Domenico Freschi, Giuditta

by Jane Tylus

A woman speaks about Domenico Freschi's Giuditta in a microphone with a brightly lit church sanctuary in the background.
Jane Tylus speaks at an oratorio performance on November 18, 2017 at Christ Chapel at Riverside Church in New York City.

Professor Tylus spoke at the oratorio reading of November 18, 2017. Her contextual talk was in place of the sermon often found between oratorio halves. She summarized her talk for the Journal.

Judith is one of the most fascinating figures of the Old Testament — or, more precisely, of the Old Testament’s deuterocanonical or apocryphal books. A solitary widow who rises up against the godless general Holofernes, her story has long furnished a compelling subject for artistic representation, such as the disturbing painting by Artemisia Gentileschi depicting Judith and her handmaiden in the very act of decapitating their enemy. A century after Gentileschi committed her gruesome image to canvas, Domenico Freschi composed his oratorio Giuditta, in 1705. It came in the midst of a sudden, even surprising burst of plays, poems, operas, and oratorios on the Hebrew dynamo, including an oratorio by Alessandro Scarlatti first performed in Rome in 1693.1 Why there was such attentiveness to Judith at the dawn of the 18th century is beyond the scope of these remarks, but perhaps one of the last words Freschi’s Judith utters at the end of the first act, right before the intermission, can furnish a clue: “Guerra” — “War!” It is, notably, a word she never uses in the Bible.

And, in fact, Catholic Europe was at war in the late 17th century, with both its Protestant enemies to the north, and its Muslim enemies to the east.2 Ten years before Freschi’s Giuditta was performed, the Ottomans had secured Athens from the Venetians and were using the Parthenon to store their gunpowder; ten years after Giuditta, the Ottoman-Venetian and Ottoman-Austrian Wars would be raging. Indeed, the Judith that we see in Freschi’s — and Scarlatti’s — oratorios is a militant Judith. She is comfortable arguing openly for war in a way that differs strikingly from her more restrained appearance in the Bible. There, the most that she says to Bethulia’s leaders is an enigmatic line that God has chosen her to stop the Assyrians, after which she prays and departs for Holofernes’s camp. Freschi’s Judith will also beguile, seduce, and murder Holofernes, and return to her city in triumph. But in the oratorio, Holofernes is actually the easier challenge. He immediately falls in love with the fetching Hebrew widow, who calls him her “tesoro” or treasure in a lyrical love duet that would be delightful were we unaware of the duplicity of the lady whom Holofernes will call his greatest triumph. The tougher challenge, as Freschi stages it, is Ozia, king of Bethulia, far less confident in God’s support for the Hebrew people than is Judith herself — and by extension, it turns out, far less “manly.”

As a result, Judith seems almost to have more in common with Holofernes, whose first word in the oratorio — “guerrieri,” warriors — will be echoed by Judith’s “guerra.” Moreover, given that Holofernes was sung by the counter-tenor, the similar upper registers of the soprano and castrato voices argue sonically for the characters’ affinities as people of action. Ozia is Judith’s real opposite, and perhaps even the greater danger: he and his city are paralyzed before the great fury of Holofernes and his Assyrian army. The oratorio opens with Judith chastising him for not being sufficiently penitent before God, and so much of the score is devoted to her encounters with Ozia that the brief exchange with Holofernes feels almost perfunctory. In their first duet, Ozia sings, “Until I placate Heaven/ I shall weep,” while Judith says, “Until I placate Heaven/ I shall pray.” Even though Ozia speaks forcefully in his initial exchange with the Assyrian messenger Vagao, he quickly offers to capitulate once the siege has begun: “Let him come, let Holofernes come.” Judith is quick to disagree — “Ozia, che pensi?” — “whatever are you thinking?” — and she goes off to her room to “speak with the great lord of the world”: not the human, fallible Ozia but the Hebrews’ God, who will fill her with the “force that toughens even cowards.”

Throughout his career Freschi was fascinated by enterprising if difficult women. Helen of Troy, Circe, Berenice, and “Tullia superba” (the proud Tullia, who ran over the body of her father, the last king of Rome, with her chariot) dominate his operas. His preference for his leading ladies is reflected in the fact that in Helena rapita da Paride, for example, the soprano’s arias take up some three-fourths of the work.3 Maestro di cappella in Vicenza — the northern Italian town that boasted the country’s first classical stage, the Teatro Olimpico — Freschi was also active in nearby Venice. Some of his works featured such an extensive cast that they were performed at a villa in Piazzola, outside Padova; Berenice vendicata has a scene where some 300 people occupy the stage at once, including 100 Amazons and 50 Moors on horseback. Freschi had a taste for the exotic as well as for the luxurious, and he accumulated a sizeable number of artworks. Perhaps not surprisingly, his output of “musica sacra” — the very genre for which Vicenza was known as an important center — looms far behind that of his secular works. Giuditta and Il Miracolo del Mago are his only-known oratorios, although he may be the composer of an unattributed “Saint Anthony of Padova.” And the recent discovery of the score for Giuditta in Vienna suggests that there may be more out there to find.

Freschi’s Judith is not all bluster. Behind her actions and prayer lies hope, “speme,” a word we hear throughout Freschi’s piece, and which Judith once pointedly refers to as “la speme mia” — my hope — when she is dressing down Ozia for his lack of faith in God. She has only one brief moment of hesitation when, after resolving in her room that she will “go to the infamous tents of Holofernes,” she adds, “Forse, chi sa — perhaps, who knows? If by my right hand, Bethulia should triumph and Ozia reign.” Yet it is this very flicker of doubt that allows us to see hope doing its work, as she will transform herself from the strident widow chastising Ozia for his lack of manliness into “la bella Ebrea”: the beautiful Hebrew — and a beautiful Hebrew who in turn will become what Freschi will call “that peerless Amazon.”

Such hope may have guided Freschi’s and Catholic Europe’s own faith as well in those years of the Counter-Reformation and Ottoman attacks, years when a pamphleteer would write “Betulia assediata, penitente, vittoriosa”: “Bethulia under siege, repentant, victorious,” a three-part drama that could only be achieved via a Crusade to seize the Holy Land from the Turks. The middle term, penitence, is key to Freschi as well. One had to repent of one’s sins, and perhaps of one’s cowardice and lack of manliness, before being able to discern where victory lay, even if in the unlikely hands of a woman whom Freschi enables us to trust from the very moment she walks onto the stage. Thus does Giuditta demonstrate even more clearly than its Biblical counterpart of two millennia earlier that desperate times require desperate solutions.

Jane Tylus is Professor of Italian Studies and Comparative Literature at NYU. A specialist in late-medieval and early-modern European literature, her most recent books are Siena, City of Secrets (Chicago, 2015) and the coedited Early Modern Cultures of Translation (with Karen Newman; Philadelphia, 2015). She is the General Editor of I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance.

1  To which Freschi’s Giuditta contains some notable similarities, such as the five-character cast and a major role for the Hebrew king, Ozia. See the helpful program notes by Xavier Carrère, for the CD of Alessandro Scarlatti, La Giuditta, directed by Martin Gester; available at For the larger context of oratorio and literary production about Judith in the period, see Paolo Bernardini, “Judith in Italian Literature: A Comprehensive Bibliography,” in Episodes in Early Modern and Modern Christian-Jewish Relations: Diasporas, Dogmas, Differences (Newcastle-on-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2016), 139–57, and the essays in The Sword of Judith: Judith Studies across the Disciplines, ed. Keven R. Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
2  As Jude Zilik suggested in his essay for the occasion of the Academy of Sacred Drama’s performances in November 2017.
3  Of 86 musical pieces, 69 are for soprano, 3 are “duetti per due soprani,” 9 are solos for bass, and 5 are for tenor: producing what Alberto Zanotelli calls a kind of “monotony” but evidently one praised by the public. For this and other details in this paragraph about Freschi’s life and compositions, see Zanotelli, Domenico Freschi, musicista vicentino del Seicento: catalogo tematico (Venice: Fondazione Levi, 2001) and the brief but helpful pages dedicated to Freschi by Francsco Bussi, “L’opera veneziana dalla morte di Monteverdi,” in Storia dell’opera, ed. Francesco Cavalli and Antonio Sartori, 6 vols. (Turin: UTET 1977), 1:121–82.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 2 (2018) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Letter from the Publisher

by Jeremy Rhizor

Jeremy Rhizor speaks at an oratorio performance on November 17, 2017 at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in New York City.

In the Book of Judith, the city of Bethulia controls the mountain pass through which the invading forces of Holofernes must travel to reach the city of Jerusalem and its Temple. The forces of Holofernes cut off Bethulia’s water supply, and Judith alone stands between the desire of her people to surrender and the intentions of Holofernes. If Bethulia was to surrender, the people of Bethulia would have to submit to the control of the invaders or be slaughtered, and the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem would be destroyed.

Judith walks a very fine line between making the situation of her people even worse than it already is and saving her people. She has limited power and does not control armies, and her bold plan has a high chance of failure. However, she responds to the situation at hand with a deep self-awareness and a firm trust in her God. She woos Holofernes and cuts off his head in the night. This one brave action changes the fate of her entire people.

Although we might not be able to relate directly to her method, her story is an incredibly empowering message for people of every age. It encourages us to believe that radical positive change does not come from fame or military strength or money. Rather, positive change comes about when we respond to the call of the circumstance at hand by courageously pursuing the highest good with a deep understanding of the value of our goal.

The story of Judith has been used historically as both a personal and a communal appeal to rise against the forces of evil (or the power of the invader) and to embrace one’s identity as it relates to God and neighbor. In today’s world the challenge of the Book of Judith can be tricky to confront. Everyone seems to be able to identify wrongdoing in others, but we often seem to overlook our own corrupted intentions and lack an understanding of what is truly good.

The Academy of Sacred Drama’s timely focus on the story of Judith is a rousing and hopeful response to pervasive currents of contemporary discontent. To begin to respond to the realities of our own time, we turn first to the lessons of history. In this Academy Journal, Abigail Storch recalls an epic Anglo-Saxon poem that follows the life of Judith and parallels Beowulf in the age of the Viking invasions. Jane Tylus reminds us that, fittingly, dozens of Judith-themed oratorios were written during the time of the Ottoman-Venetian and Ottoman-Austrian Wars. And Elena Ciletti explores meditations on the Judith story from late Renaissance and early Baroque art.

We bring the Judith story to modern times in an interview with Tony Ssembaya who is changing the conditions of his Ugandan community by enabling access to education for children. And we highlight the efforts of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale as they explore other sacred-dramatic musical themes in a review of a Yale Schola Cantorum performance by Christopher Browner.

This Academy Journal is just the starting point for ongoing discussions, and it is released in preparation for our upcoming performances of Antonio Draghi’s Oratorio di Giuditta. Our March 9, 2018 performance at Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School in New Haven, CT will mark the North American premiere of Draghi’s seventeenth century exploration of the Judith story. And on March 10, 2018 we will perform for Academy members and New York City concert goers at Corpus Christi Church.

Academy oratorio performances are opportunities to engage both emotionally and intellectually with the timeless stories of the oratorio repertoire, and they provide a unique opportunity to make friends and explore opportune topics. As an artistic and intellectual academy, and as people of goodwill, let us courageously respond to the challenges of our time and circumstances. May we enrich our communities with great ideas, acts of charity, and well-placed creations in art and music.

Jeremy Rhizor is a violinist, the artistic director of the Academy of Sacred Drama, and the publisher of the Academy Journal. He dedicates his time to exploring the world of sacred dramatic music and searching for appropriate boundaries in our understanding of the communal and individual nature of humanity.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 2 (2018) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

On Understanding

By Mary Elliot

Orazio Gentileschi’s Judith and Her Maidservant with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1621-24, PD-1923

Judith takes her place among women who are remembered not just for their beauty, but for their ability to lead others in the way of understanding. This is important because beauty, as the “rising stairs” towards wisdom, may be our last hope out of the ever-pervasive technological and economical corner that we have trapped ourselves in—one that has put our communal, political, and environmental existence at risk.

The continuing of a world amidst the threat of a certain conquering attitude is of no news to Judith and her people, and it is central to what the story as a whole means in our time. But in order to understand what exactly she means to us, perhaps we ought to intertwine Judith’s story with that of another who holds similar qualities, albeit in a very different time and place.

Let us begin, then, with Diotima, the woman whom Socrates claims as his teacher in Plato’s Symposium. Socrates’ re-telling of Diotima’s story begins by noting that it was not just in the art of love and beauty that Diotima was well-versed; she was “a woman who was wise about many things besides this: once she even put off the plague for ten years by telling the Athenians what sacrifices to make.”1 Diotima’s piety, we soon find out, is rooted in the recognition that a true love of wisdom places itself in the “in-between,” in knowing that we do not yet know. It is in this in-between that Diotima teaches Socrates that judgment about the purposes of the gods only comes by such admission of uncertainty. “It is not the part of anyone to do this,” Socrates tells us in another dialogue, “but of one who is far advanced in wisdom.”2

For Diotima, the art of love, including such a love of the gods, “belongs to anyone who has given birth to true virtue and nourished it, and if any human being could become immortal, it would be he.”3 In Diotima’s story, physical beauty is the beginning of the long road of virtue—a road that is named the love (eros) of wisdom for its primary recognition that we do not yet know. And so we find here the eternal things hidden in Judith’s story: a recognition of not knowing as the road to understanding, a desire for piety that is fulfilled by following that recognition in the footsteps of beauty, and the intertwining of such a life with how the story is remembered and retold.

We turn now to Judith. Her tale begins with a king who, having achieved success without the support he desired, seeks revenge. He sends his general, Holofernes, to travel the earth demolishing all that is sacred to other peoples, destroying the “local gods” and subsuming those of other languages and nationalities.

When the Israelites hear this, they prepare themselves in the hills, closing off the mountain passages, and call out to God. They drape the altar itself in sackcloth.

But, soon after, they move and plan too quickly, not giving understanding its due. Enter Judith, who begins by reprimanding the “teachers” of the town for their willingness to agree with the crowd in surrender to Holofernes if God remains silent within the days they have numbered.

“You do not understand anything,” Judith reminds the leaders and the people. “If you cannot sound the depths of the human heart or unravel the arguments of the human mind, how can you fathom the God who made all things, or sound his mind or unravel his purposes?”4

With this, Judith finds her life, once devoted to solitude and piety, pushed into the world where she must adorn herself in beauty. Unlike Diotima, who sees physical beauty as the beginning of the road of virtue, Judith’s story begins with virtue and descends to physical beauty. And while Judith is praised for her wisdom and eloquence,5 it is her beauty that conquers in the enemy’s camp as she sits with Holofernes, whom she praises for his cunning knowledge in battle. It is her beauty that ultimately disarms and takes his soul as captive.6 And, as Diotima might have foretold, in the face of such beauty even Holofernes, in all his methodical knowledge, is seized, if just for a moment, by the spirit of understanding.

But in Judith’s story, such understanding does not take place as an idealized love story; Holofernes’ admission of Judith’s beauty comes to him through Judith’s particularity, in her identity as part of a community. “Sublime beauty is of the granite hard,”7 and Judith exhibits this most clearly as she remains faithful to her tradition.8 She carries with her into Holofernes’ tent her own food and drink, that which serve as symbols of her loyalty to God, community and past. It is, terrifyingly, in that same symbol that she brings down Holofernes, as she kills him and carries his head back in her food sack to her people.9 In such a moment Judith stands as a frightening beauty—a horror religiosus—reminding us “that the world to which we belong,” in the words of philosopher J. Glenn Gray, “is not there for us, but we for it.” Judith’s beauty, quite unlike Diotima’s which leads to birth and immortality, leads to death and mortality. “If anything can,” Gray continues, “sublime beauty gives to man his measure.”10

And as Holofernes’ pride is broken in the hands of a woman, so certainty falls short to beauty and understanding.11 The contrived measures of man, put forth in Holofernes’ desire for universal conquest, cannot stand up to the measure given to him by the limits of time, place, and tradition. Unlike such certainty, understanding is reached in the face of the incomprehensible, the One who breathes into being “the past, and what is happening now, and what will follow.”12

What might Judith’s story mean, then, for us and our time? How might it help us understand the weight—and subsequent risks—we have placed upon humanity in our attempt to conquer it? Perhaps the best answer resides not here, but in a whole retelling of what has happened, one that embodies itself in the beauty of dramatic music that so well preserves the tradition of Judith’s own beauty. For before we can ever understand, our cultures and traditions stand-under us, serving as reminders—and invitations—that we do not yet know.13 And when such a story of the past comes to its end? May we, like Judith and those who listened to her, find a way to praise until the town echoes.14

Mary Elliot is a Lonergan Graduate Fellow at Boston College and a research assistant at the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good.

1  Plato, Symposium, trans. Nehamas and Woodruff (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989), 201D.
2  Plato, “Euthyphro,” in Five Dialogues, 2nd ed., trans. G. M. A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 4B.
3  Plato, Symposium, 212A–B.
4  Judith 8:13–14 (New Jerusalem Bible).
5  Among her own people, Uzziah and others praised her understanding: “Not that today is the first time your wisdom has been displayed” (8:29). And across the battle lines, Holofernes and all his adjudicates, too, praised her: “There is no woman like her from one end of the earth to the other, so lovely of face and so wise of speech!” (11:21).
6  “The heart of Holofernes was ravished at the sight; his very soul was stirred” (12:16). See also 16:2, 9.
7  Gray, J. G. “The Claims of Beauty,” The Virginia Quarterly Review 49, no. 3 (1973): 357–70, at 365.
8  Later Judith praises God as the one “who breaks battle-lines” through the concrete, camping in the middle of his people (16:2).
9  12:2–3, 13:9–10.
10  Gray, J. Glenn. “The Claims of Beauty,” 363, 365.
11  9:10.
12  9:5.
13  It is, after all, “not really we ourselves who understand: it is always a past that allows us to say, ‘I have understood.’” Gadamer, Hans-Georg. “On the Problem of Self-Understanding,” in Philosophical Hermeneutics, trans. David E. Linge (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 58.
14  14:9.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · CC BY-NC-ND 4.0