Friday, October 24, 2008

Vanity gives way to fun and curiosity

Bear with me here. I'm setting the scene for my investigation into the context of Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II".

At the beginning of the third rehearsal Pat spoke about the text of the vanitas pieces. It seemed to him that Carissimi had used the absolute worst aspects of Ecclesiastes to scare money out of people and into the collection plates. He was very curious to know the circumstances surrounding the writing of the music but, since Carissimi's details are lost to history, he wasn't sure if we could ever find the information. Of course I jumped on the opportunity to do some digging and, with the help of JSTOR, found this article from the April, 1981 issue of Music and Letters. It indicates that not only can't we reliably date Carissimi's music, but we don't even know whether he or one of his students wrote the vanitas pieces!

Speaking of not knowing things... boy, was I in for it. On the weekend before the fourth rehearsal I found out I had to sing a solo in Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II". I was apprehensive and excited at my first vocal solo in... gosh, I hate it when I do the math and my brain spits out "a decade". Anyway. During the next few days I used every spare moment to practice, using keyboards to help me find the notes. I heard the intervals and progressions; I thought I had the part down. Then I got up there on Tuesday night and most egregiously befouled the proverbial bed. I couldn't hear my part at all - I was feeling around for my notes like a ninth grade choral student sight-reading a part. I felt utterly humiliated, and I knew I had only myself to blame: I'd walked in there looking forward to impressing everyone on my very first attempt at a solo. Pride goeth before a fall, and I knew that my fall was obscenely apropos of the music we were singing: "Vanity! All is vanity!"

During the next week I despaired and sweated. I didn't want to go back to a keyboard because that's part of what messed me up in the first place: the early music we're singing is a half tone off from the modern tones, so I'd practiced the wrong notes. I had no opportunity to run through it with Grace so I resolved myself to muddling through as best I could during the next practice, hopefully figuring out my part a little better by listening to the instruments. Then I thought back to my choral experiences back in the early nineties and realized I'd been coming at Continuo Collective all wrong. When I think back to the Oneida Area Civic Chorale I don't think of how I wowed anyone with my solo from "Oklahoma". I think of how tingly it made me feel to come to know Mendelssohn's "Elijah" intimately, from the inside - of hearing my voice interact with all the other voices in order to build a piece of music. Feeling myself as a cog meshing with other cogs, and hearing us forming something bigger than ourselves, was one of the most sublime experiences I've ever had. Once I remembered this, everything changed. I walked into Continuo Collective last Tuesday night wanting not to wow anyone, but to understand the music and hopefully improve my contribution to it.

I had a few minutes before practice to go through my parts with three of the continuo players. That, along with my changed attitude, made all the difference. I began hearing what my part was doing in relation to the music, and my performance improved. More importantly to the historical discussion, though, I discovered of a pair of mistakes I'd been making at the end of my solo where I demand to know "Where the immortal dignity of Roman honors?" In addition to my tendency to go up a step instead of staying put on the last note, Grant pointed out that I wasn't holding some of the notes long enough. I had been singing the end of the line as though it ended like similar lines earlier in the piece: with an ascending, triumphant exclamation point. But instead my solo called for me to extend the second syllable of the word "honorium" and then descend one step for the last two syllables. This changed the character of the solo entirely for me. Before I'd seen it as a scornfully triumphant excoriation of Roman-style honors. Now it felt wistful as though the singer, acknowledging the perceived glory of ancient Rome, should hold out his hand longingly to an apparition fading into the mist. Wow! That's really neat!


Hold on.

It's all well and good to think of someone from the seventeenth century longing for ancient Rome, but the text of this music is from Ecclesiastes. When Ecclesiastes was written, no one was longing for ancient Rome because Rome was just hitting its stride! So what was going on here?

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


Grace and I are singing in Continuo Collective this semester. Grace has spent a number of seasons in the group but it's my first time. Thankfully some of the singing I did years ago was in Latin, otherwise I'd feel utterly overwhelmed. As it is, between the Italian enunciation and the complex chords I feel like I've thrown myself into the deep end of the pool. I'm glad I joined, though, and particularly excited to be a part of the Vanitas Project.

During our first rehearsal we looked at some good examples of vanitas paintings. One of them was Holbein's "Ambassadors", which I wrote about in a February entry. I was excited that we were working on something I actually knew a bit about; between my visit to Paris and Amsterdam, my readings on sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch history, and my visit to the "Age of Rembrandt" exhibit at the Met, I felt like I had a decent handle on the concept.

Tony made the point that, though vanitas art denounces worldly pursuits, the people who commissioned that art were most likely quite attached to those pursuits. I couldn't agree more; for me, Dutch still life painting is all about the paradox - not to say hypocrisy. Remember, those artists were hired by rich, powerful Dutch merchants to depict a panoply of shapes, transparencies and textures; this showcased not only the artists' talent but also the sundry goods that the patron imported from the far reaches of the world. The Dutch had become the preeminent merchants on the planet, and speaking of the planet... why, they just so happened to have a freshly printed set of atlases by Blaeu. Expensive, but worth it! They were bloody satisfied with themselves, and it showed in those paintings that gave great lip service to the renunciation of worldly pursuits.

If I'm overstating the hypocrisy angle it's because I'm reading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror and when I think of the hypocrisy of chivalry - a psychological construct that allowed for the ruination of the very people that it purported to protect - it reminds me of the suspiciously pornographic contradictions at the core of vanitas painting. This all goes to explain why, as I worked on my solo in Carissimi's "Vanitas Vanitatum II", I got to thinking - and researching - more and more about his purpose in composing it.

Stay tuned.