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

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