Giacomo Carissimi

Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674) was an Italian composer of sacred and secular vocal music. His oratorios and chamber cantatas are of high importance musically and historically.

Giacomo Carissimi was born in Marino near Rome and baptized on April 18, 1605. In 1622 or 1623 he became a singer at the Cathedral of Tivoli, and from 1624 to 1627 he worked as organist there. He was chapelmaster at the church of S. Rufino in Assisi from 1628 to 1629. He was then appointed chapelmaster at the church of S. Apollinare in Rome and was simultaneously put in charge of musical instruction at the German College, an adjoining institution. Carissimi remained in this double position until his death on Jan. 12, 1674. He declined numerous invitations to other posts, and it seems that he never left Rome after 1630. His music was performed throughout Italy and abroad during his lifetime and well into the 18th century.

The extant works of Carissimi include 17 oratorios, about 150 chamber cantatas (that is, to Italian words), over 200 motets (to Latin words), at least 12 Masses, various liturgical works, some humorous Latin pieces, and a treatise on music. One or two pieces for instruments may be by Carissimi. But his music is virtually all for voices with instrumental accompaniment.

Of Carissimi's oratorios 15 are in Latin and 2 are in Italian. The majority are set to texts dealing with subjects from the Old Testament, and many include a part for a narrator, called the testo. His best-known oratorio is Jephthe, composed by 1649 at the latest, which is a masterpiece of expressive writing in both its solo and choral portions.

Most of Carissimi's chamber cantatas, in Italian, are for solo soprano voice and basso continuo; the remainder are for two or three voices and basso continuo. They are built of sections in recitative, arioso and aria style, which proceed in a manner at once varied and unified. The great majority are set to poems on amorous subjects, but some of the poems are religious in content and others are humorous. Carissimi's cantatas excel for their superb word setting and high musical quality.

In his Latin motets Carissimi used essentially the same forms and styles as in his Italian cantatas. His Masses reveal his firm mastery of contrapuntal writing in the then traditional church style.

Both directly, through his teaching at the German College, and indirectly, through the numerous copies made of his music, Carissimi was a leading influence on contemporary and later composers in Italy, France, Germany, and England.

Further Reading on Giacomo Carissimi

Carissimi's music is discussed in Manfred F. Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach (1947), and Claude V. Palisca, Baroque Music (1968). An important general background study is Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960).

Additional Biography Sources

Dixon, Graham., Carissimi, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.