John Nagy | October 2, 2017
Imagine you’re a historian defending your doctoral dissertation on Thomas Jefferson in the dome room of Monticello. Or a young botanist presenting your research on plant evolution in the gardens of Charles Darwin’s home in Kent.
Give the moment a chance to sink in and you might experience a touch of the rare tingling elation that composer and pianist J.J. Wright ’14MSM, ’17DMA felt this spring when his Easter Vigil-themed sequence of five jazz oratorios, Drama and Devotion, premiered inside a landmark 16th century church in Rome.
The parish church of Santa Maria in Vallicella, best known since its reconstruction in 1575 as Chiesa Nuova, or “new church,” was the spiritual home of St. Philip Neri and his Oratorians, a community of priests who, filled with the evangelical fervor of the Counter-Reformation, hosted evenings of prayer, preaching, conversation and dramatic musical reflections on the scripture reading of the day — a kind of pious precursor to the Parisian salon.
By the early decades of the 17th century, these vespertino services had become the most popular musical events in Rome. The house composer, Giovanni Francesco Anerio, was fast perfecting the oratorio, a concert piece in which multiple voices create dramatic tension through their layered meditations on a story from scripture.
If that description evokes Händel’s Messiah for you, you’ve put your finger on the musical form’s best-known example. No one, Wright says, did more to establish its power or popularity than Anerio, a Jesuit and musical innovator who blended sacred themes and traditions he’d learned under Palestrina in the Sistine Chapel choir with the lyrical and dynamic — but decidedly secular — madrigals of his day.