the biblical passage, allow the composer to make use of the dramatic topos of the lament. Of still greater effect is the separation between the celebration of Jephthah’s victory and the introduction by the narrator of the idea of Jephthah’s oath. The final part with the lament by Jephthah’s daughter and the repeated chorus, is extremely effective.

Jonas is probably more or less contemporary with Jephte Here there is an analogous situation as far as concerns the biblical source and the oratorio text. The Vulgate is largely followed in the narrative, without paraphrase, but again there are dramatic interpolations. This oratorio too can be divided into sections. The first follows the biblical adventures of Jonah (Jonah 1: 1-4) and the first interpolation is heard in the chorus Et proeliabantur venti (and the winds battled), which uses the technique of two separate choirs, effectively reflecting the storm which threatens the ship where Jonah is sleeping. The biblical text, however, only briefly mentions this episode. The second section is dedicated to the dialogue between Jonah and the sailors. Close to the original text, this is also expressed in dialogue. The sailors’ interventions are varied, first a duet, then a chorus, and then alternation of solo voices from the choir. The third episode is made up entirely of Jonah’s prayer to God from the belly of the whale (Jonah 2). The refrain Placare, Domine, ignosce, Domine, et miserere (Forgive, Lord, and have mercy), strengthened with the presence of instrumental ritornelli, divides the long recitativo into three different but equal sections. The conclusion condenses in just a few lines the whole of the third biblical chapter. The final chorus is in fact a mea culpa of the Ninevites, which again is a free invention of the librettist.

The catalogue of Carissimi’s vast output is not made up only of sacred music and oratorios, but includes secular cantatas for various groups of performers. Consortium Carissimi presents a transcription of the serenade Dai (trai) più riposti abissi (From the most hidden abysses), originally set for two sopranos, bass and basso continuo. Here it is offered with two tenor voices instead, making use of a common practice of the time, replacing the higher register voices with tenors. The text is by Francesco Balducci (1579- 1642) ‘a greatly ingenious man, but haughty and too vague for adventure… easily lost for love and poetry, little lover of fatigue [who] attempted to live off Princes and Cardinals (Guido Pasquetti)’. Balducci is normally allowed an important position in the codification of the musical genre of oratorio. He was also a poet, and frequented high Roman ecclesiastical and aristocratic circles. Balducci was particularly associated with the Barberinis. The serenade, therefore, in its choice of text and its connotations of Roman high society, represents a fine example of Carissimi’s extramural activity. From a musical point of view, this piece demonstrates a structure quite typical of its genre in the early baroque period. Distinct musical sections correspond to the verses of the text, which make use of different techniques and styles, alternating between recitative, aria, ternary episodes and solo sections, dialogue, tutti sections and instrumental ritornelli. All of these aspects delightfully underscore the details of the text itself, admirably communicated in a dense language which at the same time reveals absolute technical and expressive transparency.

Angela Romagnoli
Translation by Garrick Comeaux


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