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There was a revolution which spread over the whole of art and music in the seventeenth century. Monteverdi’s operas were only one sign of this. Before that, most music was written in the style of church choral music. Even secular madrigals were a variation of the same style. 

Claudio Monteverdi

Monteverdi’s Orfeo suggested at least three other ways of writing for the solo voice:

  • recitative – the rhythmic reciting of words to accompanying music
  • aria – a single piece of music for one voice, much like a song
  • coloratura – showy singing with runs, trills, and other exciting elements for virtuoso singers

Monteverdi also revealed some of the wonderful things instruments can do in contrast to the voice, and in illustrating the dramatic situation of the story.

Italian Oratorios

In Italy, the development of these different styles went forward rapidly.

Giacomo Carissimi was born near Rome in 1604. He did notable work in writing a number of oratorios on Old Testament subjects, such as Jephte, Judicium Salomonis, and Baltazar. These consist of recitatives, arias for solo voices, and choruses with a more slender instrumental accompaniment than used by the early composers of opera. 

Jepthah realizes his rash oath

Since an oratorio is not a dramatic work, the story is told by the singers instead of being acted. This is the most important difference between opera and oratorio.

Carissimi generally met this narrative difficulty by making a tenor voice labelled ‘Historicus’ tell the story in recitative. At some of the more exciting parts of the story, however, he made the chorus take up the part of the historian. The principal characters are represented by solo singers as in opera, and in the dialogues between the characters, Carissimi used beautiful recitatives.

Jepthah fulfills his terrible oath

In the oratorio Jepthe, there is a poignant moment where Jephthah has told his daughter she must die because of a foolish oath he made as he returned from battle (Judges 12). She then asks leave to go to the mountains and mourn with her companions. As you listen to this aria, notice how genuinely pathetic the voice part is. The whole aria, besides being true to the spirit of the words, is a beautiful melody.

Listen to ‘Plorate, Plorate Colles’ (Weep, Oh Hills) from Jepthe by Carissimi (1 min)

Listen until 1:05. This includes the first verse; of course, you are welcome to listen to the full 5 min. The full translation is below. The singer is accompanied by a harpsichord on the left and a viola de gamba on the right.

Plorate colles, dolete montes, et in afflictione cordis mei ululate! Mourn, you hills, grieve, you mountains, and howl in the affliction of my heart!
Ecce moriar virgo et non potero morte mea meis filiis consolari, ingemiscite silvae, fontes et flumina, in interitu virginis lachrimate!Behold! I will die a virgin, and shall not in my death find consolation in my children. Then groan, woods, fountains, and rivers, weep for the destruction of a virgin!
Heu me dolentem in laetitia populi, in victoria Israel et gloria patris mei, ego, sine filiis virgo, ego filia unigenita moriar et non vivam. Exhorrescite rupes, obstupescite colles, valles 
et cavernae in sonitu horribili resonate!
Woe to me! I grieve amidst the rejoicing of the people, amidst the victory of Israel and the glory of my father, I, a childless virgin, I, an only daughter, must die and no longer live. Then tremble, you rocks, be astounded, you hills, vales, and caves, resonate with horrible sound!
Plorate filii Israel, plorate virginitatem meam, et Jephte filiam unigenitam in 
carmine dolore lamentamini.
Weep, you children of Israel, bewail my hapless virginity,
and for Jephthah’s only daughter, lament with songs of anguish.

Italian Opera

Alessandro Scarlatti

Carissimi had many students who studied his methods. His most famous was Alessandro Scarlatti, born in 1659.

By the time Scarlatti began composing, the new style of music was being heard in all the large towns of Italy—and especially at the courts of princes and cardinals.

Although the latter were churchmen by profession, they often supported opera and other forms of secular music more ardently than ecclesiastical art. The houses of some of the wealthy cardinals were the resort of musicians who were anxious to secure the patronage of these great men for the performance of their works. 

Opera had a particularly good chance of success in Italy at this time. Not only were there princes who maintained private opera houses at their palaces, but public ones began to be opened in the principal towns of Rome, Naples, and Venice. Anyone who could afford to pay for a seat might attend.

It must be remembered that as soon as music left the church and ventured into the world at large, it had to depend for success upon its popularity. As a result, music has been influenced since the middle of the seventeenth century by the taste of the people for whom it was written.

Scarlatti wrote many different types of arias: smooth and pathetic, bold and martial, lively and florid. Some of his songs continue to be very popular in concert halls at the present day.

The canzonetta ‘O cessate di piagarmi’ (“O cease to wound me, O leave me to die”) is a perfect example of his form. The words are mournful, and the tune with its constantly repeated note, its lovely, drooping cadence, and its contrast between the principal minor key and the major one in the middle, beautifully expresses the feeling of the words. 

Listen to ‘O cessate di piagarmi’ (O stop wounding me) by Scarlatti (4 min)

The following version is sung by one of the great tenors of the 20th century, Jose Carreras.

O cessate di piagarmi,
O lasciatemi morir,
O lasciatemi morir.
O stop wounding me,
O let me die,
O let me die.
Luc’ingrate, dispietate,
Luc’ingrate, dispietate,
Più del gelo e più del marmi
Ungrateful lights,
Merciless, merciless,
More than frost and more than marble
Fredde e sorde a’ miei martir,
Fredde e sorde a’ miei martir.
Cold and mute, my martyrs,
Cold and mute, my martyrs
O cessate di piagarmi,
O lasciatemi morir,
O lasciatemi morir.
O stop wounding me,
O let me die,
O let me die.