This reaction by French traveller André Maugars to music he heard at the Oratorio del Santissimo Crocifisso in Rome in 1639 almost certainly describes the work of Giacomo Carissimi (1605- 1674). Renowned as a composer at home and abroad, Carissimi was memorably described by his successor Pitoni as ‘very frugal in his domestic circumstances, very noble in his manners towards his friends and others ... of tall stature, thin, and inclined to melancholy’. Carissimi was born in the small town of Marino, fifteen miles from the centre of Rome. We know little about his musical education, but as the youngest son of a cooper, he was presumably the beneficiary of church schooling often made available to boys with strong singing voices. After working in Tivoli and Assisi as organist and maestro di cappella respectively, he was appointed to the Collegio Germanico in Rome at the age of just 23.
Very quickly thereafter he became maestro di cappella, a prestigious post previously held by Tomás Luis de Victoria. Conditions at the well-funded Jesuit college were excellent and Carissimi stayed for the remainder of his life, during which time he became arguably Europe’s most admired composer. His fame grew not through publishing or self-promotion, but via countless hand-written copies of his music being transported across the continent by his many students and admirers. From Purcell’s London to Buxtehude’s Lübeck, the work of Carissimi came to be regarded by the cognoscenti as the epitome of fine vocal style. When 17th-century musicians spoke of music in ‘the latest Italian manner’ it would have been the style defined by Carissimi they often had in mind. This fame and respect led naturally to offers of employment, including one enticing opportunity to succeed Monteverdi as maestro di cappella at San Marco in Venice. Carissimi seems to have appreciated life at the Collegio Germanico however, and all such offers were turned down.