With its intense drama and marked eroticism, the story of Judith's slaying of Holofernes was often represented in baroque visual art and music. The overwhelming majority of musical representations are found in oratorios, with only three cantatas known to have been devoted to the subject. The oratorio's dramatic framework was suited for emphasizing Judith's multifaceted figure through character depiction, contrast and conflict, while the cantata's epic nature and lack of direct character intervention made staging conflict in that genre more difficult. Yet precisely because of these limitations, the cantata constitutes a revealing case study for exploring the strategies composers employed to give agency to Judith.
This article focuses on the baroque cantata settings of the Judith story by Sébastien de Brossard and Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (both from about 1708, both based on a text by La Motte). To illustrate their differing perspectives on Judith, I employ the concept of focalization – used in literary theory to mean point of view or filtered perspective – as a theoretical framework. The well-known Judith paintings by Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi (the so-called Uffizi Judith) provide a lucid example of focalization through the differing perspectives of the two maidservants and offer a valuable methodological tool for understanding the two differing compositional approaches. Whereas Brossard follows La Motte's narrative dutifully by emphasizing swiftness of action at the expense of character depiction, Jacquet de La Guerre bypasses it through instrumental accompaniments and independent symphonies that give voice to Judith, despite a text that downplays her character.