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These 17th-century oratorios were lost. Now Choral Arts Philadelphia is bringing them to life

Courtesy of Choral Arts Philadelphia
Matt Glandorf leads Choral Arts Philadelphia in a rehearsal of Giacomo Carissimi's Lost Oratorios, which will be performed in person on Nov. 10th and 14th.

As live performances slowly make their way back into our calendars, hope blossoms further at the news of vocal music returning to the stage. Choral Arts Philadelphia will give two of those performances on November 10th in Rittenhouse Square and November 14th in Bryn Mawr, entitled The Lost Oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi.

An oratorio, for those unfamiliar with the term, is rather similar to an opera, though unstaged. Or, at least, that’s the format that George Frideric Handel popularized in England after his Italian opera company folded, the most famous being Messiah. Giacomo Carissimi was a 17th-century Roman composer and priest, and is known as "the father of the oratorio"—the first composer to write in the form, a century before Handel. (That was news to me!)

A few years ago, Richard Stone, who is theorbist of Choral Arts Philadelphia’s Bach Collegium Baroque Orchestra (you might also know him as the co-director and co-founder of Tempesta di Mare) traveled to Kroměříž, a small town in the Czech Republic, not even thinking of Carissimi—he had been drawn to the works of Giovanni Valentini, from a generation before; Georg Reutter the Younger, an 18th-century composer; and Philipp Jacob Rittler. Most of these works, along with many of Carissimi’s, were catalogued by Prince Carl II of Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn at his Kroměříž residence.

Carissimi’s work was the “surprise at the bottom of the Cracker Jack box,” says Richard, who had known of Carissimi’s secular cantatas, but realized he found something special in a set of unpublished oratorios.

When he transcribed the manuscripts back home in Philadelphia, he became more and more excited at what just the notation software played back for him—having developed the need to hear them live, he brought them to Choral Arts Philadelphia Artistic Director Matt Glandorf, and thus was born a project to perform these works.

Part 1 of what Richard and Matt hope will be a two-part series on Carissimi will feature The Dialogue of Noah and The Dialogue of Goliath. Two oratorios per concert, you might say, would make for quite the long show! Carissimi’s oratorios, however, generally range from 20 to 30 minutes each, really packing the drama into a more concise format. Also on the program is Scott Ordway's Twenty/Twenty.

Choral Arts Philadelphia presents The Lost Oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi in person on Wednesday, November 10th, 7 PM, The Church of the Holy Trinity Rittenhouse in Center City; Sunday, November 14th, 4 PM, Church of the Good Shepherd in Bryn Mawr

Ticket info can be found herealong with pertinent COVID protocol for performances.

Here's a very brief video of a rehearsal for the concerts:

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with both Richard and Matt about Carissimi, his oratorios, and the collection at Kroměříž, and they had plenty of interesting and exciting information to share.

Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Who is Giacomo Carissimi?

John TK: So just to start, who is Giacomo Carissimi?

Matt Glandorf: Giacomo Carissimi was probably one of the most successful composers working in Rome in the 17th century; he was himself a Roman priest and worked for the Jesuit institution of the Collegium Germanicum, which was a college that trains Jesuit priests...he is oftentimes considered the father of the modern oratorio. There's still some debate as to whether that honor belongs to another composer, but really, the genre as we know it—these Latin oratorios roughly about 20 to 30 minutes in length, that were not meant for the liturgy but for the sort of intellectual gatherings that became widely popular, and composers and musicians thronged to Rome to hear him and study with him...So that's who Carissimi is in a nutshell.

What influence did Carissimi have on the oratorio?

JTK: So Giacomo Carissimi is the father of the oratorio—I would think that people think more of Handel...So what of Carissimi's oratorios, what elements, perhaps formal elements or dramatic elements—what are the ones that went through towards younger composers?

MG: So, I think the the genesis of this whole idea [of oratorios] comes out with composers who were writing highly experimental music at the end of the 16th century, and through this renewed interest in Greek drama, they falsely thought—oh, we think that all Greek drama was probably through-sung, so all the actors sang their dialogue with some form of instrumental accompaniment...what you see is kind of three genres that essentially come out of this period; you see opera itself, with Caccini and Jacopo Peri, writing their first attempts and then you see Monteverdi's really important seminal setting of L'Orfeo, which I think blew everything, every other experiment out of the water. But we know for example of a performance in Rome of 1600 of Cavalieri's...

Richard Stone: Rappresentatione [di Anima, et di Corpo].

MG: And the thing about this is that—is it an opera? Is it an oratorio? We knew that it had dancing in it, but it seems to be more of a sort of a psychological play set to music about this divide or this dialogue or argument between the body and the soul. So, in essence, one could say maybe that was in fact really the first oratorio—I mean, I think they were just all stumbling in the dark. And the cantata is the third element…I think with Carissimi what's important is this focusing particularly on the dramatic stories from the Hebrew Scriptures—they're almost entirely from what we refer to as the Old Testament...and so you sort of see that evolution eventually come to Handel.

RS: The kind of distinction in nomenclature is really more of an 18th century thing anyway.

MG: Yeah, I mean, there's an enormous amount of fluidity. And again, I think to put the contrast between, say Carissimi, by the way, which is like a full almost 100 years earlier than Handel—think about that in terms of the time span. I mean, Carissimi dies in, what, 1674—Handel doesn't really get cranking with oratorios until London...he was an opera man before he did any of that...switched genres. But I think the important thing is that Carissimi's works were written specifically as intellectual political pieces, aimed at a particular elite of Roman society, and Handel's oratorios were definitely meant for the broader public. This was about a money-making proposition.

How did the oratorios get to Kroměříž, and how did Richard get a hold of them?

JTK: Richard, how did you go about finding these oratorios, and also maybe as an aside, but what brought Carissimi's music to Kroměříž?

RS: The guy whose music collection it all comes from is Prince Carl II of Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, who was appointed by the Habsburg monarchy to become Bishop of Olomouc in the 17th century…He just had this collection—he collected music from some of the best composers…Carissimi—he has nothing to do with Kromeříž, but his music circulated in manuscripts. That's how if you wanted to get a piece by Carissimi, you had to get a manuscript copy of it, because there was very little of it published.

So [Carl] probably had an agent get a copy of it and brought it back to Moravia—to Olomouc, or more likely to Kroměříž, where it got introduced to the collection…So what drew me to Carissimi was actually not his oratorios…[it] was his secular music that I knew, which was not very much…And he never wrote an opera in his life, but that was the thing that showed me more than anything in his oratorios at what a fine musical dramatist he was. And so I was curious to see if he outdid himself in any way with these other cantatas, and in these oratorios in fact he did. In my mind, the drama in both Goliath and in Noah exceeds what there is in Jonah and Jephtha—but that may just be because I've heard Jonah and Jephtha too many times.

MG: They're pretty surprisingly dramatic pieces—you know, it's been really fun to rehearse it with the chorus and get them to actually think more operatically—it's like, this is not church music, even though they would have been performed essentially and probably in sacred settings or in the households of wealthy Roman citizens, you know, who have musicians in their employ.

JTK: They're also two pretty dramatic stories to set to music.

RS: Yes.

MG: Well yeah, and and what's interesting is, so there's a couple things that are important to know about them—for one thing they're written in Latin, not in Italian, and that tells us that this was intended for intellectual circles—intellectual and influential circles. This was not entertainment for the hoi polloi. So there's an intellectual angle there. So then the second is that there is also a political angle. If you compare the libretto—and it's a libretto, not a straight word for word from the Torah or the Hebrew Scriptures, but in fact it’s a freely written work. And he clearly alters the story, kind of like Disney would, to suit his agenda, and the agenda is very interesting. God says, I'm gonna—nobody's paying attention to me, I'm going to destroy everything. And then he calls on Noah and says—all right, buddy, build an ark, and Noah kind of goes... okay.

The whole meat and potatoes of the whole central section is the descent and just the destroying of all of the people—all the inhabitants of the earth. There's no dove, there's no finding dry land, his family gets only mentioned. None of the sons and their offspring are mentioned. And what's fascinating is in the middle, the people who are about to drown call upon Jupiter. And what this probably means is that, Carissimi is saying: this is what happens when you follow false religions. Because there's clearly Deus, which is God, and Jupiter. But then at the end, the whole thing ends with this giant, beautiful paean to Iris, but the word Iris also means rainbow—so you know there's the goddess Iris, but what's probably meant here is, is you know, in praise of the rainbow that the real God has now put forth as a sign of reconciliation for...

RS: ...the covenant.

MG: Yeah, the covenant. Thank you. So he's got a real angle there. I think the David and Goliath story is a very obvious one, I mean, that one actually follows the text a little bit more--of the biblical texts a little bit more faithfully, but I mean, it's obvious about the story about the overcoming of, you know, the pipsqueak David against, you know, the Philistine giant. And of course, that means you know God's favor is upon David and the lineage of David, etc. So as you see, Carissimi has real, he has actual theological and political agendas in these works.

JTK: Well, I know I know Carissimi from Vittoria, mio core; that was the first song I was ever assigned when I was an undergrad—I'm a singer too—is God a bass in the Noah oratorio?

MG: No he's a tenor! Noah is the bass. So this whole thing kind of goes back to when Richard came back from his study grant trip to Kroměříž. And he says, Matt, there's all these cool oratorios—there's a Noah and there's a David and Goliath and there's a Queen Esther and I was like, Oh my god, like, we gotta do something with this! We identified four oratorios that are definitely unpublished and not available in any kind of modern edition. And so for me that was the interesting thing to home in on.

So this is installment one, with the great hopes of having an installment two, and the other two that we've identified is, as I said, Queen Esther, and another one called The Song of Deborah. And so my hope is that this is going to be the impetus for kind of awakening of a real interest in, you know, having this music available to finish the other two projects…my hope is that this will pique some interest in more ensembles wanting to perform this fantastic music.

Choral Arts Philadelphia presents The Lost Oratorios of Giacomo Carissimi: Wednesday, November 10th, 7 PM
The Church of the Holy Trinity Rittenhouse
1904 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Sunday, November 14th, 4 PM
Church of the Good Shepherd
1116 Lancaster Ave
Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

Ticket info is here

John T.K. Scherch (JohnTK@wrti.org) shares the morning’s musical and other offerings weekdays on WRTI 90.1. Previously, he was the first new host on WBJC in Baltimore in nearly 20 years, hosting the evening, Sunday afternoon, and request programs, and he is also an alumnus of U92, the college radio station of West Virginia University and a consecutive national Station of the Year winner.