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

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