top of page
  • _

A New Direction - From Old Music?

For the last seven years or so I have been performing with the Twin Cities-based ensemble Consortium Carissimi, a group specializing in Italian Baroque music. Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1684), the group’s namesake, is a particularly fascinating figure, for his many fine compositions, for his life (what little we know of it), for his teaching and widespread influence, and for the times in which he lived. In fact, the few facts about his life that we know provide potentially interesting and fertile ground for this composer today. It may take a bit of background to get to the point, but, I assure you, there is one!

Taken together, there are three aspects of Carissimi’s life of particular interest: his life as a Jesuit priest; his involvement with the “court” of Christina, the erstwhile Queen of Sweden; and the period in which he lived, one of breathtaking change and transition in many disciplines. Even a cursory look into these three aspects is bound to leave one wondering exactly where Carissimi stood, particularly on matters of faith.

St. Ignatius Loyola founded The Society of Jesus (Jesuit Order) in 1534, also the year of the English Reformation:

Ignatius and six other young men, including Francis Xavier and Bl. Peter Faber, gathered and professed vows of poverty, chastity, and later obedience, including a special vow of obedience to the Pope. Rule 13 of Ignatius's Rules for Thinking with the Church said: "That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity [...], if [the Church] shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black." Ignatius's plan of the order's organization was approved by Pope Paul III in 1540 by the bull containing the “Formula of the Institute.” (from the Wikipedia article The Society of Jesus)

Such black-and-white thinking admits no flexibility, nor any consideration of alternative points of view. Indeed, the Jesuits were the most effective of the new orders in the Counter-Reformation in defending the doctrines of the Church reaffirmed by the Council of Trent.

Carissimi was ordained a priest of the Jesuit order in 1637. He became the maestro di cappella at the Jesuit Collegium Germanicum in Rome, a post he would hold for the remainder of his life, refusing offers from many prominent establishments, including an invitation to succeed Monteverdi at St. Mark’s, Venice.

In spite of Carissimi’s involvement with the Jesuits, his life as composer, teacher, and courtier could easily prompt some speculation about his worldview. His many extant compositions – both sacred and secular – show him to be a man of learning, breadth, sophistication, and innovation. Hailed by many as the father of the oratorio, and an innovator through his advance of the recitative (so important to much of early Italian opera), his career spans the shift in the dominance of sacred music to the predominance of secular music, through all of which he was at the forefront. He was a most influential teacher, his renown and influence spreading far beyond his native Italy. However, the strongest evidence that his outlook might have differed from the stern doctrine of the Society of Jesus comes from his involvement in the court of Christina, who arrived in Rome in 1668 as the recently abdicated Queen of Sweden.

Christina was both remarkable and enigmatic. She often wore men’s clothes, and was rumored to have at least one female lover (there is extant documentary evidence for this). Of a fiercely independent mind and temperament, she was most interested in music, theater, and something known at that time as Natural Philosophy (now called Science). She amassed an enormous collection of art works. Among her wide circle of correspondents and acquaintances was the philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, who, upon visiting her and finding the cold of Stockholm not exactly conducive to his good health, died during his visit to her court in 1650.

Christina converted from Swedish Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism in large part as a result of her discussions with Descartes. Since it was illegal for the Swedish monarch to be Catholic, she abdicated, turning her throne over to her nephew, and eventually made her way to Rome. Her arrival in Rome was the cause of great celebration (mostly because she was a formerly Protestant ruler who had converted back to Holy Mother Church). Christina was hardly a good Catholic. She once even asked the Pope himself how closely she needed to hold to Catholic teaching to remain in good stead. She surrounded herself with a grand retinue of artists, philosophers, poets, playwrights, and musicians, among them Carissimi. Her “Academia di Arcadia” was a center of music, theater, languages, poetry, and intellectual discussions. Her “academia” was also not without its fair share of scandal, murder, and intrigue.

Carissimi could not have weathered his time with Christina completely unaffected by her explorations in the many alternative philosophies of the day. Though publicly he may well have clung to the Jesuit line, it’s within the realm of possibility that, privately, he may well have had other thoughts…

I have proposed to Consortium Carissimi an idea for a composition premised, in part, on the many extraordinary advances in science, mathematics, religion, and philosophy during Carissimi’s lifetime – advances which made possible much of what we have been privileged to witness in the present age - and on his potential private thoughts and doubts. The composition would use themes of Carissimi, and would serve as a musical explication of the extraordinary changes taking place during his lifetime. (I will say much more about these changes in the next blog entry - they are so extensive they deserve their own separate entry.) The piece would be scored for voices and Baroque instruments. I don’t want to elaborate too much on this for fear of giving too much away, but there’s very fertile ground here for a unique and interesting piece. We’ll see what happens…

“O LORD, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens…“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:1, 3,4)

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Why I Love Improvisation...and Why I Hate It

I have long had a love/hate relationship with improvisation and improvised music in general. The love part comes from my conviction that one needs to free one's mind to generate new musical ideas, and

Unique and Beautiful Music

I have a great admiration for Bulgarian women's choirs. Granted, their sound is a somewhat acquired taste: They sing with a different, more nasal vocal technique than one hears in western classical mu

Serious Composition and COVID-19

These days, we’re all (hopefully) “social distancing,” disinfecting, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings outside the home, and generally giving anyone walking in our general direction the widest

Comments


bottom of page