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CHAPTER 2 Fat Times and Lean


The chief Italian composer of oratorios in the time of Schütz was Giacomo Carissimi (1605–74), a Roman priest who served as organist and choirmaster at the Jesuit German College (Collegio Germanico) from 1629 until his death. His fourteen surviving works in the genre probably represent only a fraction of the biblical narratives he composed, beginning in the 1640s, for Friday afternoon performances during Lent at the college and at other Roman

institutions, notably the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso (Oratory of the Most Holy Crucifix), which lent its name to the genre. His many foreign pupils at the College included Christoph Bernhard, who had already trained with Schütz, and the French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, who brought the practice of setting dramatic narratives from the Latin bible back with him to his native country.

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fig. 2-8 Jephte recognizes his daughter. Painting by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (1610–1662).

Jephte, Carissimi’s most famous biblical narrative, was composed no later than 1649 (the date on one of its manuscripts). The story, from the Book of Judges (chapter 11), is a celebrated tale of tragic expiation. The Israelite commander Jephte vows that if God grants him victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first being who greets him on his return home. That turns out to be his beloved daughter, a virgin, who is duly slaughtered after spending two months on the mountaintop with her companions, lamenting her fate.

The last part of Carissimi’s setting, consisting of two laments, the daughter’s and (in the final chorus) the

community’s, is introduced by a portion of narrative text sung by the historicus, as Carissimi calls the narrator’s part.

(In Carissimi’s setting, the function of historicus is a rotating one, distributed among various solo voices and, as here, even the chorus.) The daughter’s lament, a monody in three large strophes, makes especially affective use of the “Phrygian” lowered second degree at cadences, producing what would later be called the Neapolitan (or

“Neapolitan-sixth”) harmony. These cadences are then milked further by the use of echo effects that suggest the reverberations of the daughter’s keening off the rocky face of the surrounding mountains and cliffs. Like Schütz (in Saul, Saul), Carissimi uses the music not only to express or intensify feeling, but to set the scene. The double and even triple suspensions (on lamentamini, “lament ye!”) in the concluding six-part chorus are a remarkable application of “madrigalism” to what is in most other ways a typically Roman exercise in old-style (stile antico) polyphony. Its emotional power was celebrated and widely emulated. The chorus was quoted and analyzed by

Athanasius Kircher in his music encyclopedia Musurgia universalis (Rome, 1650), and “borrowed” almost a hundred years later by Handel (who also wrote a Jephtha) for a chorus in the oratorio Samson.

Carissimi’s other major service appointment was as maestro di cappella del concerto di camera (director of chamber concerts) for Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–89), patroness of the philosopher René Descartes, who lived in Rome following her notorious abdication in 1654 and subsequent conversion to Catholicism. For her, and for many another noble salon, Carissimi turned out well over one hundred settings of Italian love poetry in a new style known generically as cantata (a “sung” or vocal piece as opposed to sonata, a “played” or instrumental one).

Carissimi wrote so many cantatas that he is sometimes credited with inventing the genre. The cantata, however, was well established as a genre in Rome by the time Carissimi began contributing to it. The first composer known to have used the term was Alessandro Grandi (1586–1630), a member of Monteverdi’s choir at St. Mark’s in Venice, in a book published around 1620.

Like the monody, the cantata was a solo successor to the madrigal. It eventually came to denote a relatively ambitious setting that mixed several forms—strophic or ground-bass arias, little dancelike songs called ariette, recitatives, etc.—in a quasi-dramatic sequence. The more or less regular alternation of narrative and lyric items—

recitatives that set the scene and arias that poured out feeling—first became standardized in the Roman cantata. It soon characterized all dramatic genres, especially opera. Most of the conventional aria types that later provided Italian opera with its stock in trade were first tried out in the cantata as well. The genre could thus be viewed as a kind of musico-dramatic laboratory.

fig. 2-9 Barbara Strozzi. Portrait with bass viol by Bernardo Strozzi (ca. 1640).

From Rome, the cantata radiated out to more northerly Italian cities, chiefly Bologna and Venice (the latter still the great publishing center). Ex. 2-15 samples an especially rich cantata, Lagrime mie (“My tears”), by the Venetian singer and composer Barbara Strozzi (1619–77), a pupil of Francesco Cavalli, the foremost Venetian opera composer at midcentury, and the adopted daughter and protégée of Giulio Strozzi, a famous academician and poet-librettist whose words were set by almost every Venetian composer from Monteverdi on down. The fact that Barbara Strozzi published eight books of madrigals, cantatas, and arias, and did so at a time when prejudice against the creative abilities of women ran high, bears impressive witness to her excellence as a composer in the eyes of her

contemporaries. Lagrime mie comes from her seventh book, titled Diporti di Euterpe (“Euterpe’s Recreations”) after the muse of lyric poetry and music, published in 1659, when the composer was forty years old and done with her career as singer and aristocratic hostess.

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ex. 2-15a Barbara Strozzi, Cantata: Lagrime mie, mm. 1–13

ex. 2-15b Barbara Strozzi, Cantata: Lagrime mie, mm. 49–55

The text, following convention, is composed from the male perspective. A lover laments the loss of his beloved, locked away in her father’s castle. The vocal range is soprano, however, and might as well have been taken by a female singer such as Strozzi herself as by a castrato. The setting of the opening line (Ex. 2-15a), which will return later as a refrain, is identified by the harsh (and unconventionally resolved) dissonances, and by the somewhat decorated scalar descent in the bass from tonic to dominant, as a lamento. Expressive dissonance in the manner of the seconda prattica arrives as a palpable twinge when the bass leaps from A♯ to D♯ under the voice’s sustained E on—what else?—the word dolore, giving concrete auditory representation to the lover’s pain.

ex. 2-15c Barbara Strozzi, Cantata: Lagrime mie, mm. 88–108

The second stanza is divided quasi-operatically into narrative and lyric segments. The culminating, albeit fleeting aria (E voi lumi dolenti) is cast in the stately triple meter we have already encountered in Pur ti miro, the concluding duet in L’incoronazione di Poppea (Ex. 2-15). It was the lyric aria meter par excellence, partly because of the way it lent itself to expressive suspensions of the kind that Strozzi provides at this point in such abundance (Ex. 2-15b). In each measure, the first beat contains the dissonance, the second beat the resolution, and the third the preparation for the next suspension. The resolutions take place through slurred anticipations calculated to sound like sobs, a resemblance that was probably emphasized by the singer’s voice production. (“Sobbing” remains a specialty of Italian tenors.) The final stanza is the most obvious harbinger of the recitative/aria pairing that would soon become

standard operating procedure (Ex. 2-15c). The first couplet is set in a free, unpredictable style that follows the rhythm of speech in good seconda prattica fashion. The second couplet returns to the flowing triple meter; its first line unfolds over the emblematic bass tetrachord, and the last line (not included in the example) provides a lyric capstone, ascending to the highest note in the cantata’s range and signaling the end by means of a full harmonic closure.

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Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2011. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2 /actrade-9780195384826-div1-02010.xml>.

Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 27 Jan. 2011, from


Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 2 Fat Times and Lean." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 27 Jan. 2011, from


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