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

The Origins and Context of Domenico Freschi’s Oratorio della Giuditta

By Jude Ziliak

Oratorio and opera grew up alongside one another, and, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the twin genres developed along fairly similar lines. Both forms have their origins in private societies of an intellectual character in the late sixteenth century. Opera emerged from the innovations of the Florentine Camerata, a humanistic society which met at the home of Giovanni de’ Bardi. The oratorio emerged in Rome, out of the Congregazione dell’Oratorio, an order of secular clergy founded by Filippo Neri in the 1550s and still active today (to avert confusion it is well to note that oratorio uncapitalized refers to the musical genre; an Oratorian is a member of Neri’s order; and an Oratory, in English, or Oratorio, capitalized in Italian, is a building used for meetings of the Congregazione). The Oratorians held evening meetings at which scripture was read and discussed, and communal devotional singing was supplemented with occasional dramatic renditions of scriptural stories given by visiting musicians and actors. Offering an atmosphere of intellectual openness and conviviality, the Oratorians attracted a substantial following, notably including Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, who may have written music for Neri’s gatherings. Over half of a century, musical dialogues based on scripture evolved into the historia, drama rhythmometrum, and cantata,1 loosely defined musico-dramatic forms which are substantially identical to one another and to the oratorio in musica.

The oratorio thrived in Venice from 16672 until about 1700. From 1700 to about 1740, although oratorio performances continued, the number of new compositions dropped off precipitously. Domenico Freschi’s Oratorio della Giuditta is one of the exceedingly few surviving examples of oratorio from the vicinity of Venice dating from that period. It was presented in Vicenza, the small city thirty-eight miles outside of Venice where Freschi was maestro di capella, at the cathedral, in 1705. It was also performed in Vienna. While the exact date of this performance is unknown, it is presumed to postdate the one in Vicenza due to the fact that the music has survived in a manuscript score in the Austrian State Library. By 1705, Freschi (1634–1710), had held his position in Vicenza for nearly fifty years, having been appointed in 1656 at the age of twenty-two. He was also a priest, and was ordained at Vicenza in 1650. Freschi’s duties included supplying music for the Mass and for the principal feast days in the Vicenza cathedral and the other principal churches in the town.

Outside of his responsibilities in Vicenza, in the 1670s and 1680s, Freschi composed at least eleven operas for production in Venice. Despite the Biblical, or more properly deuterocanonical, subject matter of Giuditta, it is far more closely linked to Freschi’s work in the domain of opera than to his liturgical music. His surviving music for worship is simple in style, and shows little interest in dramatic effect; judging from the scant music which is available today, he appears to have made a sharp distinction between theatrical and liturgical music. Giuditta displays well-defined characters, some vivid text-painting and madrigalisms (the illustrative devices typical of Renaissance madrigals and widely used through the Baroque period), and an abundance of recitative.

It is not clear where Freschi’s oratorios were performed. The Congregazione dell’Oratorio did not found its Oratory in Vicenza until 1720. Given the ambiguity of the precise dates and circumstances of the first performances of Giuditta, any discussion of its intended meaning or of any potential allegorical intent must remain speculative. The performance in Vienna around 1705 is too suggestive to pass over, nevertheless. In 1704, four years into the War of the Spanish Succession, Vienna was threatened simultaneously by Bavarian armies from the North and French armies from the south. Its fall, which appeared inevitable, would likely have precipitated the collapse of the Grand Alliance. A dispute arose between British and Dutch military leaders as to how to respond; the Duke of Marlborough argued for sending troops to counter the Bavarian threat, but the Dutch demurred. Marlborough, convinced that further inaction could mean the end of the Alliance, pretended to cede to the Dutch, sending his troops at first only as far as Koblenz, where the Rhine and Moselle rivers intersect, on the pretext of a northerly campaign along the Moselle. From there, he redirected them into modern-day Bavaria, where they met and defeated the Franco-Bavarian forces at Blindheim (known as the Battle of Blenheim) on August 13, 1704, saving Vienna and turning the tide of the war—though ten more years of strife still lay ahead.

A map of the Battle of Blenheim from The Department of History, US Military Academy.

For a Viennese audience in 1705, Judith’s unilateral assault on the Assyrian general Holofernes, rescuing Israel from a threat her countrymen declined to face, must have registered as a quite familiar story. Paolo Bernardini argues that one of the defining features of Judith is her acting “on her own . . . in contradiction to the policy originally set by the leaders of her people.”3 This quality of individualism and salvific power outside of the bounds of established, masculine power is consonant with Judith’s role as an ur-heroine, one of the oldest and most potent symbols of feminine strength. The secretive British gambit which led to the Battle of Blenheim, in contravention of the Alliance’s collective decision, conforms neatly to the Judith mold.

The composers and poets who created the first operas in the first years of the seventeenth century were driven by a desire to harness the potent emotional impact which ancient writers attributed to music. Knowing that declamation and song were closely linked for the Greeks, the Florentines sought to unite their contemporary music and poetry into a single art, and they developed the techniques of monody (music for one melodic line with a rhythmically independent bass line accompaniment), basso continuo (semi-improvised chordal accompaniment guided by a written-out bass line), and recitative, which are the essential ingredients not only of opera, but of the stil moderno which today we call Baroque. Recitative, especially, was at the heart of the aesthetic of both early oratorio and early opera: the mimetic imitation of the actual rhythms of human speech gave this nuove musiche an emotional directness which both evoked the ideals of the ancients and spoke directly to contemporary audiences. By the last years of the seventeenth century, however, opera and oratorio alike were tending increasingly toward melodrama and towards an emphasis on virtuoso display by singers. This resulted in exaggerated and implausible plotlines in the libretti, and a marked decline in the use of recitative in favor of increasingly extended arias, the favored vehicle of the celebrity singer. A strong exception to this trend was Venetian oratorio composers, among them Freschi. Contrary to the prevailing manner of the time, Freschi and his colleagues continued to write oratorios using a small number of realistic characters, singing a great deal of recitative.

It is perhaps this conservative strain in Freschi’s oratorio style which allowed him to collaborate successfully with the librettist of Giuditta, Abate Francesco Silvani. Silvani (1660–1744) was a Venetian monk and poet some twenty-five years Freschi’s junior. Silvani produced libretti for opera which found favor with the most celebrated composers of the 18th century, among them Ariosti, Vivaldi, and Handel. Heavily influenced by the leading reformer of opera, Apostolo Zeno, Silvani’s works generally observed the Aristotelian unities of action, time, and place, and are heavily weighted towards recitative rather than aria.4 These qualities had not lost favor with Freschi to begin with, so the younger man’s reforming spirit must have been consonant with the elder’s held-over preferences from the prior century.

Jude Ziliak is a violinist specialized in historical performance practices. Widely active as a chamber musician in repertories from the Renaissance to the present, he is a member of the American Bach Soloists in San Francisco and Sonnambula and the Clarion Society in New York. A graduate of the Juilliard School, he teaches at the Special Music School, New York’s public school for musically gifted children. He writes program notes for such organizations as Lincoln Center, Music Before 1800, and the Portland Baroque Orchestra.

1  Lorenzo Bianconi, trans. David Bryant, Music in the Seventeenth Century. (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1987), 124.
2  George Buelow, A History of Baroque Music. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004), 97.
3  Paolo Bernardini, Episodes in Early Modern and Modern Christian-Jewish Relations: Diasporas, Dogmas, Differences. (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016), 145–59.
4  Harris S. Saunders. “Silvani, Francesco.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 25 Aug. 2017. < /subscriber/article/grove/music/25789>.

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

Politics and Piety in Seventeenth-Century Modena: Bassani’s Giona [1689]

By Eric Bianchi

Eric Bianchi speaks at an Oratorio Reading on June 10, 2017 at Corpus Christi Church in New York City. Photograph by Leili Zhang.

Professor Bianchi spoke between Part One and Part Two of Bassani’s Giona at the Oratorio Reading of June 10, 2017. His contextual talk was in place of the sermon that was often found between oratorio halves. He summarized his talk for the Academy Journal.

Giovanni Battista Bassani’s Giona premiered in 1689, a banner year for musical life in Modena. Under Duke Francesco II d’Este, the court now employed 29 musicians, the largest size the ducal musical establishment would ever attain. The 1689 oratorio season witnessed, in just over a month, the premiere of 13 full-scale works, apparently all newly composed by Francesco’s musicians. Among these were two settings of the Jonah story requiring the services of two poets and two composers. This required an enormous outlay of funds, especially for a state that was roughly the size of Delaware. (In fact, a financial crisis later that year forced Francesco to cut by half both his musical staff and number of oratorios in the 1690 season.) The lavish expenditure speaks to the importance of music, and oratorio specifically, in Italian cultural life. Why was oratorio considered worth the great expense? And how did composers like Bassani craft them?

Bassani, though little known today, was well respected in his time. J. S. Bach studied a volume of Bassani’s masses (Acroama missale, 1709) while composing his Mass in B Minor; resonances of Bassani can be heard in Bach’s Credo. That said, Bassani exemplifies a typical (rather than extra-ordinary) seventeenth-century composer. He worked in a number of small city–states, and, although he published dozens of volumes of music, his patrons’ immediate needs and tastes dictated much of what he would write. This demanded stylistic flexibility: texted vocal music and textless instrumental music, secular and sacred music; music for court and Church; for public theater, private chamber, and semi-public devotions. Bassani’s Giona, like the late-seventeenth-century oratorio generally, bears the mark of composers’ wide-ranging activity—especially their work for the secular operatic stage.

At first glance opera might not appear an obvious candidate upon which to model devotional music: these commercial dramas of romantic love and political intrigue attracted moral condemnation. Since, however, opera theaters went dark during Lent, the operatic oratorio offered a convenient and edifying substitute.

Ambrosio Ambrossini crafted a libretto that focused more upon Jonah’s moral and emotional struggles than upon the “action” of the plot. Bassani provided arias and instrumental ritornellos to heighten the poetry’s emotional intensity. Together, word and music created a vivid, affective experience similar to that sought in the meditative and devotional practices of Jesuits and Oratorians. Thus, by borrowing from the poetic and musical language of the theater, librettist and composer drew listeners into Biblical dramas through an idiom they might recognize as their own.

But why might the tale of Jonah, in particular, have merited two settings in Modena that season? Although the themes of Hope and Obedience, that Ambrossini emphasized, could have found almost universal applicability, they may also have held specific relevance for Duke Francesco in the spring of 1689. Just a few months before the premiere of Giona, his sister, Mary of Modena, fled the British throne in the face of the Glorious Revolution. The English monarchy was restored to Protestantism. Bassani’s pleasant music may have presented Francesco with an uncomfortable bit of Catholic propaganda: just as Jonah could not evade God’s command, so too must the ducal family ultimately prosecute the designs of the Church, come what may.

Eric Bianchi received his Ph.D. from Yale and is currently assistant professor of Music at Fordham University. His work explores the intellectual and scientific contexts of music during the Early Modern period, with particular focus on the writings of the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher. He has held research fellowships from the American Academy in Rome and the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University.

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