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

Interview with Scott Lykins

Academy artistic director Jeremy Rhizor with Scott Lykins.

Scott Lykins is the artistic and executive director of the Lakes Area Music Festival (LAMF) in Brainerd, Minnesota. Together with associate artistic director John Taylor Ward and community members he built a summer festival with an annual budget over $300,000 that offers free orchestral, chamber music, and fully-staged operatic performances to the greater lakes area. Jeremy Rhizor, the Academy of Sacred Drama artistic director, interviews Scott about his vision for the festival and his professional journey as a cellist and administrator.

JR: The quality of LAMF performances is competitive with much larger metropolitan areas and still manages to focus on more community-minded aspects of performance. What role does the pursuit of artistic excellence play within a larger vision for LAMF performances?

SL: It has been amazing to watch the performance quality grow substantially in each of our nine seasons. There are a few factors that account for this. Among the most important are the fact that as Executive Director, I am still a musician first; I don’t think any artist, when faced with the possibility of excellence, would be accepting of anything less. Also, many of the long-time members of our roster (including myself and [Associate Artistic Director John] Taylor Ward) started coming to Minnesota as undergraduate students. Now, almost a decade later, the talents of those individuals have naturally progressed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the role our audience and community play in everything we do. We have a very diverse audience: we have many people who heard their first symphony orchestra or saw their first opera at our performances; we also have many committed audience members who have retired to the area or visit seasonally that are frequent attendees at the world’s best symphonies and opera companies and who expect excellence. Knowing that the quality of our programs is what draws these classical music aficionados, and seeing how they in turn support us as donors and volunteers, is an endorsement of our success.

JR: The Academy of Sacred Drama’s Year of Judith explores the story of an unlikely heroine who faces and defeats a seemingly unstoppable enemy on behalf of her community. What are some of Brainerd’s most pressing challenges, and how has the unlikely medium of classical music helped to address those issues in the greater lakes area?

SL: Brainerd, Minnesota was recently named the poorest downtown community in the state. With low median income and high unemployment, many of the permanent, rural residents aren’t afforded vibrant cultural opportunities. One of LAMF’s core values from the beginning was to make excellent music accessible. One way that we do that is that we don’t charge anyone to come to our programs. Instead, we ask people to donate as they are able and put a value on the importance of our organization in their life and in the life of our community. We provide educational opportunities to people of all ages and bring music outside the walls of our concert venue and deep into the community through our outreach programs. Beyond sharing music with people who might not hear it otherwise we are bringing people from different sectors of the community together, engaging individuals through volunteerism, and participating in the revitalization of the region through economic development and improved livability.

JR: Community members in Brainerd speak glowingly about your mother who was a school teacher in the community. How did her vision and values influence the direction that you have taken with the festival?

SL: My mom was a very special person. She was a kindergarten teacher, a resort owner, and was very involved with a number of church and community activities. It seemed like she knew everyone and even today, six years after she passed away as a result of breast cancer, people share stories about how they remember her and felt loved by her. Her generous spirit and her ability to make everyone feel welcomed, accepted, and important definitely helped shape the early development of the festival. She would go above and beyond welcoming people who came through the doors at our concerts and spreading the word about the festival to everyone she encountered, whether she knew them or not. She also made sure that each of our musicians was well taken care of and played an important role in getting volunteers to provide housing and meals to artists. Even though she was only here for two seasons, each year during the festival season is when I think of her most. Organizationally, our commitment to “radical hospitality” is derivative of her work in the early years. Personally, her values help shape the way I positively interact with people; her teaching legacy inspires me to remain committed to youth education and her love of those marginalized in society inspires the continued development of our outreach activities.

R: Your career balances playing cello with arts administration and community organizing. How do these areas of activity fit together into an integrated vision of your professional life and personal identity?

SL: In college, like many of my fellow students, I assumed that a career in music would be based on taking auditions and—hopefully—eventually winning a coveted position in an orchestra. It wasn’t until the festival began that I discovered my interest in administrative leadership. The evolution of LAMF has provided me the opportunity to run an amazing organization, continue performing with inspiring colleagues, network with top professionals in the field, and remain connected with a hometown that I love. You also mention community organizing, which is a large part of what the festival does. After graduating from college and prior to LAMF becoming a full-time job, I spent a year working on a nonpartisan political campaign. Similar to the festival in that it was a cause I was deeply invested in and deeply affected by, being a part of the largest grassroots campaign in state history gave me valuable understanding of the impact an individual can have on others and the power that a collection of individuals can have on a community. LAMF embodies that grassroots spirit as everyone—from musicians to our board of directors to volunteers, donors, and supporters—contributes to make something great.

JR: The LAMF is transitioning from an emerging arts organization to an established and permanent community institution. Next season will mark the festival’s tenth year. How has your vision for the festival changed over the past decade, and how has the festival changed you?

SL: Celebrating ten years is a huge milestone! A decade ago when we put on our first few concerts I would have never imagined the possibility of what has been accomplished. I think one of the greatest developments in vision for me has been the shift of focus from the individual concerts and the individuals who attend to the far-reaching impact LAMF’s existence has on the community at large. Looking to the future, my vision is to ensure the organization’s permanence and sustainability to make sure the music continues long into the future. How has the festival changed me? It has helped me grow as a musician; it has enabled my feeling connected to a strong hometown and musical community; it has made me appreciate the generosity of others; and it has altered the trajectory of my career.

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

Judith in the Reformation

By Bruce Gordon

Martin Luther on Judith

The Apocryphal books of the Bible, which include the book of Judith, had a troubled history in the Protestant Reformation. Found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint, they were not included in the Masoretic text, and the reformers of the sixteenth century debated their status in scripture. The church father Jerome had argued that the books of the Apocrypha did not belong to the canon of the Bible, but that they were profitable to read, a position adopted by most Protestant reformers.

In the Luther Bible of 1534, which was the first complete German translation produced by the reformer, the books of the Apocrypha (including Judith) were placed between the testaments with the description that they were “useful and good to read.” Later, in Geneva, John Calvin would take the same position. Luther’s assessment of the book of Judith specifically was also more complex. In his 1534 preface he revealed a largely positive attitude towards the book. Although he doubted the historical veracity of the story of Judith, finding that its events and chronology did not square with other books of the Bible, notably Jeremiah and Ezra, there was much to be admired. He held up Judith, declaring that her story would have been of great value to the ancient people as instruction in virtue and godly living. Indeed, Luther felt that as allegory Judith was an excellent piece of Christian edification.

Therefore this is a fine, good, holy, useful book, well worth reading by us Christians. For the words spoken by the persons in it should be understood as though they were uttered in the Holy Spirit by a spiritual, holy poet or prophet who, in presenting such persons in his play, preaches to us through them.1

Judith in the Catholic Reformation

In its struggle against Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the renewed Catholic Church appropriated valiant Judith, triumphant over unbelievers, as a significant tool of veneration and propaganda. The heroine of the Apocryphal book was presented in literature and paintings as the conqueror of heretics and as a symbol of Catholic resurgence. In the Palazzo Laternese in Rome, a series of frescoes of the Judith story was painted for Pope Sixtus V, who reigned from 1585–90.2 In twenty scenes, produced by the workshop of Giovanni Guerra and Cesare Nebbia, the story of Judith is told on a grand scale. The message of the art could not be more striking: church was restored and triumphant and the authority of the Tridentine papacy absolute. The execution of Holofernes was nothing less than the true Church dispatching its most reviled enemies.

Cover page of Vulgate Bible from the time of Pope Sixtus V.

Catholic writers such as Robert Bellarmine robustly defended the place of the book of Judith in the canon of the Latin Bible known as the Vulgate. Much of his argument was directed against the views of Martin Luther, who, as we have just noted, doubted the place of the Book of Judith in scripture. Bellarmine searched out arguments to defend Judith, and much of his attention to historical context is expressed in the Lateran frescoes. Another key writer in the Catholic appropriation of Judith was Cesare Baronio, the great historian of the Catholic Reformation. Baronio identified the Judith story with papal authority by making the heroine a type for Peter, the first pope. As one historian recently commented, “Baronio’s reference reveals that Judith was more than a generic personification of the triumphant Church: she was fashioned as a pillar of the contentious doctrine of papal sovereignty itself. We find here yet another reason for the Catholic insistence on her canonicity.”3 The Catholic defense of the book’s canonicity fashioned a figure who embodied the triumph over infidels and heretics in a conflict that culminated in the battle between the Bethulians and Assyrians, and the victory of the former. The true Church likewise crushed both the Turks and the heretical followers of Luther and Calvin.

Judith’s most singular role was as a type for Mary, a connection first made by the ancient fathers of the Church. Mary was at the center of a fierce struggle between Protestants and Catholics in the sixteenth century. One theme that united almost all Protestant reformers was the rejection of the intercessory powers of Mary, who by their reckoning was the model of humility and faithfulness, not the Queen of Heaven to whom men and women could pray. But Mary had been of great importance in the late-medieval church, and this relationship was continued and even enhanced in the Catholic Reformation. To counter Protestant arguments that the veneration of Mary was unscriptural, Catholic scholars turned to the book of Judith as providing a precursor.

Judith’s genealogy in the book, which is the longest of any woman’s in the Hebrew Bible, confirmed Mary’s lineage from the house of David. Judith’s chastity and humility preceded that of Mary: Judith delivered the people by resisting Holofernes’ advances, and, although she was able to deceive him, she succumbed to his will before she ultimately killed him. Scholars have also noted that Judith’s frequent recourse to prayer would be reinforced in Mary, who intercedes for the faithful. Judith was interpreted as a model of the devout Christian life, one of prayer and virtuous action. Such was the connection made between the two women that passages from the book of Judith became part of the liturgies for Mary’s feast days. Perhaps most important are the words of Bethulian elder Ozias (Judith 13:23), who, when Judith returns from the Assyrian camp, declares, ”Blessed art thou, O daughter, by the Lord the most high God, above all women on earth.” This passage became of great significance to Tridentine Catholics, finding expression in the Ave Maria.

Judith rose above the debate over her book’s canonicity to inspire, in different ways, both Catholics and Protestants.

A native of Canada, Professor Bruce Gordon taught at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he was professor of modern history and deputy director of the St. Andrews Reformation Studies Institute, before joining the Yale faculty in 2008. Gordon teaches and supervises graduate students in a broad range of medieval and early modern subjects and their resonances in contemporary historiography and society. In 2012 he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich.

1  Luther’s Works, 35:338.
2  I recommend the essay by Elena Ciletti, “Judith as Imagery in Catholic Orthodoxy in Counter Reformation Italy,” in The Sword of Judith. Judith Studies across the Disciplines, ed. Kevin R. Brine, Elena Ciletti, and Henrike Lähnemann. (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2010), 345–68. My view of Judith in Catholic reception is much indebted to Ciletti’s chapter.
3  Ciletti, “Judith as Imagery,” 351.

Academy Journal Volume 1, Number 1 (2017) · 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

Letter from the Publisher

Creative Commons music, image by Horia Varlan

At the heart of the Academy of Sacred Drama is a communal effort to explore the world of sacred dramatic music. Lost oratorios and forgotten masterpieces are resurrected through the creation of translations and editions, their stories and contexts are explored in the Academy Journal, and they are performed in Oratorio Readings that mirror the format of their original presentations.

The musical and textual material that we explore is in the public domain. The concept that printed works from past ages can exist for anyone to use, modify, or otherwise engage with recognizes that great ideas and works of art aren’t just the property of an artist and his or her descendants but have something to do with the contributions and identities of communities and even generations.

Copyright might not sound as riveting as the topics of oratorio texts, but it plays an integral part in the Academy’s mission. The 2017–2018 season is the Academy’s Year of Judith. We’re taking three oratorios from the Baroque era and re-imagining them for modern times. Our first oratorio of the season is a Giuditta with music by Domenico Freschi and a libretto by Abate Francesco Silvani. Both music and libretto have not been heard by anyone since the early-eighteenth century.

Lucy Yates has contributed a masterful translation of Abate Francesco Silvani’s libretto which will be released as a draft during our November 2017 Oratorio Readings and will be released in it’s final—though still early—form in October 2018. We’re confident that her translation successfully conveys the meaning and intention of Silvani’s libretto. However, we want to make it possible for other translators and musical directors to make changes to her translation as they deem necessary in order to highlight their linguistic priorities without having to start a new translation from scratch.

Jonathan Woody transcribed the notes from Freschi’s manuscript, and I edited the music and inputted the text, making decisions about how the text corresponds to the musical notes as I went along. My editorial decisions will be reviewed in the rehearsal process for the Oratorio Readings. Through the course of this process, a final—though still early—edition of Freschi’s Giuditta also will be released in October 2018.

The same system will guide our exploration of Antonio Draghi’s Giuditta in March 2018, and we will create English and Spanish translations of Niccolò Jommelli’s La Betulia liberata for our Oratorio Readings in May 2018. It might be possible for our organization to bring in a little extra money by selling these editions and translations. However, while we acknowledge and value the contributions of the many people whose ongoing efforts make Academy programs a reality, these oratorios and their librettos are the property of everyone who engages with them.

Many people put in a tremendous amount of time and effort into Academy programs. They do this for little or no monetary payment, and it is both important and a privilege for the Academy to recognize and publicize their contributions. We’re grateful to the many musicians, scholars, and writers who contribute to Oratorio Readings, the Journal, and our editions and translations.

We chose to use a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license for the editions and translations which enables other people to modify them, and a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 license for the Academy Journal which enables other people to distribute and reprint articles as they deem appropriate. This balances our need to acknowledge the efforts of Academy members by requiring the attribution of their work on Academy projects with our desire to make what we do through the Academy the starting point for other communities and generations to build on our work.

Although our work is already ambitious, we have even larger goals that couldn’t begin to be realized without utilizing copyright licenses that acknowledge both the individual and communal aspects of human identity. Our system for publication makes it more easily possible to spread the stories and music of Baroque-era oratorio and even to begin to re-imagine the way we do research or form communities.

If this intrigues you, help us explore Baroque-era sacred dramatic music as a member of the Academy of Sacred Drama. Together as musical professionals, linguists, historians, amateurs, and supporters we can rediscover the perspectives of past ages and explore the world of sacred dramatic music for our own time. We can’t wait to share this fantastic journey with you.


Jeremy Rhizor is a Baroque 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 what it means to be human.

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