The most moving early Baroque works I know

By George Bozarth

I’d like to invite you to spend twenty minutes with me listening to one of the most moving early Baroque works I know: the oratorio Jephte by Giacomo Carissimi (1605–74), written in Rome in 1650.  This composition has haunted me ever since I first sang it in a choir as an undergrad, and it was a welcome annual companion as I taught Baroque music for over thirty years at the University of Washington.  Thus, it has accompanied me through the wars in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, Iraq and Afghanistan, ever again imparting its somber lesson.

Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TN9VI1vNKM
Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-URH_22zagk
Part 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V0GNdPKFFGI

Le Parlement de Musique, conducted by Martin Gester:

Jephte: Luca Dordolo, tenor Filia: Elisa Franzetti, soprano;

Stephan Van Dick, altus; Mercedes Hernandez, soprano;

Emmanuelle Halimi, soprano; Stephan Imboden, bass

The Biblical story is of the Israelite general Jephte, who vowed that, in exchange for allowing him to be victorious over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first creature he encountered when he returned him.  Little did he expect it would be his beloved daughter who would come out to greet him.  In Carissimi’s telling, there is no intervening angel, as in Handel’s oratorio on the same story.  The best Jephte can do is allow his daughter time to go into the mountains with her friends to come to terms with her fate.  We know that the sacrifice will occur soon after the end of the oratorio.

Giacomo Carissimi served as Maestro di cappella at the Jesuit Collegio Germanico in Rome from 1629.  His duties included training the students in music, educating the choirboys, and organizing the music at the collegiate church of St. Apollinare.  In 1637, he became a priest.  Carissimi left us a rich repertoire of four masses, about 100 motets, fourteen oratorios, and about 150 secular chamber cantatas.

As established by Carissimi, the oratorio was a drama using sacred, but non-liturgical texts set to music for solo voices, chorus, and basso continuo.  While Handel’s oratorios were mounted in London theaters, Carissimi’s were performed in an Oratorio or Prayer Hall in Rome.

Carissimi’s oratorios are in Latin—the language of the Catholic Church, but understood by all educated people at the time—and include narrative and expressive recitative (to tell and reflect upon the story, respectively), short arias (to comment on the action), and choruses, which sometimes are part of the action and other times reflect on it (like the Greek chorus in plays).  Carissimi kept his harmonies and textures simple, because oratorios were intended as popular propaganda for a general audience.  But for the same reason he often made his rhythms very lively (see the Israelite army’s galloping chorus “Fugite, fugite, cedite, cedite, impii”).  (NOTE: The word propaganda here is not meant as a pejorative, but is used as employed by the Congregatio de propaganda fide, an organization established by Pope Gregory XV to propagate the Roman Catholic faith.)

To tell the story Carissimi employed a narrator or Historicus, usually a solo voice but sometimes more than one voice, who tells the story in the recitatives.  Group scenes of the army and the rejoicing Israelites are given to a six-part choir, sometimes deployed homophonically, en masse, other times antiphonally, with the two groups sounding like the left and right flanks of the army.  When the battle ensues, things become polyphonic.

There is no orchestra in Jephte, only a basso continuo group supporting the soloists and chorus.  Yet with his melodic lines and textures Carissimi “orchestrated” his oratorio and illustrated visual aspects of the scene (a la Hollywood film music!).  So the shape of Jephte’s melodies in the first half of the oratorio are usually bugle-like triads to indicate his profession as a military leader.  Triads appear when the Historicus mentions him and when his daughter addresses him—they all “know his tune.”  Likewise, when trumpets sound, two sopranos sing imitative, overlapping triadic melodies (“Et clangebant tubae”).  After Jephte encounters his daughter, he is entirely undone, and when he tries to sing triads, now all descending, he constantly misses the bottom, tonic note, falling into a heartrending dissonance with the prevailing harmony (Heu mihi! Filia mea”).

To the original Bible verses (Judges 11:28–38) Carissimi added text of his own to fill out the story (see the attached text and translation, with musical cues and Biblical verses notes).

We can get a good sense of the original impact of this work from a first-hand account by Athanasius Kircher, a 17th-century German Jesuit scholar and polymath living in Rome, who heard a performance of Carissimi’s Jephte at an oratorio hall frequented by the rich and powerful, the Archconfraternity of the Crucifix:

Giocomo Carissimi, a very excellent and famous composer . . . through his genius and the felicity of his compositions, surpasses all others in moving the minds of listeners to whatever affection he wishes.  His compositions are truly imbued with the essence and life of the spirit.  Among numerous works of great worth, he has composed the dialogue of Jephte.  In this, after victories, triumphs, and ceremonies, Jephte’s daughter approaches him with instruments and dances of all sorts to congratulate him [the lively “Incipite in tympanis, et psallite in cymbalis”].  In a musical style called recitative, Carissimi gives expression to the bewildered father with singular genius and piercing tones.  Jephte is suddenly transported from joy to sadness and lamentation as his daughter unexpectedly runs toward him, because the irrevocable decree of his vow [to God] must fall on her for this fateful greeting.  Carissimi achieves this transition to the opposite affection beautifully with a mutation of mode [shifting from G major to A minor at “Heu mihi! Filia mea”].  To this he adds later a lament for six voices by the daughter’s virgin companions, in which they intensely bewail her misfortune [“Plorate filii Israel”].  This is composed with such skill that you would swear that you hear the sobs and moans of the weeping girls.

Indeed, the young girls’ exclamations of “Lachrimate!” that echo in the mountains and the lament bass and dissonances of the final chorus leave one devastated and pondering deeply the way forward.  Because Europe had only recently left behind the horrors of the Thirty-Years War (1618–48) and was still in the midst of trying to put itself back together, the telling of this tale and Carissimi’s stark use of Ionian vs. Aeolian modes (major vs. minor keys) and consonance vs. dissonance, for both the defeated Ammonites and the victorious Israelites, tells us that war is tragic for both victor and vanquished, that nobody really wins in warfare—a lesson we  should never forget.