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ClassicsOnline Home » MAYR, J.S.: Sagrifizio di Jefte (Il) [Oratorio] (Bassenz, Iranyi, Sellier, Kupfer, Simon Mayr Choir and Ensemble, Hauk)
It is only in the last few years, largely as a result of the pioneering performances of the Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble conducted by Franz Hauk, that Mayr has come to be valued as one of the most significant composers of operatic and sacred music of his time. Il sagrifizio di Jefte (The Sacrifice of Jephtha), first performed in 1795, is a dramatic oratorio with a wealth of variety in both the vocal and instrumental writing, which foreshadows the operas to come.
Simon Mayr (1763–1845)
Born in the Bavarian town of Mendorf, near Ingolstadt, in 1763, Simon Mayr was the son of a schoolteacher and showed some early ability as a musician. He was a pupil at the Jesuit College in Ingolstadt, before entering the university to study theology, while continuing to demonstrate great versatility as a musician. His musical training, however, only began in earnest in 1787, when a patron, noticing his talent, took him to Italy. There, from 1789, he studied with Carlo Lenzi, master of the music at Bergamo Cathedral. There followed, through the generosity of another patron, a period of study with Bertoni in Venice. His early commissioned compositions were largely in the form of sacred oratorios, but in 1794 his opera Saffo was staged in Venice. His turning to opera owed much to the encouragement he received from Piccinni and Peter von Winter, and other operas followed for Venice and then for La Scala, Milan, and for other Italian theatres, with an increasingly large number of performances abroad. In 1802 he followed Lenzi as maestro di cappella at the cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, becoming director of the cathedral choir school three years later. Mayr held these positions until his death in 1845. As a teacher he won the particular respect of his pupil Gaetano Donizetti. He did much to promote the knowledge of the Viennese classical composers, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, in Italy. His own style reflects something of this, but essentially in an Italian context. He was, needless to say, immensely prolific as a composer, with nearly seventy operas to his credit between 1794 and 1824, and some six hundred sacred works.
Simon Mayr (1763–1845)
Il sagrifizio di Jefte (The Sacrifice of Jephtha)
Sacred Oratorio for soloists, choir and orchestra Forlì 1795
Libretto by Giuseppe Maria Foppa (1760–1845)
Jefte (Jephtha), General of the Gileadites – Hrachuhí Bassénz, Soprano
Seila, his daughter – Stefanie Irányi, Mezzo-soprano
Abnero (Abner), a Prince, her betrothed – Robert Sellier, Tenor
Jaddo, High Priest – Jochen Kupfer, Bass
Coro di Galaaditi, e di donzelle seguaci di Seila (Chorus of Gileadites and Maidens of Seila’s entourage)
Simon Mayr Chorus and Ensemble
Directed from the harpsichord by Franz Hauk
Biblical source (Judges 11. 29–40): The military leader Jephtha goes to war against the Ammonites. He takes a vow that, on his return, he will sacrifice the first person he meets coming out of the door of his house to greet him. When he returns home in triumph from Mizpah the first person to greet him is his only daughter. She accepts her fate but requests that she be allowed to go into the mountains with her maidens for two months in order to mourn with them her lost youth.
Jephtha’s Sacrifice—between oratorio and opera seria
An autograph score of Jephtha exists and is held in the Biblioteca civica Angelo Mai in Bergamo (I-BGc Mayr 160/6). The autograph, which bears the number “6”, suggests that the work was the last of the early oratorios after David. Details of the place and the year are missing. What is striking is the often sketchy, occasionally incomplete layout and the numerous crossings-out in the score. It must be assumed that there existed a fair copy from which the copyist made the parts. The complete set of parts, in a copyist’s hand, which survives in the Milan Conservatory (I-Mc M.S. ms. 186-1), contains each part in a simple version. The vocal parts—three copies of the soprano part and two of the alto part, as well as a copy each of the tenor and bass parts—are in the hand of Mayr’s Venetian chief copyist and are almost complete.
Mayr himself occasionally added dynamic and tempo indications but in some details the score and parts differ from one another. The instrumental parts contain more interpretation marks than the score does, but the question of whether these originated from the composer himself or from a well-informed concertmaster must remain open for the time being. The parts do serve, however, to fill in those passages which remain unclear, or are even missing in the score, and draw attention more effectively than does the score to a particular performance practice of the time.
Mayr’s comments in his autobiography and on the source material provide the information that Il sagrifizio di Jefte was given its first performance in 1795 in Forlì. More precise details of this production remain obscure. The libretto was written by Giuseppe Foppa and was based on the five-act tragedy Seila figlia di Jefte by the Jesuit priest Giovanni Granelli (1703–1770), as Iris Winkler has established. In the original Biblical text only Jephtha and his daughter are named. Granelli and Foppa filled out the cast of characters to include Abner, Seila’s betrothed, and Jaddo, who acts as both priest and adviser to Jephtha. Jephtha’s personal conflict is also hinted at in the Bible; on the other hand the theme of Seila’s choice between selfless sacrifice and a life spent alongside Abner and Jephtha is an invention.
In her seminal work „Die Oratorien von Johann Simon Mayr (1763–1845). Studien zu Biographik, Quellen und Rezeption“ (München 2007) (The Oratorios of Johann Simon Mayr, 1763–1845, studies in biography, sources and reception) (Munich 2007) Anja Morgenstern pays tribute to the oratorio, albeit briefly. With reference to the hasty handwriting in the score she speculates that Mayr: “…had only reluctantly discharged the task, perhaps already commissioned a year before, of writing again an oratorio for Forlì.” (S.75). As far as the score itself is concerned we have Mayr’s “original” manuscript before us which, as opposed to further fair copies, usually evokes in the observer the impression of sketches.
If we examine impartially the overall design of Il sagrifizio di Jefte we see that it stands apart from Mayr’s six early oratorios by dint of the increased chronological dimension, in line for example with an opera seria such as l misteri eleusini of 1802. Although the instrumentation of strings, two each of oboes and horns and one bassoon is oriented to the limited, traditional possibilities of the forces available to the commissioner the work gains in significance through the addition of a choir; not only is a four-part mixed ensemble (Chorus of Gileadites) deployed but a three-part female choir (Chorus of Maidens) also adds its own particular colour to the whole. The secco recitatives are of considerable length. Mayr is certainly trying here to create variety, while the continuo instruments in part comment independently on what is happening in the text. Finally, Mayr, doubtless inspired by his own operatic experiences from the same period, expands the scene endings through the use of many wide-ranging devices. So in his oratorio Il sagrifizio di Jefte Mayr makes the most of those dramatic possibilities which he would later develop further in the genre of opera seria.
The introductory Sinfonia in B flat major  is contrasted with Seila’s recitative which, rather unusually in Mayr’s work, is written in the dark key of C minor . Seila is concerned about her father who is away at war, and she has dark forebodings that he might have perished in the carnage, while the triumphal march, in a festive C major, can already be heard outside the door: “Su ti scuoti, donzella felice” (Rouse yourself, happy maiden). Seila can scarcely believe her good fortune . Abner, who also took part in the decisive battle, seeks out Seila, tells her about the dramatic struggle and dreams of their forthcoming marriage. Meanwhile Seila is desperate to see her father again . In a three-part aria Abner swears his love for Seila who at the end asserts: “Consolati: m’avrai e sposa e amante” (Be comforted: you shall have me as your wife and lover) . Another victory song announces the arrival of the great general . Jephtha arrives. God helped him and the victory is due entirely to him, he sings . A group of young women pay homage to the great victor with a cheerful song: “Frà cetre e cembali” (With zithers and cymbals) . Among them is Seila, who greets her father: “Ah, padre mio” (Ah, my father) . But the atmosphere established by the serene key of A major is suddenly shattered. Jephtha, who realizes the consequences of his secret vow, cries out in a horrified voice: “Fuggi…grand dio!” (Flee…great God!) 0. But Seila cannot understand the change of mood and is consumed by grief and sorrow. Jephtha, however, does not have the heart to tell her the truth and falls silent, consumed by dark thoughts. Seila and Abner try to get through to him, but in vain . In the aria “Squarciami il seno” (Rend my breast) Jephtha tells of his inner torments . Jaddo, the high priest, is engaged as an intermediary to try to find out Jephtha’s secret . In the recitative “Ah quale a’detti tuoi” (Ah, after your words)  and in the following aria “Deh, palesa al genitor” (Ah, tell my father)  Seila sings of her agony and torment. Jaddo asks Abner to comfort Seila: “O figlia sventurata” (O unhappy daughter) . Jaddo reflects on the emptiness of human existence, how joy and pain are closely related and how everything rests in the hands of God . Jaddo and Abner now try to persuade Jephtha to talk, at first without any real success . Only in a quartet, at the end of the first finale, does Jephtha disclose the vow that he made—to sacrifice the first person he met on his return home: “Seila…o dolor!…sarà” (Seila…o sorrow!…will be). Everyone is in uproar but Jaddo asks God to intervene .
Abner advises Seila to flee, but she remains resolute: “Se dio l’impon, si faccia; io nò, non tremo” (If God bids it, so be it; I do not tremble) . Abner sees his own plans being wrecked; he reacts angrily and threatens suicide: “Pria con un ferro il seno mi passerò” (Nor with a sword will I pierce my breast) . Seila meets Jephtha but neither knows what to do . The chorus of Gileadites sings of faith and heralds the arrival of the high priest . Jephtha sees clearly that soon he will have to take the painful decision and he gives way to gloomy presentiments of death, first in the recitative “Ecco l’istante” (Lo the instant) , then in the G minor aria “Se a morte mi condanna” (If my tyrannous lot condemns me to death) . Finally Jaddo arrives on the scene  and in a sequence of recitatives tries to read a different interpretation into the scripture, an escape-clause as it were: God would not want a human sacrifice, “O Popol mio” (O my people) ; Seila should devote her life to the service of God . Jaddo’s substantial three-part aria “Già la morte sua falce rotando” (Already death, swinging his scythe), which represents the Grim Reaper in obvious ways in 12/8 time, but which also admits of hope, rounds off this scene . In the following recitative with Seila, Abner and Jephtha the solution to the conflict is worked out. Jephtha offers his daughter a choice: either she can gain her freedom by paying a specific sum of money or she must dedicate herself to God. Seila chooses the latter option but before doing so she will wander for two months among the hills with her maidens . Jephtha and Abner almost give up hope, expressed in the trio with Seila “Qual di morte nero velo” (How the black veil of death) . This trio, as Iris Winkler has pointed out, was added to Foppa’s libretto by Mayr himself. In the recitative “Misero me” (Wretched I am) Abner cannot reconcile himself to his future rôle merely as Seila’s friend rather than that of her husband . Seila is now alone with her maidens: “O bella vergine” (O fair maiden). The young girls sing of Seila’s sorrow, sublimated into steadfastness and virtue . She now atones for her father’s rash oath and asks for God’s help: “Deh concedi, gran Dio” (Ah grant, great God) . In a two-part aria in E major “In te solo eterno amore” (In you alone, eternal love) Seila depicts her strength growing out of her sorrow and sacrifice . But Abner continues to rage while Jaddo tries to calm him down . In the concluding finale the ultimately insoluble problem of love and renunciation is raised to a metaphysical level; a flash of lightning comes down and demonstrates to the rebellious Abner the power and will of God. The choir fatalistically endorses the sentiment: “O giorno di terror!” (O day of terror!) .
Seila’s “utter virtue”
The oratorio Il sagrifizio di Jefte, with music by Giovanni Simone Mayr to a text by Giuseppe Maria Foppa, opens with Jephtha’s triumphant return following his defeat of the Ammonites. Before the decisive battle with the Ammonites the general of the Gileadites made a vow to the Lord (Judges 11. 30ff.) that if he were victorious: “Whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me…shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as burnt offering.” On his happy and glorious return from battle it is his only child, his daughter, who comes out to meet him. She leads a parade celebrating his victory. Broken and in despair the Jephtha of the Old Testament keeps his promise and sacrifices his daughter. A similar expiatory sacrifice is that of Iphigenia, who was offered up to the gods by her father Agamemnon in order to obtain favourable winds for the Greek fleet which was on its way to Troy.
Commentators of the past, Jews as well as Christians, have made every effort to find a reasonable interpretation of Jephtha’s scandalous vow and of its cruel outcome as told in the Bible. Some have proposed the hypothesis that Jephtha had hoped that a ram would appear providentially, just as one, caught in a thicket, did to Abraham, and which he duly sacrificed instead of his son Isaac on the mount of Moriah. Others, such as the medieval commentator David Kimchi, have suggested that Jephtha promised God only his daughter’s virginity, which has led to a certain sort of interpretation in respect of the understanding of women. But in the Biblical text there is no room for doubt: it has to do precisely with a terrible human sacrifice, an act which the church fathers fiercely censured in their commentaries. Jephtha, driven by pride and imperiousness, represents a sort of “abject and arrogant man” who, even on these grounds, had given a promise which he did not intend to keep and which contravened God’s law (Moses 5).
The librettist Giuseppe Maria Foppa takes up one element of the Biblical source, but the other is a story of passions, full of dramatic potential. As well as the figures of Jephtha and his daughter Seila there are Seila’s intended husband Abner and the priest Jaddo. After all the characters—father, daughter, betrothed—experience their own dramas and are pitted against one another in a climax of fear, in the end Seila is not sacrificed but devotes her life entirely to the Lord. So in his dénouement of the oratorio Foppa subscribes to the interpretation of the Jewish grammarian David Kimchi, which had found wide circulation, even in Christianity. The fact that Foppa chose this interpretation of Jephtha’s sacrifice allows him to direct the dramatic tension to the great importance of the heroic figure of Seila. The text by the Venetian librettist seems in particular to emphasize Seila’s “utter virtue“: her courage, her honour, her constancy. In the character of Seila, Foppa and Mayr have created an exemplary woman, a symbol of the ethical mindset of the classical period as it is encountered in the literature and art of the eighteenth century. Seila’s virtue shines in the presence of two men: her father and her betrothed. When faced with an impending fate both men display fear and intimidation owing to their passions and irrational motives. They want to flee, contemplate suicide, and are people who are tossed back and forth between commandments and passions, favourite themes which heralded the birth of Romanticism.
Seila accepts her tragic fate with responsibility and dignity and is ready to be sacrificed. She wants to preserve the honour of God, who enabled the victory in battle, and the honour of her father. When the high priest explains to Jaddo—on the basis of Deuteronomy, the Fifth Book of Moses—that the daughter’s devotion to life is not in accordance with God’s abhorrence of human sacrifice, two possible solutions present themselves: either an offering of money to the temple or that of Seila’s God-given virginity. Contrary to the preferences of her father and of her betrothed, both of whom favour a donation to the temple, young Seila has made up her mind to place her life at the service of God, and thereby renounces marriage and motherhood. She rejects the ignoble and despicable path of paying with “a little money”.
The chorus sings “Tu sola intrepida nel tuo dolor dei tardi secoli sarai stupor” (Your exceptional courageousness in your anguish will astonish for centuries to come). At the end of the work even Abner comes to understand Seila’s “utter virtue” and to recognize that the choice exercised by his young betrothed means that he is destined to be only her friend rather than her lover.
Giulio Orazio Bravi
English translations by David Stevens
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