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Artemisia Program Notes

By Amelia LeClair, Artistic Director of Cappella Clausura

What can a musician accustomed to lifting up women in history do when confronted with the likes of Artemisia Gentileschi? A woman of immense talent who dared to ply a male trade in the late Renaissance/early Baroque period in Naples and Rome, whose paintings are among the first to give us what seems to me to be a truly “female” gaze on so many subjects commonly depicted in her time?

In all the years I have known and admired her work, I had not come up with a way to lift her up, too. 


Last year, Cappella Clausura’s Executive Director, Abby Lass, showed me a play called Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough. The play features two strong women from the Apocrypha, Judith and Susanna, as well as the artist herself. Artemisia painted Susanna at least 3 times, and Judith 4 times, so she was clearly inspired by these stories and these women.  I immediately thought of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre who was also inspired by these very same biblical women, and wrote cantatas on Judith and Susanna.

Thus a marriage was born.


What you will hear and see tonight is a melding of several herstories:

  • Of Judith and Susanna, two strong women in the Apocrypha, books of the Christian Old Testament that some say were added by Greeks;

  • Of Artemisia Gentileschi (daughter of Orazio Gentileschi, a well-established painter of his day)  who was skilled enough at painting to make a living at it;

  • Of Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, a woman of such talent and ability that she was accepted into the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, as a professional musician.


In the play you will hear the stories of two heroic women in the bible: the stories are brief, but notable in that they are stories of women, and are a tiny fraction of the whole book about men. As such, it is no wonder that artists, male and female, might be drawn to them.

In the play you will also hear the story of Artemisia: of her struggle to be an artist, as well as just survive as a woman in a world ruled by men.


Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729) was born into a family of artisans that included musicians and instrument builders. She received her musical training as a singer and harpsichordist, and at the age of 15 was taken into the court of Louis XIV as a harpsichordist and organist under the care of the king’s (then) mistress, Madame de Montespan. She wrote several books of works for harpsichord – Pièces de clavecin - a ballet, an opera, many sonatas and six cantatas on biblical stories.

The cantata  was a relatively new and popular form to France at the beginning of the 18th century, coming from Italy, as did the sonata. It simply means a piece that is sung, where a sonata is a piece that is sounded (played by instruments).

De La Guerre’s cantatas are all written for a soprano and basso continuo, an accompaniment consisting usually of harpsichord and gamba. In de La Guerre’s cantatas the form is usually three “da capo” arias (ABA), preceded by a recitative (spoken music). There are often other bits: “simphonies”, “recits mesurés” “accompagnements”, and at least one “de mouvement et marqué” in Judith. These are all for unspecified instruments.


I asked our usual brilliant and accomplished instrumentalists, Alison La Rosa on traverso (baroque flute), Catherine Liddell on theorbo, and Laura Jeppesen on gamba, to join us. In consultation with Catherine, it became clear we really needed a harpsichord, and I am delighted that Frances Fitch has joined us as she has long been an expert teacher and performer of de La Guerre.

Finally, if you are familiar with cantatas of the early Baroque, you may expect them to be sung as written, by a single soloist, as that was and still is the norm. However, given that de La Guerre’s texts clearly represent narrators, bystanders, and the women themselves, I thought it would compliment our play to have different voices singing different parts of the cantatas. So I assigned these parts to four of our brilliant singers: Janet Stone, soprano; Frank Campofelice, tenor; Laura Thomas, soprano; and Thomas Valle-Hoag, baritone.

I hope you enjoy our multi-media presentation of ARTEMISIA!

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