Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

‘Oratorio latino’: Carissimi and his contemporaries

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4. ‘Oratorio latino’: Carissimi and his contemporaries.

From the musical standpoint the oratorio latino and volgare are not separate genres but one genre in different languages. Both developed in the first half of the 17th century in Rome, and some of the same composers set oratorio texts in both languages, using the same style for both types. From the literary standpoint, however, the oratorio volgare and latino differ considerably in the earliest period of their development: the former uses a poetic text throughout, as is normally true of laude, madrigals, cantatas and operas, but the latter employs a text largely in prose, as do most motets. Thus motets with narrative and dramatic texts, as described above, might be considered the chief antecedents of the oratorio latino.

The Roman oratory in which the oratorio latino first developed, the Oratorio del SS Crocifisso (near and related to the church of S Marcello), was the meeting place of a religious society of Roman noblemen called the Arciconfraternita del SS Crocifisso, founded in the 16th century. The Arciconfraternita's chief ceremonies in which music was prominent were those on the five Fridays of Lent. There is no known record of the compositions performed at the Crocifisso during the late 16th century and early 17th; evidently no corpus of music was composed specifically for this oratory, as the laude and Anerio's Teatro were for the oratories of the Chiesa Nuova and S Girolamo della Carità. Since Latin was the favoured language for the musical texts, however, motets were probably used. Among the musicians in charge of the music at the Crocifisso in the late 16th century and early 17th were some of Rome's most famous composers in both the stile antico and moderno; they included Palestrina, Marenzio, G.F. Anerio, Quagliati, G.M. and G.B. Nanino, Ottavio Catalani, Paolo Tarditi, Stefano Landi, Giovannelli, Virgilio Mazzocchi, Foggia, Loreto Vittori, Carissimi and others. Since the oratorio was beginning to develop at S Girolamo della Carità and the Chiesa Nuova in the first third of the century, as Anerio's Teatro indicates, it is reasonable to assume that it was also developing at this oratory and that some of the motets performed there in the same period were Latin dialogue motets with dramatic texts, like those mentioned above. In fact, the librettist Arcangelo Spagna, in his early 18th-century sketch of the origin and history of the oratorio latino, traced its origin directly to motets that were used as substitutes for parts of the liturgy: ‘The Latin oratorios, in the beginning, were like those motets which are continually sung in the choirs of the religious and formerly were heard on every feast day instead of the antiphons, graduals and offertories’.

By 1639 oratorios appear to have been performed in the Crocifisso, for in that year the French viol player André Maugars visited the oratory and heard two musical settings of biblical stories, one from the Old Testament before the sermon and another from the New Testament after the sermon. In 1640 della Valle entered in his diary an account of a performance at the Crocifisso of a work which he called his ‘Dialogo di Esther’; but he also referred to it as an oratorio in a letter to Doni the same year, and again in a letter of a few years later. The music, which has not survived, is the earliest composition with a Latin text known to have been called an oratorio by its composer. From della Valle's comments about his Esther, it appears to have been similar in conception and duration to his Purificatione, mentioned above.

Carissimi was the most significant composer of Latin oratorios in the mid-17th century. His reputation and influence as an oratorio composer extended beyond Rome and Italy to northern Europe in his own time, and more of his Latin oratorios are extant than of any of his contemporaries. Scholars have differed considerably in regard to the number of Carissimi's works with Latin texts that might justifiably be classified as oratorios, chiefly because all of the composer's autograph manuscripts of his oratorios are lost and the surviving copies, mostly French sources, bear inconsistent and questionable genre designations. (For a survey of conflicting opinions regarding the number of Latin oratorios by Carissimi, see Smither: ‘Carissimi's Latin Oratorios’, 1976.) Nevertheless, if one classifies as oratorios all of Carissimi's Latin works that are similar in text, musical setting and duration to other composers' works called oratorios in Italian sources of mid-17th-century Rome, one arrives at a total of 13 works which, with varying degrees of proximity to the norm of the genre, may be called oratorios. Of these 13, eight may be classed as oratorios without qualification: Baltazar, Ezechias, Diluvium universale, Dives malus, Jephte, Jonas, Judicium extremum and Judicium Salomonis. These are the longest of Carissimi's oratorios, and they require the largest performing groups, most of them making considerable use of the chorus. According to the approach to classification suggested above, five other works may be considered oratorios with the qualification that they are exceptional because of their brevity: Abraham et Isaac, Duo ex discipulis, Job, Martyres and Vir frugi et pater familias. The works of this group make less use of chorus; because of their brevity the term ‘motet’ would suit them as well as ‘oratorio’.

All of Carissimi's Latin oratorios are in one section only, which is normal for the Latin oratorio of the mid-century. Eight of the texts are based on stories from the Old Testament, two on those from the New Testament and three on fragments from both; two of the texts are non-biblical. Those based on biblical stories employ primarily narrative and dialogue texts (i.e. with few contemplative sections); the narrative passages, sometimes designated ‘Historicus’, are set to music for one or more soloists, an ensemble or a chorus, and the characters in the drama are represented by soloists. Exact biblical quotations of more than one or two verses are rare, but extended biblical paraphrases are common. Important in the general structure of Carissimi's oratorios are repetitions of instrumental ritornellos, of choruses, and of solo passages in aria style. The styles of the solo parts range from relatively simple recitative through a more expressive recitativo arioso to that of a clearly structured aria. Carissimi set some passages of considerable length in only one of these styles, but he more often mixed them within a single solo to express changing attitudes in the text, a procedure also employed in the oratorio volgare and in opera of this period. Relatively long, independent sections in aria style that may be called arias (but are never so called in the sources) are normally through-composed, or in AB, ABB or strophic-variation forms. The chorus plays a more prominent role in Carissimi's Latin oratorios than in most of those of his contemporaries. Usually the chorus represents a group of individuals in the drama; at times, however, it functions as a narrator or as a commentator on the action. The choruses range in size from three parts to triple choruses in 12 parts. They are predominantly chordal, and their rhythm is usually based on the accents of the text; fugal texture plays only an incidental role. In the double and triple choruses an antiphonal style is used, often with quick alternations of the choruses in which the entering chorus begins on the final pitches of the concluding one. Of special interest in Carissimi's oratorios is his careful attention to the declamation and expression of the text; he was particularly skilful in the use of rhetorical figures in music.

Most important among Carissimi's contemporaries for their Latin oratorios were Domenico Mazzocchi (seven oratorios, most of which are called dialogues, in his Sacrae concertationes, Rome, 1664), Virgilio Mazzocchi (one oratorio, Ego ille quondam, in D. Mazzocchi's Sacrae concertationes and in I-Bc Q45; his Beatum Franciscum in the same manuscript is better classed as a motet than an oratorio), Marazzoli (five oratorios in I-Rvat Chigi Q.VIII.188), Foggia (two oratorios in I-Bc Q43) and Bonifatio Gratiani (two oratorios in I-Bc Q43). Gratiani's are the only known Latin oratorios in two sections by a composer active in the mid-17th century.


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