The Spirit moves in mysterious ways
|Title Page from the Florence Laudario|
Fifty days after Jesus' Resurrection, the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles and Mary in the Upper Room. There was much wind, fire, and speaking in tongues. According to the Book of Acts, the Apostles then proceeded to convert 3000 people. As such, it is often referred to as the birthday of the Church.
Ever since then, the Church has been guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit. Throughout her two thousand year history, the Church has, on occasion, required a revitalizing, Pentecostal booster-shot. One example of such a shot is the musical genre of Laude Spirituale--vernacular sacred songs which flourished in Italy from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries.
Laude first appear in the thirteenth century following the founding of the Mendicant Orders (e.g. the Dominicans and Franciscans). As Franciscan street preaching was often accompanied by the informal singing of sacred songs, it is perhaps no surprise that the first recorded Laude was written by none other than St Francis. Known as the 'Canticle of the Sun', it forms the basis of the English hymn All Creatures of our God and King. By the late thirteenth century, lay confraternities had been formed with the sole purpose of gathering in church crypts at night in order to pray and sing Laude. Such thriving confraternities were known as Laudesi companies and they ushered in an age of religious revival in the mercantile city-states of medieval Tuscany and Umbria. By the mid-fourteenth century, Florence boasted more than thirty individual Laudesi companies.
With traditional plainchant seen as difficult to sing and the preserve of the cloistered monastics and cathedral foundations, the earliest Laude were designed to be easily sung and understood by all. Accordingly, all Laude are in vernacular Italian and in a strophic (refrain & verse) form. The refrain is very simple and short--easily memorized. The verses are slightly more complex and were intended to be sung by the more skilled singers of the company.
As with all musical genres, Laude evolved and became more complex, reaching its artistic zenith in the late fifteenth century. Laudesi companies began employing singers and choirs and composing polyphonic settings of texts. In Florence, the Laude-singing tradition was dealt a critical blow following Girolamo Savanarola's excommunication and execution--he was using them to propagate his prophecies about Florence being the New Jerusalem.
Savanarola was a Dominican who resided in the Priory of San Marco. Twenty years after his death, the young son of a Florentine lawyer began to receive his schooling in the Priory. The child's name was Philip Neri. Having soaked up the numerous spiritually beneficial aspects of the Laudesi companies, Philip moved to an apathetic and spiritually dilapidated Rome in order to found the Congregation of the Oratory. It was in the sacristies and side chapels of the Santa Maria in Vallicella that Philip Neri adapted the idea of Laudesi companies for a new, Counter-Reformation age. Like with the Laudesi of old, the Oratorian prayer service was tailored to provide spiritual nourishment to the lay people--preaching, debate, and prayers were be augmented with the singing of hymn-like Laude. These were specially written by of Philip's numerous musical devotees who included Annimuccia, Palestrina, Victoria, and Anerio. This style of service became popular and soon prayer halls (or 'oratories') were popping up all over Italy, bringing with them a revival of faith.
Following the death of Philip Neri, the Laude began to blossom into a more dramatic form and evolved into a new genre that took its name from the venues of its first performances--the oratorio. A century and half later, oratorios became popular with the opera-loving public and left the confines of the prayer hall before finding a home in the theatre. After a further few cycles of stylistic evolution, the oratorio's distant English cousin gains traction in London owing to the efforts of G.F. Handel.