The devotion for the Three Hours' Agony of Jesus Christ was conceived by the Jesuit Father Francisco del Castillo in 1660, in the Escuela de Cristo of the church of Nuestra Señora de los Desamparados in Lima, Peru. Later another Jesuit, Alonso Messia Bedoya (1665-1732), began to intercalate vocal and instrumental pieces into this liturgy. Father Messia explained this devotional method in a book published in Lima which later inspired many musical works, especially oratorios such as this one, built around the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross as enriched by poetic commentaries on the meaning of the Passion as a whole. Haydn's instrumental Seven Last Words is the most famous such setting, but De Simone's Agonia di Gesù is much more typical.
Such oratorios were to be performed on Good Friday and followed a strict liturgical procedure planned by Father Messia himself. The service had to begin at midday and finish at precisely three p.m., which represents the hour of Christ's death on the cross. Following a musical introduction, each of the seven Words was to be recited by the priest, who would then comment on its meaning, followed by a sung repetition of the word by the choir, or, as here, a choral meditation on the significance of the Word.
The Agonia di Gesù contains about 72' of music, set for tenor and bass soloist, TTBB men's choir, and an orchestra of 2 bassoons, 2 horns, harp, timpani and strings. Its ten movements display a great variety of moods and settings, as follows:
Prelude: orchestra alone
Introduction: chorus and orchestra
First Word (Di mille colpe reo): tenor and harp soli, with orchestra
Second Word (Quando morte coll'orido artiglio): chorus and orchestra
Third Word (Volgi, deh volgi): tenor, bass and harp soli, with orchestra
Fourth Word (Dunque dal Padre ancor): chorus and orchestra
Fifth Word (Qual giglio candido): tenor, bass and harp soli, with orchestra
Sixth Word (L'alta impresa è già compita): bass and bassoon soli, with orchestra
"Jesus autem emissa voce magna et expiravit": tenor solo, later with chorus and orchestra
Seventh Word (Gesù morì): chorus and orchestra