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Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans – Synopsis and Program Notes

October 20, 2015


The story is from the Book of Judith in the Apocrypha, in which Judith, a Jewish widow, saves her people from the army of Nebuchadnezzar.

With her city besieged by the enemy, Judith and her maid Abra secretly make their way to the camp of the general Holofernes to sue for peace.  Holofernes falls in love with her, and, after giving a feast in her honor, he falls into a drunken sleep.  Judith seizes the opportunity and beheads him with his own sword.  His servant Vagaus discovers the body and raises an alarm, but Judith and Abra have escaped.  The Jews then attack and drive away the leaderless and demoralized Assyrians.

Program notes by Martin Pearlman

When the modern-day Vivaldi revival began early in the 20th century, attention focused mainly on the composer’s concertos.  These were particularly interesting to scholars and musicians because of their influence on J. S. Bach.  But then the picture of Vivaldi changed, when an enormous collection of his vocal music, including many operas and other secular  and religious works, was discovered in Turin in the late 1920’s.  Suddenly, Vivaldi was much more than a composer of violin concertos.  But it was many decades before his operas and choral works began to be revived, and to this day, the popular image of Vivaldi is weighted heavily toward his being a composer of solo concertos.

The oratorio we hear tonight was one of the largest, most beautiful and most fascinating works in the Turin collection — but it is rarely heard.  Indeed, of his large body of religious works, only one of Vivaldi’s settings of the Gloria is well known today.  We know, however, that he was asked to write a great deal of religious vocal  music for the accomplished musicians at the Ospedale della Pietà, the girls’ orphanage in Venice where he was music director.  The Ospedale, one of four such institutions in Venice, was famous for the high level of its singers and instrumentalists, and its concerts attracted not only tourists from Italy and beyond, but — even more critically for the institution — they attracted both civic and private financial support.  Vivaldi had already been at the Pietà for a decade as a violin teacher and director of the orchestra, when, in 1713, the choirmaster Francesco Gasparini took a sudden and, as it turned out, permanent leave from his post.  Vivaldi filled the position on a temporary basis for six years, directing the choir and writing religious and other vocal music, until a permanent replacement was found.

His oratorio Juditha triumphans was composed for the girls of the Pietà in 1716 and is the only oratorio to survive of the four that he is known to have written.  Based on a story from the Book of Judith in the Apocrypha, it is one of many works with female heroines that were meant to be instructive and inspiring to the girls of the Pietà.  However, it is also a topical allegory.  Venice had, in that very year, won decisive battles against the Turks, and lest anyone should miss the connection between the oratorio and the then current events, Vivaldi’s librettist Giacomo Cassetti appended a poem, in which he spelled out the symbolism that he saw in the story:  Judith represents Venice; Abra is Christianity; the besieged Jewish city of Bethulia is the church; its ruler Ozias is the pope; and the general of the enemy army Holofernes is the Ottoman sultan.

Typically for oratorios performed at the Ospedali, Juditha triumphans is in Latin.  Like the more modern oratorios of its time, it has no narrator but tells the story entirely through the words and actions of its characters.  In this respect, it is similar to opera, although, as we might expect, it is not as overtly dramatic as an opera and is a bit more religious and didactic in tone.  The work is in two parts, between which audiences of the time might either hear a sermon or be given a break for food and drink.

Vivaldi’s instruments

In many ways, the most astonishing aspect of this detailed and carefully worked out score is Vivaldi’s unusually colorful instrumentation.  It is as though he is freed of the financial constraints of the professional opera house and can indulge in the entire arsenal of instruments available at the Pietà — and with those at his command, he is extremely particular about the palette of sounds that he wants.  One of the reasons that Juditha triumphans is so infrequently performed may well be due to the difficulty of assembling these instruments and even deciding what some of them are.

Among the unusual instruments in this oratorio is the viola d’amore, a hybrid instrument with fourteen wire strings, seven of them played with the bow and seven more below those, which ring sympathetically with the strings above them.  When Judith sees that Holofernes is falling in love with her, she begs him to spare her people, singing the seductive aria Quanto magis generosa.  For this aria, Vivaldi calls not only for the sweet sound of the viola d’amore, but, with unusual precision, calls for it to be accompanied by violins played with mutes made of lead.  The sound of the wire strings of the viola d’amore and the heavily muted violins is just one of the wonderfully detailed instrumental colors that Vivaldi calls for in this work.

In one aria with chorus (O servi volate), Vivaldi gives solo lines to several theorbos, long-necked lutes which are normally used only for accompaniment; these, in turn, are accompanied by a harpsichord.  This striking combination of plucked strings depicts the servants rushing to prepare a feast.  A very different combination of plucked strings occurs in Judith’s aria about the transience of life (Transit aetas), where a solo mandolin is accompanied by a single line of pizzicato violins.  Two solo instruments, oboe and organ, form the entire accompaniment to Holofernes’ aria Noli, o cara, and recorders make an appearance in Umbrae carae to depict — perhaps ironically — the gentle breezes, as Vagaus wishes the drunken Holofernes a peaceful repose just before he is slain.

In some cases, however, it is not so clear exactly what instruments Vivaldi wants.  What is he referring to, for example, when he calls for “salmoè,” “clarens” and “viole d’inglese?”  It is generally agreed today that his term “salmoè” is a Venetian adaptation of the French “chalumeau“, a rare Baroque instrument generally considered a precursor of the clarinet.  This small single-reed instrument creates one of the most remarkable instrumental colors in the oratorio, as it depicts the lamenting turtle dove in Judith’s beautiful aria Veni, veni me sequere fida.  But surprisingly, Vivaldi also calls for  true clarinets in the aria and chorus Plena nectare.  (Hist term “clarens”, once thought to refer to the clarino or trumpet, is now generally taken to refer to the clarinet.)  The clarinet was a new instrument at the time, and this is one of the earliest works to call for it.  Vivaldi thus makes a fine distinction between the sounds of the chalumeau and the clarinet in that shadowy transitional time between the two.

Perhaps the most debated designation of instruments in this oratorio is the “viola d’inglese” (“English viol”), an ensemble of which accompanies Judith’s final prayer before she slays Holofernes.  Arguments have been made in favor of the viola d’amore, the viola da gamba (or viol), and other  instruments.  The most convincing solution is to use a small consort of viols, and in our performance, we also include a viola d’amore as the highest voice of the group.  The sonority of this ethereal, reflective moment just before the climax of the story makes a remarkable contrast to the sound of the orchestra which we have heard up to this point.

The instrument collection of the Pietà thus offered Vivaldi a rich variety of sonorities on which he could draw.  Interestingly, most of the unusual instruments are heard only once in the oratorio and not in the same arias.  No doubt this allowed some of the girls to double on several different instruments, that being a time when many musicians were not so specialized as they are today.  Remarkably, though, none of this menagerie of instruments– and indeed none of the singers — would have been actually observed by the audience, since the Pietà required, for the sake of propriety, that the girls perform behind a screen.


Not surprisingly in a work written for a girls’ school, all the solo roles are for female voices, including that of the general Holofernes.  From notations in Vivaldi’s score and other sources, we know the names of his soloists, who as foundlings were referred to only by their first names.  Barbara, who sang Vagaus, the only high soprano part in the oratorio, was a famous singer associated with the school.  Appolonia, who sang Holofernes, was also very well known, while Caterina, Silvia and Giulia were perhaps younger residents of the Pietà.

Although the choruses in this work are written for the traditional four voices — soprano, alto, tenor and bass — it has been argued that they may have been sung entirely by female voices, even in the military scenes.  For that reason, some performances have transposed the tenor and bass lines up an octave to put them within the normal range of women.  However, if Vivaldi actually did perform the choruses with only high voices, it would have been necessitated by the rules of the institution and not by the music itself.  The choruses are not written as if they are only for high voices, and transposing the lower parts up an octave obscures melody lines and inverts harmonies.  We therefore use a mixed chorus for our performance.

Ornamenting arias and adding occasional cadenzas to them was normal practice for Vivaldi, and our performance follows that practice, where appropriate.

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