The Story of Judith

For her first published collection of cantatas, composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665-1729) eschewed the traditional  subjects of nymphs, goddesses, and trickster gods from Greco-Roman mythology. Instead, she took stories from the Old Testament, focusing almost exclusively on the heroines: Susanna, Esther, Rachel, Jephta’s Daughter, and Judith. It’s unclear what drove this artistic choice but the inherent drama of each Biblical story is expertly teased out by de la Guerre, leaving no doubt as to the worthiness of the subjects and skillfulness of the composer.

De la Guerre’s Judith, a vibrant twenty-minute rumination on righteous fury and faith, is the centerpiece of Les Délices upcoming online release Women of Genius, available March 18-29th. Soprano Clara Rottsolk, well-known for her touching interpretations of French Baroque music, lends her “opulent tone” to this dramatic cantata.

The story of Judith comes to us from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith, in a story meant to impart the Israelites’ heroism in the face of a tyrannical, crushing opposing force. Nebuchadnezzar, the destructive King of Babylon, was eager to punish those who refused to support his military campaigns. General Holofernes was tasked with marshaling Assyrian troops along the sea coast, terrorizing enclaves of Jews as he went.

Eventually, Holofernes came to the gates of the city of Bethulia. Inside the city, a widow named Judith decided to take action against the would-be occupiers. Late at night, she snuck into the Assyrian camp, seduced Holofernes with her entrancing beauty (and a cask of wine) then slit his throat after he passed out. Assisted by her maidservant Abra, and with his severed head in tow, she returned to Bethulia, inspiring the Israelites to rise up and drive the Assyrians away.

Judith’s story, (apocryphal or not), is a potent mix of faith, politics, sex, and violence. And for centuries, the account of her assassination of Holofernes was a mainstay of religious-themed art. In the early Renaissance, Donatello Botticelli, Titian, and Michelangelo crafted likenesses of Judith for their Italian patrons, who found in Judith’s story a compelling allegoryfor the Florentinian politics of the day. A generation later, Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, and most strikinglyArtemisia Gentileschi, all took Judith as a subject. In the pre-concert conversation to Women of Genius, we will speak with Art Historian and Curator Eve Straussman-Pflanzer about 17th century Italian representations of Judith’s story, including focus on two paintings by Gentileschi and one by Elisabetta Sirani.

During the Baroque period, Vivaldi, Charpentier, and Scarlatti all composedoratorios expounding Judith’s story. Later, famed librettist Pietre Metastasio would pen Judith’s story as La Betulia liberata (The Liberation of Bethulia), and over thirty Classical Era composers including Mozart would set it to music. Fascination with Judith’s story continued over the 19th and 20th centuries, with playwrights, visual artists, and composers including Hubert Parry, Siegfried Matthus, and Alexander Serov all contributing to the Judith canon.

But what makes de la Guerre’s telling of Judith’s story especially compelling? Soprano Clara Rottsolk shared her thoughts:

“Across the board, I find that de la Guerre truly excels at storytelling. The freedom she takes with cantata form to blur the lines between recitative, aria, instrumental movements control the pacing of the drama: moments to contemplate an intense feeling, for scenic text-painting, for psychological developments create vivid scenic perspective and personal tapestry for the characters to fully develop. This results in an elastic experience of time where we can go to slow-mo contemplation and in a blink, pop to flight both in story and in music. I think de la Guerre’s character development beautifully juxtaposes the base and usurious tendencies of the conquering powerful warrior with the integrity and strength of the oppressed and victimized woman. Part of the beauty of the music and the libretto here is that it highlights Judith’s conflict– that she knows the murder is righteous and also that she is uniquely able to commit it, but nonetheless that it is a difficult negotiation with her moral compass and her fear to finally perform the grave and violent act.”

You can hear de la Guerre’s Judith as interpreted by Clara in Women of Genius, premiering March 19th. Single tickets ($8-$20) are on sale now!

Written by Hannah De Priest