Founded in 1974 by Hélène Dugal, Réjean Poirier and Christopher Jackson, the Studio de Musique An-cienne de Montréal is composed of a choir and orchestra of professional musicians. It devotes itself to [...]
Latin oratorios: Jonas, Jephté, Le Reniement de saint Pierre
They spoke about it
In late sixteenth-century Italy, ideological and æsthetic transformations were beginning to exert influences all over Europe that would eventually lead to the emergence of what has been called the baroque, an art of movement, illusion and enchantment whose rhetorical devices aim to convince the viewer and the listener by appealing directly to the senses. And this new artistic spirit, this profound change of artistic approach, would in turn lead to the creation of one of the most absurd, most richly complex forms in Western music — opera.
It is of little importance that the original inspiration behind this invention was a misguided and ill-informed attempt to recreate tragedies in the manner of the ancient Greeks; the resulting abandonment of the madrigal in favour of accom-panied monody (recitar cantando) permitted an unprecedented flowering of soloistic melody, the use of harmony for expressive purposes, and the creation of theatrical characters.
The Counter-Reformation, among whose “troops” the Jesuits were especially powerful, fully realized the enormous potential that lay in these baroque arts. Wishing to convert human souls to the truths of the Catholic faith more persuasively than could be accomplished through sterile theological debate, the Church sought a means of appealing directly to the senses, of stirring the emotions. This led to the baroque creation of, in the words of Starobinski, a “plastic rhetoric”; in the sculptures and great religious paintings of the time, the Church encouraged the depiction of scenes from the life of Jesus and other characters from the Old and New Testaments in what could be called a “realistic” style.
With procedures borrowed from the secular arts, even lesser Judeo-Christian characters were soon found on the same plane as the gods, goddesses, and heros of classical mythology. The goal was still to edify and to promote virtuous conduct, but it seemed desirable to propose models of behaviour by which the faithful could recognize situations and emotions with which they were familiar. Musically, the reality of biblical characters is evoked by means of an almost direct borrowing of the sacred from the secular. Operatic techniques rapidly came to be used in what would become the oratorio.
Emilio de Cavalieri’s La Rappresentatione di anima e di corpo was first presented in Rome in 1600. But the example of this religious opera with staging was not immediately followed. Other sacred historiæ in the seventeenth century are relatively modest and more often performed in a private chapel or oratory without recourse to scenery and staging.
Although chorus and narrator were used — the recitatives of the latter served to make sure the audience understood the events experienced by the characters — the spiritual dialogues and the psychological characterizations made the sacred historiæ something of a cross between a daughter of opera and a distant descendant of medieval liturgical drama. We might note that the term “oratorio” was employed for the first time only in 1640 in a letter from Pietro della Valle to the theoretician Giovanni Battista Doni.
In Rome the most renowned place where one could attend “sacred historiæ” was the oratory of San Marcello, presided over by the priests of the Archconfraternity of the Santissimo Crocifisso, whose spectacles were financed by several rich patrons. One of these repeatedly commissioned works by Giacomo Carissimi, including the several oratorios for which the composer is famous.
It was no accident that Carissimi spent nearly all of his life in Rome in the service of the Jesuits as chapelmaster at Saint Apollinarius and at the Collegium Germanicum — his music perfectly espoused the views of his employers as regards the techniques which could be put to work to strengthen the faith. His great imagination and remarkable dramatic sense gave biblical characters an often chilling presence with declamation and an instinct for the setting of text worthy of Monteverdi.
Carissimi enjoyed a considerable reputation throughout his career, but he refused “with the greatest modesty” the prestigious posts that were offered him in Venice, Vienna and Brussels. Among his many pupils was Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who studied in Rome in the1660s and who would also work for the Jesuits two decades later in Paris. Charpentier came to Rome to study painting, but once he heard the works of Carissimi, music quickly became his first priority.
His Reniement de saint Pierre (Denial of St. Peter), probably composed shortly after his stay in Rome, comes to us in an undated manuscript that once belonged to Sébastien de Brossard. The work, like all of Carissimi’s and Charpentier’s religious production, shows that the seventheenth century is not simply a time of aristocratic grandeur and ostentatious monarchy, but also one of profound devotion. The use of the arts in their most seductive guise to serve the faith, a potentially dangerous tactic, was thus an effective weapon for the Church of Rome in the struggle against its rivals.
© François Filiatrault
Translation: Douglas Kirk