Are you looking for answers on this first day of the year? Are you pondering the meaning of life? I would like to invite you to board my time-machine and return to the year 1600. The Renaissance is almost over, the Baroque era has not yet begun. Our destination is Italy, where we meet the composer, organist and choreograph Emilio di Cavalieri’s and enjoy his monumental work “Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo”, that some consider as the first oratorio ever. You don’t speak Italian? Don’t worry, the music speaks for itself.
Cavalieri imagined a dialogue between the soul and the body: In songs, madrigals and recitals, the two allegorical characters argue about worldly lust and spiritual salvation. The overall conclusion of the oratorio is obvious: The salvation of the soul primes the desire of the body. Nothing new here. But to represent this on a stage, with music and dialogues alternating – that was new. Actually, it was quite a sensation when first performed in Rome in 1600!
Reaction to Martin Luther
With this piece, the composer picked up the question of the purpose and the form of sacred music. The issue was hotly debated since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), where the church discussed how to react to the Lutheran Reformation and the decline of the Vatican’s authority. The Vatican, marked by the quest for worldly power, was fighting a rear-guard battle for its credibility. Martin Luther, preaching a “back to the roots” message had the pope on the defensive. One of the conclusions of Trient was that sacred music had to be reformed in order to make the Catholic Church attractive again and still maintain the purity of its message.
Pope Gregor XIII tasked the composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina to do exactly this. He asked Palestrina to cleanse sacred music “from all barbarism, ambiguities, contradictions and unnecessary ornaments” to glorify God’s name in earnest, in an “understandable and pious way”. The church needed a new doctrine and to promote it. Palestrina was to forge a new corporate identity through the music performed during services.
What is good? What is wrong?
Though the “Rappresentatione di anima, et di corpo” was not intended to be performed during mass, it has a clear pedagogical vocation: to explain what is good and what is wrong in a way that was intelligible and entertaining for every man and woman without sliding into the ridiculous. Quite an achievement!
The brilliant conductor and musician René Jacobs, the Staatsopernchor Berlin and the Akademie für Alte Musik in Berlin have recorded this important piece, and I hope you will enjoy I as much as yo do. Happy New Year to all of you, good luck in all your endeavours and remember Nietzsche: Without music, life would be an error!
© Charles Thibo