Giacomo Carissimi

1605 1674

Giacomo Carissimi



The 17th-cenutury Italian composer, Giacomo Carissimi, was one of the most talented and influential composers of his time. He played an essential role in establishing the characteristics of what we know today as the Latin oratorio. In addition, he composed numerous motets and cantatas and was one of ‘le tres Sirene di Paradiso’.

Giacomo [sometimes spelled Jacomo] Carissimi was born near Rome in the small town of Marino. His exact birthday is unknown, but he was baptized on 18 April 1605. Carissimi was one of three extraordinary composers born in Marino in the 1600s. The other two were Bonifatio Gratiani (born in 1604 or 1605) and the younger composer Giovanni Battista Mocchi (born circa 1620). The three composers were all connected to one another through Carissimi, Graziani as a fellow composer of motets and oratorios and Mocchi as a pupil. Mocchi was also responsible for promoting Carissimi’s works. The three composers were referred to as ‘le tres Sirene di Paradiso’, to acknowledge the honour and gift with which the town of Marino was given with the birth of these three composers.

Giacomo was the youngest of six children born to Amico and Livia Carissimi. Little is known about his childhood and there are no documents to determine his musical training. The first time that Giacomo Carissimi’s musical activities can be traced are upon his appointment at Tivoli Cathedral, where he worked under the three maestri di capella, Aurelio Briganti Colonna, Alessandro Capece and Francesco Manelli. His first assignment was to the choir in October 1623. The next year, Carissimi was appointed organist, a post he held until October 1627.

Carissimi’s musical activities led him to Assisi in 1628, where he held the position of maestro di cappella at the Cathedral of S Rufino.  He then entered into the service of the Collegio Germanico e Hungarico in Rome; it was here that Carissimi built his career. Carissimi replaced the current maestro di cappella, Lorenzo Ratti, within two weeks of his departure in December 1629. Carissimi worked at the Collegio Germanico for 44 years, until his death. The Collegio was a Jesuit seminary whose primary function was to train men from German speaking countries to enter the priesthood. In addition, the seminary had established an extraordinary choir.

Before Carissimi had arrived at the Collegio, the musical tradition had already been long established, especially since Victoria’s appointment as maestro di cappella from 1572 to 1577. Evidence suggests that the choir sang motets by Palestrina, Victoria and Morales. Through his own success, Carissimi attracted talented musicians to the seminary.

As maestro di cappella, Carissimi was required to perform many tasks including not only composing and rehearsing music for the Collegio (and the S. Apollinare, which was attached to the Collegio), but he also had to train the students to sing Gregorian chant and educate them in counterpoint and composition. Some of his most accomplished students included the composers Mochhi, Kaspar Förster, Vincenzo Albrici and Philipp Jakob Baudrexel. In addition to the students at the Collegio, Carissimi also taught students privately, includingMarc-Antoine Charpentier, Johann Caspar Kerll, Christoph Bernhard and perhaps Agostino Steffani.

Around 1637, Pope Urban VIII provided Carissimi with a benefice at the S Maria di Nazareth chapel in Ravenna and a protector, Cardinal Cesare Colonna.

The late 1630s must have been difficult for Carissimi as his only brother, Giovanni Francesco, died in 1638 followed by Giovanni Francesco’s wife in 1640. Carissimi received custody of his niece and nephew Angela (b 1626) and Domenico (b 1623). At this time, he also became the co-heir of his brother’s impressive estate. Angela died just six years later, in 1646 after having entered a convent in Marino in 1641. Domenico received an education at the Collegio Germanico for ten years, between 1640 and 1650. The same year as Angela’s entry into the convent, Domenico was accused of murder in Marino. With the help of Cardinal Girolamo Colonna, Carissimi was able to free his nephew from prison. Domenico studied at the Collegio until his death (by drowning) in 1650. Carissimi became the sole heir to his brother’s estate after Domenico’s death.

Carissimi was sought-after across Italy for various positions, but always turned down the offers, including one from the cappella at S Marco to succeed Monteverdias maestro di cappella. He was also wanted in Brussels for the service of the Archduke Leopold William. Despite these excellent offers, Carissimi did not want to leave the Collegio Germanco and further, he was concerned about his health.

He did eventually accept an additional position in Rome, as the maestro di cappella del concerto di camera for Queen Christina of Sweden in 1655.

During his lifetime, Carissimi was greatly appreciated as a composer and teacher. He was described by Kircher as ‘a most excellent man, and a musician of celebrated fame’. He died on 12 January 1674 and was honoured with a requiem in the Chiesa della Maddalena. He used his cast wealth to pay the salaries of the sopranos and founded two chaplaincies. He also left his compositions to the Collegio. He was succeeded by Pitoni, who described Carissimi as ‘very noble in his manners towards friends and others’.

While he composed many sacred works for the chapel and Collegio, Carissimi most likely composed the majority of his secular works, including cantatas, duets and trios, for Queen Christina. His Latin oratorios were written to be performed at the Oratorio di S Marcello.

Despite the Collegio’s best efforts, Carissimi’s works were lost and/or destroyed. Apparently, many of the works were ‘sold as waste paper at the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773’. If any of the works survived this, they were certainly destroyed during the invasion of Napoleon. Fortunately, many of his works survived outside of Rome and Italy.

Carissimi’s output is difficult to determine as many works are missing, and many composers used Carissimi’s name for their own works, taking advantage of his fame. Works that have been authenticated included a number of motets, several cantatas, one oratorio and one mass.