Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Judith: Judith prepares to kill Holophernes

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About the scene and clip:
The singer performs part of the story of Judith and Holophernes, taking on all the voices: Judith comes alone to the camp of Holophernes, Nebuchadnezzar’s general. Holophernes plans to seduce her. At a great feast, he and his men become intoxicated. After prayer and agonized inner debate, Judith resolves to kill him in order to free her people.

The instruments in this clip are the vielle and flute (elsewhere in the full performance of the work, the lirica—a Croatian traditional stringed instrument tuned in a particular archaic manner—and other medieval flutes are played). The instrumentation provides at times a highly dramatic musical presence.

About the work:
Judith was written by Marko Marulic (1450-1524), a great Croatian Humanist poet, and a major figure in the transition between medieval and Renaissance Croatian literature. Judith is a literary epic, composed in verse, and drawn primarily from the book of Judith in the Old Testament: the beautiful Jewish widow cuts off the head of a great enemy of her people, Holophernes, in order to free them. Superimposed on the biblical story is the theme of opposition to Ottoman invaders of Marulic’s day. Into the text of Judith, Dialogos has inserted a debate between the body and the soul, based on Visio Philiberti (Philibert’s Vision), to which Marulic had contributed. Katarina Livljanic’s reconstruction of the music draws on Gregorian, Beneventan and Glagolitic sources from medieval Dalmatia.

About the genre:
This work combines literary epic, with the story drawn from the Bible; allegory (the body/soul debate), and hagiography (Judith will be forever glorified for her courage and service to God).

The epic is an ancient genre and is found in almost every culture. It is a long heroic narrative which tells of war and great deeds. Epics are generally composed in verse, and sung from memory or improvised in performance by professional performers with instrumental accompaniment. These narratives are created from traditional elements, commonly without recourse to writing, by poets whose names are often unknown to us. Among the famous traditional epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to Homer; the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf; and the Old French Song of Roland. Many known poets adopt epic forms and themes for their literary verse (such as Virgil in his Aeneid).

Allegory is a way of composing and of interpreting texts: characters and the plot point beyond themselves to something “other”—something symbolic. Characters are often personifications of forces such as Love, Pride, Reason, or Friendship. The plot is also symbolic: characters’ struggles are between vices and virtues; their journey may refer to life’s pilgrimage or to the discovery of some great truth, such as the nature of love. Works may be entirely allegorical, or may just contain brief passages written in this mode. Allegorical works are often strongly religious, philosophical, or moral.

Stories about the saintly wisdom, heroism, or miracles of remarkable men and women exist in many religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Such stories are termed “hagiography.” In medieval Europe, the saint’s life or legend was an extremely popular type of work. A great many stories (and plays) about male and female Christian saints exist in Latin and in all the vernacular languages. These works may focus on the saint’s dramatic death by martyrdom, or recount the remarkable miracles performed by the saint, or may relate the entire life of the holy man or woman. Among the most important collections of saints’ lives and legends is The Golden Legend by Jacobus of Voragine. Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales is a tale of martyrdom. Miracle and pious tales about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, constitute a special, and highly important, category of saintly legends.

About the edition/translation:
The work performed has been abridged and adapted by Katarina Livljanic and Benjamin Bagby from Marko Marulic, Judita, ed. and trans. Henry R. Cooper, Jr., New York, East European Monographs/Columbia University Press, 1991.

About the performer/ensemble:
Dialogos (see is a music ensemble directed by Katarina Livljanic, and based in Paris. Performers here are Livljanic (voice), Albrecht Maurer (fiddle) and Norbert Rodenkirchen (flute).

About the production:
This video was made at a public performance of Judita at St. Donat’s in Zadar, Croatia, in July 2006. The videography is by Studio Dim, Zagreb, Croatia. Dialogos has broadcast rights to the video.