Sunday, December 21, 2008

Hijacking Ecclesiastes

This is a continuation of my investigation of Carissimi's "Vanitas vanitatum II". You may want to read the previous two entries first.

Here's the translation of the verses near the end of the piece that seemed incongruous.
Scepters, crowns, power,
pomp, triumphs, victories,
honors, ornament, glories,
toys, delights,
ostentation, riches;
all is vanity and shadow.

Where are the famous rulers
that gave laws to the world?
Where the leaders of the people,
the founders of cities?
They are dust and ashes.

Where are the seven wise men,
and the followers of science,
where the arguing rhetoricians,
where are the expert artificers?
They are dust and ashes.

Where are the strong giants,
the preeminent ones,
where are the victorious warriors
who defeated the barbarians?
They are dust and ashes.

Where are the generations of heroes,
where the vast masses of cities,
where is Athens, where Carthage,
and the face of ancient Thebes?
Only their names remain.

Where are the glories of dictators,
where the victories of magistrates,
where the triumphant laurels,
where the immortal dignity
of Roman honors?
Only their names remain.

Scratching my head about why a text written sometime around the height of the Roman Empire would include rhetoric about the futility of long-vanished Roman honors, I went to Wikipedia for more information about Ecclesiastes. According to the article, historians tend to date Ecclesiastes from about 250 BC, give or take a century. It's also a book of the Hebrew Bible, which might have explained the disdain for Roman honors. However, it didn't explain the sense of looking back on a long-dead empire, like the narrator of "Ozymandias".

I decided it was high time I up and read the bloody thing, so I followed the link to the text of Ecclesiastes. Coincidentally, at about this time Karl e-mailed everyone in Continuo Collective his translation of the Vanitas Vanitatum II text from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Both sources told me the same thing: Ecclesiastes doesn't mention Roman honors!

As I read Ecclesiastes I became more and more fascinated at the differences between it and Vanitas Vanitatum II. Beyond Carissimi's inclusion of a theme that wasn't in the biblical text, there's a conspicuous difference in tone. Ecclesiastes is a highly personal, deeply introspective piece; it's the story of a man who's spent his life's vigor striving for earthly reward, only to find that, for all the good it did him, he might never have lifted a finger. Carissimi's additions, on the other hand, are bombastic screeds against a mode of behavior embodied by iconic men of power. Reading Vanitas Vanitatum II alongside its source material makes it look like the work of some eccentric botanist: a flowering cactus grafed onto an apple tree.

Once I noticed Carissimi's jarring shift in both content and tone I got much more curious about his intent. Clearly he was taking the engine of Ecclesiastes and using it to power an anti-classicism machine. It seemed reasonable to think that his employer was sick of hearing about ancient Rome, which made me think of the "Virtual Tourist" exhibit that I wrote about on March 9th and 12th.

The "Virtual Tourist" exhibit illustrated a European fascination with classical Rome during the late sixteenth century. Carissimi wrote his music sometime during the third quarter of the seventeenth century, a period I know little about except for the diary of Samuel Pepys. If, after reading about Carissimi's life and the music of the period, I find that there was another popular resurgence of classicism during Carissimi's lifetime, then I'll have some evidence to back up my hypothesis about his motivations.

Stay tuned.

No comments: