bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

[a bi-lingual blog on cultural identity] – [un blog bilingue di identità culturali]

On the Music of the Jews in Rome

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2011/06/15

A slightly different version of this text appeared last month on the website of the Primo Levi Center, on the occasion of a concert presented by the choir of the Tempio Maggiore (the main synagogue) or Rome at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. (For a copy of the complete concert notes, click here).

– – –

The history of Jewish music in Italy is long, fascinating, and filled with contradictions. Its length is due to the very history of Italian Jewry, whose origins go back more that two thousand years. Fascination stems from the meeting of the music of the Jewish Diaspora, represented in Italy by an unprecedented interaction among distinct Italian, Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions, with Italian musical culture and its innumerable cultural, regional and linguistic differences. The contradictions concern the thousand identities, visible and invisible, of the Jews of Italy: the secrecy of the ghettos, places of exclusion and also of explosive musical ferments emblematically represented in the works of Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570-1630); the conflicts and the hidden consonances between Judaism and Christianity, and the distance between the liturgy of the Church and that of the synagogue, at once brief and unattainable; the integration, and the cultural symbiosis, of Jews and Italy, and the shared feeling so beautifully expressed by Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco (1842); the relentless liturgical modernization carried out during the Emancipation in the 19th century, which forever changed the “soundscape” of the Italian synagogue with the addition of choral repertoires and instrumental accompaniment imitating the operatic styles of Gioachino Rossini and others; and the tragic character of the Fascist parable, ended in the Holocaust and the destruction of Italian synagogue life.

Following the Holocaust, Italian Jewish communities large and small have attempted to reconstruct their liturgical repertoires by constantly revisiting the musical structure of synagogue services, by staging public performances of cantors and small choirs, and by releasing commercial recordings featuring historical choral repertoires no longer included in the liturgy. This reconstruction, based on both oral and written sources, highlights the complex dynamics that characterize Jewish musical memory, revealing some intimate aspects of Jewish communal life. Oral sources come from the individual memory of culture bearers, handed down by oral traditions, as well as from the important field recordings made by Italian-Israeli ethnomusicologist Leo Levi (1912-1982), which documented the local traditions of twenty different Italian Jewish communities. Written sources include the transcription of local oral repertoires, most notably those published by Benedetto Marcello (of Venice, 1724-27) Federico Consolo (of Livorno, 1892), Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (of Ferrara, 1936) and Elio Piattelli (of Rome, Piedmont and Florence, 1967, 1986 and 1992), as well as thousands of manuscript music scores. Music manuscripts include 17th– and 18th-century compositions often connected with Kabbalistic representations (in Venice, Casale Monferrato, Pisa and Siena), and thousands of settings of liturgical texts in Hebrew (and at times in Italian) by a host of professional and amateur synagogue composers, Jews and non-Jews alike, kept in Jewish community archives throughout the Peninsula (including Turin, Venice, Padua, Mantua, and Rome), at the Bibliographic Center of UCEI (the Union of Italian Jewish Communities) in Rome and in the Music Department of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, and in the private homes of Italian Jews in Italy and Israel. The comparison between oral and written sources shows their inter-relations. While many written sources were created to record an ever-changing (or vanishing) oral tradition, original musical compositions often ended up influencing oral repertoires. Oftentimes, the music sung by today’s synagogue cantors in a traditional solo-voice style and perceived by synagogue-goers as “ancient” and “authentic,” is nothing by a “re-traditionalized” memory of 19th-century choral pieces, of which only the main melody (and not the choral parts, at times sung by female or mixed choirs, or the original organ accompaniment) has been preserved in oral form.

The musical repertoires of the community of Rome represent an emblematic case of interaction among the different layers of Italian Jewish musical memory. The peculiar history of this community is indeed reflected in its music. The traditional soundscape of Roman Jewry was forever changed in 1904, when the inauguration of a new, monumental synagogue (the “Tempio Maggiore”), de-facto erased the pre-existing oral traditions kept in the “Cinque Scuole,” the synagogue of the ghetto that preserved the rituals of several congregations according to their geographic origins (including Italy, Sicily, Castile, and Catalunia), by merging them into a unified ritual. The notion of unifying Italy’s diverse Jewish liturgical rituals, an idea that goes back to the advent of Kaballah in 16th-century Venice, had been formulated in a Responsum (1841) by a leading 19th-century modernist Rabbi, Lelio Della Torre (1805-1871), a teacher at the Rabbinical College in Padua. The process had already been tested out in Florence with the inauguration of the monumental synagogue of that city (1882), the merger of local Italian and Sephardic traditions, and the adoption of the Spanish-Portuguese liturgy of Livorno.

As it had already happened in Florence, the pre-existing oral traditions of the Roman community never completely faded from memory, and have since been kept alive by individual cantors and families, and inserted in the new ritual through the elaborate mixture of musical syncretism and cultural negotiation that characterizes each and every Italian Jewish community. These traditions, however, had not existed unchallenged before the opening of the new Roman synagogue. On the contrary, they had already been sharing the liturgical stage with a new musical repertoire, made of choral music, for at least half a century. This new music was originally imported from other Italian communities, especially Livorno – a thriving center of Jewish cultural innovation, and the birthplace of many of Rome’s “Chief Rabbis” in the 20th century, including David Prato (1882-1951) and Elio Toaff (b. 1915) – from where composers like Michele Bolaffi, David Garzia, and Ernesto Ventura began changing Italy’s Jewish sounds since the early 19th century. Beginning in 1845, musical composition also became the domain of local composers and choir directors – including Settimio Scazzocchio, Saul Di Capua, Amadio Disegni and Salvatore Saya, among others – whose work was included in the liturgy. Their impact of synagogue music was tremendous, and their work began to be recorded in the Italian Jewish press. A report published in L’Educatore Israelita (a periodical issued in Vercelli, Piedmont), dated 1856, offers a vivid description of how choral music was influencing the culture of the Roman Jewish community, adopting an agenda inspired by modernization and interfaith dialogue (with the Catholic majority), in line with the development of the Jewish Reform movement in northern Italy and throughout Europe.

“In 1845, an association of young men, devoted to the uplifting of the decorum of the liturgy at least on the Sabbath and the major holidays, began studying music so that they could sing as a choir during said holidays, performing the Psalms and other texts. […] Shortly thereafter, three of our synagogues had their choristers trained by distinguished Jewish music teachers. It was also decided to turn these teachers into composers, and they produced excellent works, as heard from Capua, Di Veroli, Disegni, and Scazzocchio.”

Less than a decade later, the modernizing effect of this music had already taken the lead, attracting not only Jews, but also Catholic synagogue-goers. The same periodical thus reported in 1862:

“During the nights of Passover […] our synagogues were full of Catholics, who behaved with the utmost decorum. The synagogue most frequented by Catholics is the Scuola Catalana, since it is embellished by a choir of chosen young men, who truly honored the Festival with religious music, and on the last night [of the Festival] entertained both religious Jews and Catholic visitors with a new Yigdal, set to music by Settimio Scazzocchio, the young director of the choir.”


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Geneticists Discover What Musicologists (and Historians) Already Knew for a Long Time – Gli studiosi di genetica scoprono quello che musicologi (e storici) sanno da tempo

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2010/06/11

The New York Times recently published an article, signed by Nicholas Wade, which describes how two recent genetic studies indicate the Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations in Europe genetically much closer than the common perception of their cultural identities seems to suggest.

Jewish Italy is presented as their meeting point, but also as their source.

A major surprise from [two recent genetic] surveys is the genetic closeness of the two Jewish communities of Europe, the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim. The Ashkenazim thrived in Northern and Eastern Europe until their devastation by the Hitler regime, and now live mostly in the United States and Israel. The Sephardim were exiled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 and moved to the Ottoman Empire, North Africa and the Netherlands. […]

Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews have roughly 30 percent European ancestry, with most of the rest from the Middle East, the two surveys find. The two communities seem very similar to each other genetically, which is unexpected because they have been separated for so long.

One explanation is that they come from the same Jewish source population in Europe. The Atzmon-Ostrer team found that the genomic signature of Ashkenazim and Sephardim was very similar to that of Italian Jews, suggesting that an ancient population in northern Italy of Jews intermarried with [non-Jewish] Italians could have been the common origin. The Ashkenazim first appear in Northern Europe around A.D. 800, but historians suspect that they arrived there from Italy.

Another explanation, which may be complementary to the first, is that there was far more interchange and intermarriage than expected between the two communities in medieval times.

The genetics confirms a trend noticed by historians: that there was more contact between Ashkenazim and Sephardim than suspected, with Italy as the linchpin of interchange, said Aron Rodrigue, a Stanford University historian.

A common surname among Italian Jews is Morpurgo, meaning someone from Marburg in Germany. Also, Dr. Rodrigue said, one of the most common names among the Sephardim who settled in the Ottoman Empire is Eskenazi, indicating that many Ashkenazim had joined the Sephardic community there.

The two genetic surveys indicate “that there may be common origins shared by the two groups, but also that there were extensive contacts and settlements,” Dr. Rodrigue said.

Those who follow the destinies of the musical traditions of the Jews in Italy know well that the differences among the Italian, Sephardic and Ashkenazi minhag depend as much on the cultural context (the confluence of different Diasporas, and the meeting with co-territorial cultures) than on their origins drawn from the mihagim of the global currents of the Jewish Diaspora.

In other words, the musical and liturgical koiné of the Jews in Italy is a perfect example of the genetic and cultural stratification suggested in the article. For those who know a little about this topic, the feeling of “surprise” that permeates the article is the symptom of a cultural stereotype that is hard to die: that of a dichotomized, rather than dynamic, view of Jewish culture (or perhaps of culture in general).

The sense is that both geneticists and historians could benefit from learning more about Italian Jewish music (and perhaps Jewish music in general).

– – –

Il New York Times ha recentemente pubblicato un articolo, a firma di Nicholas Wade, che descrive come due recenti studi genetici indicate che le popolazioni ebraiche ashkenazite e sefardite in Europa siano molto più vicine geneticamente di quanto la comune percezione delle loro rispettive identità culturali sembri indicare.

L’Italia ebraica ne viene presentata come il punto d’incontro, ma anche di origine.

Una notevole sorpresa [derivata da due recenti studi genetici] è la prossimità genetica delle due comunità ebraiche d’Europa, gli ashkenaziti e i sefarditi. Gli ashkenaziti vissero nell’Europa settentrionale e orientale sino alla loro distruzione da parte del regime hitleriano, e oggi vivono soprattutto negli Stati Uniti e in Israele. I sefarditi furono esiliati dalla Spagna nel 1492 e dal Portogallo nel 1497, e si stabilirono nell’Impero Ottomano, in Nord Africa e nei Paesi Bassi. […]

Secondo i due studi, gli ebrei ashkenaziti e sefarditi possiedono circa il 30 per cento di patrimonio genetico europeo, mentre il resto viene dal Medio Oriente. Le due comunità appaiono molto simili l’una all’altra dal punto di vista genetico, il che è un elemento inatteso poiché hanno vissuto separate così a lungo.

Una spiegazione è che abbiano origine dalla stessa fonte di popolazione ebraica in Europa. Il team di Atzmon-Ostrer ha stabilito che la firma genetica degli ashkenaziti e dei sefarditi sia molto simile a quella degli ebrei italiani, suggerendo così che una antica popolazione di ebrei dell’Italia del Nord, mescolatasi con gli italiani [non ebrei] possa esserne l’origine comune. Gli ashkenaziti fanno la loro apparizione in Europa settentrionale intorno all’anno 800 dell’Era Comune, ma gli storici sospettano che vi siano giunti dall’Italia.

Un’altra spiegazione, forse complementare alla precedente, è che durante il Medio Evo vi furono molti più scambi e relazioni matrimoniali tra le due comunità di quanto non si credesse.

La genetica conferma una caratteristica già osservata dagli storici: che ci furono più contatti tra ashkenaziti e sefarditi di quanto non si sospettasse, con l’Italia come punto di innesco di questo scambio, ha spiegato Aron Rodrigue, uno storico dell’Università di Stanford.

Un cognome comune fra gli ebrei italiani è Morpurgo, che indica l’origine di una persona da Marburg, in Germania. Analogamente, ha detto il dr. Rodrigue, on dei cognomi più comuni fra i sefarditi che si stabilirono nell’Impero Ottomano è Eskenazi, a indicare che molti ashkenaziti si unirono alla comunità sefardita in quelle terre.

Le due ricerche genetiche indicano che “ci possano essere origini comuni condivise dai due gruppi, ma anche che vi furono ampi contatti e insediamenti,” ha detto ancora il dr. Rodrigue.

Chi segue i destini delle musiche tradizionali degli ebrei in Italia sa bene che le distinzioni tra minhag italiano, sefardita e ashkenazita dipendono dal contesto culturale (incontro tra diaspore diverse, e confronto con le culture co-territoriali) tanto quanto dalla filiazione dei mihagim dalle correnti globali della diaspora ebraica.

In altre parole, la koiné musicale e liturgica degli ebrei in Italia è un esempio calzante della stratificazione genetico-culturale suggerita dall’articolo. Per chi ne sa qualcosa, il sentimento di “sorpresa” che permea l’articolo non è che l’indice di uno stereotipo culturale duro a morire: quello di una visione dicotomica, invece che dinamica, della cultura ebraica (o forse della cultura in generale).

L’impressione è che sia gli studiosi di genetica che gli storici abbiano non poco da imparare dalla musica ebraica italiana (o forse dalla musica ebraica in generale).

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From the Bimah to the Stage, and Back: Jews, Christians, Synagogues and Opera in Modern Italy

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/12/15

Following is the abstract of a paper I will be presenting a the annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies, which will meet in Los Angeles next week.

From the Bimah to the Stage, and Back: Jews, Christians, Synagogues and Opera in Modern Italy

My paper investigates the roles of synagogue music and of musical theater in creating a complex social space shared among Jews and Christians in Italy during the Emancipation process, beginning in the late 18th century and ending with the rise of Fascism in the early 20th century.

Since their inception, the Italian ghettos created a paradoxical situation for each of the groups they tried to separate. While Jews left the ghettos to further their opportunities of professional and social advancement, Christians entered them to find services and knowledge. On each side, synagogues and theaters presented two poles of social interaction revolving around the inherently inclusionary nature of “performance.” Synagogue liturgy presented non-Jews with the unique chance to acquire a direct experience of what they believed were the vestiges of an ancient Jewish past, directly linked with the origins of Christianity. Theater, and especially Italian Opera, presented the Jews with a secular cultural sphere that was not only religiously acceptable, but also desirable as an opportunity for unmediated contact with non-Jews.

This social exchange can be understood through a combination of sources and methodologies. Documental sources detail non-Jewish attendance at synagogues services and other music-related (and often nocturnal) performances inside the ghettos, as well as the Jewish attempts to illegally leave the ghettos at night to attend theatrical performances. Ethnographic and musical sources substantiate the operatic influences on Italian synagogue song, the ways in which Jewish composers learned their profession from their Christian counterparts, and how Opera composers were hired by Jewish communities to renew their liturgical “sound.” Anthropological considerations applied to these sources explore the synagogue and the theater as spaces of nocturnal inter-ethnic interactions revolving around specific performance practices.

A historical overview of these sources provides the basis to understand how, once the Emancipation was accomplished, the synagogue absorbed the theatrical experience and remained central to Jewish-Christian interactions, as a space in which major political and social events, like the celebration of the Festival of Emancipation (each year on March 29), weddings and birthdays of the House of Savoy, and the inauguration of new synagogue buildings, were performed through liturgical music and ritual.

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Salamone Rossi’s “Double Life” — La “doppia vita” di Salamone Rossi

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/12/06

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (“Discovering Jewish Music,” by columnist Bari Weiss, November 26, 2009) about Charles Krauthammer’s role in animating Pro Musica Hebraica, a Washington, DC association devoted to “presenting lost and forgotten masterpieces of Jewish classical music in a concert-hall setting,” and that last month presented a very interesting concert devoted to Jewish music from Italy and Amsterdam, which included music by Salamone Rossi,  Abraham Caceres, Benedetto Marcello, and the anonymous cantata for Hosha’na rabah from Casale Monferrato (1733), includes a brief comment about the famed Italian Jewish composer of the Late Renaissance, Salamone Rossi (active in Mantua, ca. 1570- ca. 1630) that I think should be re-framed:

On Nov. 5, Pro Musica Hebraica presented the Apollo Ensemble of Amsterdam, whose performance featured 17th- and 18th-century baroque music from Italy and the Netherlands. The night began with a sonata by Salamone De Rossi, a composer who lived in the Jewish ghetto of 17th-century Mantua and rose to prominence as a court musician for the Duchy of Gonzaga. As far as we know, he was the first man to compose classical music for the synagogue, introducing Western-style polyphonic choral music into the prayer service.

While De Rossi lived something of a double life—writing music for his aristocratic patrons and, separately, for the synagogue-goers he lived among—other composers wrote hybrid music that captured the encounter between Jewish tradition and European modernity.

I find the notion of Salamone Rossi’s supposed “double life” absolutely fascinating. The passage quoted above contains two related assumptions: that Salamone Rossi composed “classical music for the synagogue” introducing it into the prayer service; and that he had two distinct audiences, Catholic aristocrats in Mantua’s court, and Jews in the synagogue. Both assumptions could be challenged. First of all, there is only scant evidence that Rossi’s music was ever performed in a synagogue setting until it was re-discovered by German-Jewish intellectuals in the 19th century. But, more importantly, it is the idea that only Jews attended synagogue services inside the Italian ghettos that is not entirely correct. We have some very clear testimonies, like the 17th century descriptions by Giulio Morosini (aka Samuel Nahmias, 1612-1687, in Derekh Emunah: Via della fede mostrata agli ebrei , Rome, Propaganda Fide, 1683) and continuing into the 18th and 19th centuries, about how Christians entered the ghettos to attend religious (and musical) ceremonies. Historian Benjamin Ravid devoted very interesting pages to this phenomenon.

In other words, the whole idea of a Jewish composer like Rossi leading a “double life” – bridging two otherwise separate worlds – needs to be reconsidered. The “classical music” introduced into the prayer service was most likely presented to the ears of an inter-ethnic cast of Jewish and Catholic synagogue-goers, and possibly even specifically geared to the latter’s musical taste. Who were these non-Jews who took part in synagogue life? What was their agenda? How much did their presence influence Italian synagogue music?

For now, I’d rather leave these questions unanswered. My impression, however, is that today’s crowds that populate the old synagogues of Italy during the European Days of Jewish Culture have something in common with the early-modern Catholics who attended synagogue services inside the ghettos.

= = =

Un articolo pubblicato di recente nel Wall Street Journal (“Discovering Jewish Music,” by columnist Bari Weiss, November 26, 2009) a proposito del ruolo di Charles Krauthammer nella creazione di Pro Musica Hebraica, un’associazione culturale con sede a Washington, DC dedicata a “presentare i capolavori perduti e dimenticati della musica classica ebraica nelle sale da concerto”, e che il mese scorso ha presentato un interessante concerto dedicato a musica ebraica Italiana e di Amsterdam, con composizioni di Salamone Rossi,  Abraham Caceres, Benedetto Marcello, la cantata anonima di Hosha’na rabah di Casale Monferrato (1733), racchiude un breve commento a proposito del famoso compositore ebreo italiano del tardo Rinascimento, Salamone Rossi (attivo a Mantova, ca. 1570- ca. 1630) che penso debba essere riconsiderato:

Il 5 Novembre scorso, Pro Musica Hebraica ha presentato l’Apollo Ensemble of Amsterdam, con un’esecuzione dedicata alla musica barocca italiana e olandese dei secoli XVII e XVIII. La serata è iniziata con una sonata di Salamone De Rossi, un compositore vissuto nel ghetto ebraico di Mantova nel XVII secolo, e che fiorì come musicista alla corte del Ducato dei Gonzaga. Per quanto ne sappiamo, egli fu il primo a comporre musica classica per la sinagoga, introducendo lo stile corale polifonico occidentale nella liturgia.

Mentre De Rossi visse una sorta di doppia vita – scrivendo musica per i suoi mecenati aristocratici e, separatamente, per coloro che frequentavano la sinagoga, con cui viveva – altri compositori scrissero ibridi musicali che catturarono l’incotro tra la tradizione ebraica e la modernità europea.

Trovo la nozione di una presunta “doppia vita” di Salamone Rossi assolutamente affascinante. Il brano citato qui sopra contiene due assunti correlati: che Salamone Rossi abbia composto “musica classica per la sinagoga” introducendola nella liturgia; e che egli abbia avuto due audiences distinte, gli aristocratici cattolici alla corte mantovana, e gli ebrei in sinagoga. Entrambi gli assunti possono essere oggetto di disputa. Prima di tutto, vi è ben poca evidenza che la musica di Rossi sia stata effettivamente eseguita all’interno di una sinagoga sino a quando non venne riscoperta da intellettuali ebrei tedesci nel corso del XIX secolo. Ma, il che è ben più importante, è l’idea che solo gli ebrei frequentassero le sinagoghe all’interno dei ghetti italiani a non essere del tutto corretta. Possediamo alcune testimonianze piuttosto dettagliate, come le descrizioni settecentesche di Giulio Morosini (precedentemente noto come Samuel Nahmias, 1612-1687, nel suo Derekh Emunah: Via della fede mostrata agli ebrei , Roma, Propaganda Fide, 1683) e proseguendo anche nei secoli XVIII e XIX, della frequentazione di riti religiosi ebraici all’interno dei ghetti da parte di cristiani. Lo storico Benjamin Ravid ha dedicato pagine interessanti a questo fenomeno.

In altre parole, l’idea che un compositore ebreo come Rossi conducesse una “doppia vita” – una vita che metteva in comunicazione due mondi altrimenti separati – va interamente riconsiderata. La “musica classica” introdotta nella liturgia fu assai probabilmente presentata alle orecchie di un pubblico interetnico formato da frequentatori di sinagoghe ebrei e cattolici, e presumibilmente adattato ai gusti musicali di questi ultimi. Chi erano dunque questi non-ebrei che prendevano parte alla vita sinagogale? Quali erano i loro obiettivi? Quanto la loro presenza influenzò la musica sinagogale italiana?

Per ora, preferisco lasciare queste domande senza risposta. La mia impressione è, ad ogni modo, che le folle che ai giorni nostri popolano le antiche sinagoghe italiane durante le Giornate della Cultura Ebraica abbiano qualcosa in comune con i frequentatori di sinagoghe cattolici nei ghetti agli albori della modernità.

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Italian Synagogue Music and the Politics of Jewish identity

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/11/10

This weekend I will be the “Jeffrey A. Miller” scholar in residence at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, giving two talks and teaching a workshop on the role of synagogue music in representing social identity and political processes. Services will include a panoply of melodies from the synagogues of Italy, arranged a performed by Sharon Bernstein with Ruth Rainero and the synagogue’s excellent choir.

While the inspiration of these talks is indeed drawn from the Italian Jewish experience, I am also addressing them to the complex of multi-layered identities that compose the Jewish mosaic of the San Francisco Bay Area, and especially of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. For me, this represents a wonderful opportunity to bring the study of synagogue life back to, well, synagogue life, but also to test the idea that Italian Jewish modernity, as experienced and crafted within synagogue and congregational life since the 16th century, can speak directly to the “melting pot” of contemporary Jewish life in America.

See the announcement on the Congregation’s website.

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Sounds of Two Cultures: Music, Synagogue Life, and Jewish‐Christian Relations in Italy

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/11/02

Web announcement of Francesco Spagnolo's lecture at the Center for Jewish Studies of the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, California), Nov. 2nd, 2009.

Following are my notes for the talk (these are only notes to guide my presentation, which lasted approximately 70 minutes, and no, I did not have a “powerpoint”).

  1. Most of the research about Italian Jewish musical culture has focused, since the mid-19th century, on the scant written sources from the [late] Renaissance (16th-17th centuries), more than on the wealth of later, often written and oral sources. This is also true of other, non-musical, scholarly endeavors on Italian Jewry (i.e., the 18th and 19th centuries have been researched somewhat less than previous epochs). There are indeed very good reasons supporting this choice of focus: the “Renaissance” is a period that defined the modes of production of what we commonly call “Jewish culture” in modern times. Music rests at the core of those modes of production.
  2. Researchers have focused more on defining the cultural products of this era (how are they “Jewish”? are they “art”? etc.) than on the ways in which they were produced. (By “musical production” I refer to three aspects: 1. Composition and creation of musical sources; 2. Performance; 3. Reception). The historiography of Jewish music has thus generated a narrative populated by cultural heroes (“Jewish musicians” fighting cultural assimilation and religious conversion: first and foremost Salamone Rossi) and acts of cultural heroism (the performance of “art music” in the Italian ghettos as acts of defiance against anti-Semitism).
  3. An understanding of the modes of production of Italian Jewish musical culture can benefit from a shift of focus, geared towards the specific context in which music was produced: synagogue life. (Synagogue life in a broad sense includes the architectural spaces, the performance of text, the symbolic roles of its “cast of characters,” and the coexistence of assembly, study and worship). This shifts prompts us to reconsider the notions of “Jewish musician” [or artist] and “Jewish art music” [or art] within the broader context of music-making inside and around the synagogues of Italy.
  4. How does one study music in the context of synagogue life?
  • Two stories: 1. The Rabbi and the congregants arguing over whether the shema’ yisrael ought to be recited while sitting or while standing [How many traditions does it take to create a “tradition”?]; and 2. The guy who cannot say “I don’t know” without using his hands [Jewish music occupies the liminal space between text and performance];
  • Intersecting sources (oral, written and literary) and methodologies (ethnography, history and sociology), and an anti-chronological approach.

5. The context of synagogue life allows for the emergence of previously unidentified roles involved in the production of “Jewish music.” Among them are:

  • Rabbis and rabbinic authorities
  • Lay community leaders
  • Young community members vs. old community members: an intergenerational dynamics
  • “Marginal” roles: 1. Women; 2. Children; and 3. Non-Jews (members of the Catholic majority), the latter involved at all levels of musical production (Production; Performance; Reception).


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Il punto della situazione –– Where things are at (Wordle)

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/05/25

Wordle - Create
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

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From Lag ba-‘Omer to the Bris – Da Lag ba-‘omer alla Milah

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/05/12

Each year at Lag ba-‘Omer I am reminded of the conundrum: why on earth is Shimon Ben Lawi’s ode to Bar Yochai included in the Roman mishmarah

OK, a few words for the uninitiated…

Shimon Ben Lawi (15th-16th century), a kabbalist who lived between Spain and North Africa and a commentator of the Sefer hazohar, wrote a rather funky (in terms of both language and imagery) ode to the alleged author of the Zohar itself, aka Shimon Bar Yochai. The poem, or piyyut, is commonly sung on Lag ba-‘Omer, precisely for the kabbalistic connections that the holiday has acquired in modern times. 

Now, the very same piyyut is ALSO sung by the Jews of Rome, Italy, on a very different occasion: the mishmarah, or night vigil, that precedes a brit milah, the circumcision of a male newborn. How did it end up in this interesting ceremony of medieval origins? Elliott Horowitz studied this and other nocturnal activities among the Jewish communities of North Africa, Italy and Germany in early modern times. Along with Nello Pavoncello (an Italian rabbi and scholar), he noted how the ceremony as we know it today was crafted by the intervention of Rabbi Tranquillo Vita (Manoach Chayim) Corcos (1660-1730), on the basis of a pre-existing folk Jewish custom. 

As both scholars already noted, Rabbi Corcos’ intervention was a way to claim the popular manifestation (a night vigil accompanied by food, beverages, songs and dance involving men and women) back into the realm of normative Judaism. It consisted in changing the lyrics of the songs with texts that conformed with a religious experience (the ceremony includes piyyutim like ‘Et sha’are ratzon and, of course, Bar Yochai), and having them performed by a “confraternity” of male singers. In other words, the Rabbi’s input focused on text and on performance. The texts were taken from piyyutim widely known: a poem for the High Holy Days and another for Lag ba’Omer  – hence, a direct testimony of how Kabbalah had spread to Rome at the beginning of the 18th century. The changes in the performance practice were probably inspired by the desire to conform to a more standard “moral” conduct. The combination of moral and textual concerns in the modification of a ritual is a distinctive trait predating the Reform movement, which will take place almost a century later. 

However, what was not touched by Rabbi Corcos’ reformist attempt was the music. Why do I say this? Well, the melody used to this day in Rome to sing Shimon Ben Lawi’s ode to Shimon Bar Yochai is certainly not a liturgical, or paraliturgical song. It is very close to the folk repertoire developed in Central Italy to celebrate Catholic Saints.

And it is almost the same as the satyrical ode to Sant’Antonio Abate collected in the Abruzzi region by Giovanna Marini in the 1950’s. The song, performed by Marini herself was popularized as part of the show “Bella Ciao” (1962, by Roberto Leydi and Gianni Bosio). Youtube has a lovely version by the Milanese folk-cabared group, I gufi: Sant’antonie a lu diserte (Saint Anthony of the Desert).  

The coincidence of a shared musical repertoire between Jewish and Christian confraternities is a very interesting phenomenon, that certainly requires further investigation. It certainly takes us to a time in which, without the help of online social media, ideas and material culture were shared across ethnic and religious barriers. 


Bar Yohai (by Shimon b. Lawi, 15th-16th cent.)

Bar Yochai nimshachta ashrekha 
shemen sason mechaverekha

Bar Yochai shemen mischat qodesh 
nimshachta mimidat haqodesh
nasata tzitz nezer haqodesh 
chavush ‘al roshekha fearekha Bar Yochai 
nimshachta ashrekha shemen sason mechaverekha

Bar Yochai moshav tov yashavta
yom nasta yom asher barachta
bime‘arat tzurim she‘amadta
shem qanita hodekha wehaderekha Bar Yochai
nimshachta ashrekha shemen sason mechaverekha

Bar Yochai ‘atze shitim ‘omdim
Limude adonai hem lomedim
or muffle or hayeqod hem yoqdim
halo hemah yodukha morekha Bar Yochai
nimshachta ashrekha shemen sason mechaverekha

Bar Yochai welishre tapuchim ‘alita
lilqot bo merqachim sode torah
ketzitzim uprachim na‘aseh adam
neemar ba‘avurekha Bar Yochai
nimshachta ashrekha shemen sason mechaverekha 

Oh Bar Yochai, your anointment
Elevated you above your peers

Oh Bar Yochai, the ointment of holiness anointed you beyond measure
Your head is wrapped in a turban with the diadem of holiness, Bar Yochai…

Oh Bar Yochai, since the day you had to flee, you lived in a good place, in a cave among the rocks, where you gained fame and honor, Bar Yochai …

Oh Bar Yochai, those who devote themselves to the study of divine matters are like strong acacia trees, and shine of a wondrous light: they are your teachers, Bar Yochai…

Oh Bar Yochai, you rose to the apple fields to pick scented fruits, the secrets of the Torah, which are like sprouts and flowers; “Let’s create Man” was said on your behalf, Bar Yochai…

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Purim and Subversiveness in a Song from Livorno — Purim e Sovversione in un canto ebraico livornese

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/03/10

Mi pare che il canto ebraico livornese, Wal viva, viva, nostro Burino!  – che pubblico qui sotto, e che ho incluso nell’antologia Tradizioni musicali degli ebrei italiani – sia un ottimo esempio dell’immaginario sovversivo degli ebrei. Basta leggere le invettive rivolte ad Haman, che viene chiamato “cane” e della cui sorte cruenta si gioisce nel testo, per convincersene.

Secondo lo storico israelo-americano Elliott Horowitz (“The Rite to Be Reckless: On the Perpetration and Interpretation of Purim Violence” in Poetics Today, Vol. 15, No. 1, Purim and the Cultural Poetics of Judaism. (Spring, 1994): 9-54, e poi in un suo libro), le espressioni di violenza contenute nelle manifestazioni “popolari” della celebrazione di Purim sono state nei secoli rivolte alla maggioranza cristiana (o islamica), e più tardi all’oppressione antisemita. Elliott suggerisce che queste espressioni vadano prese sul serio, oltre la sfera prettamente rituale. E ha ragione nel notare che gli storici, soprattutto nel XX secolo, hanno cercato di occultarle. 

Di certo è che questo canto livornese del XVII secolo (noto come Cantica di Purim alla moresca) – sul quale ci sarebbe parecchio altro da dire (per esempio riguardo al fatto che probabilmente si faceva beffa degli ebrei immigrati dal Nord Africa a Livorno, che pronunciavano la “p” come “b” e dunque “Burino” invece di “Purim,” e vengono caratterizzati attraverso espressioni in Arabo “maccaronico”…) – indirizza l’immaginario carnascialesco ebraico verso un epoca in cui gli ebrei erano in grado di manifestare, seppure in forma rituale, il loro disappunto verso una società e una cultura a loro sostanzialmente ostili. E ci fa pensare a come la pubblica espressione del disappunto verso il potere (una sorta di “I would prefer not to” alla Bartelby, per intenderci), sia sempre e comunque sovversivo. 


It seems to me that the Livornese Jewish song, Wal viva, viva, nostro Burino!  – which I am posting below, and that I’ve included in the anthology, Italian Jewish Musical Traditions – is an excellent example of the subversive imagination of the Jews. It’s sufficient to read the invectives uttered against Haman, who is called a “dog” and whose gruesome end causes endless joy in the lyrics, to be convinced of this. 

According to the Israeli-American historian, Elliott Horowitz (“The Rite to Be Reckless: On the Perpetration and Interpretation of Purim Violence” in Poetics Today, Vol. 15, No. 1, Purim and the Cultural Poetics of Judaism. (Spring, 1994): 9-54, and later in a book), the expressions of violence found in the “popular” manifestations of Purim celebrations have over the centuries been turned towards the Christian (or Muslim) majority, and later on to anti-Semitic oppressors.  Elliott suggests that these expressions ought to be taken very seriously, and that they reach beyond the ritual sphere. And he is right when he notes that historians, especially in the 20th century, tried to hide them. 

What is sure is that this Livornese 17th-century song (known as Cantica di Purim alla moresca) – on which a whole lot more could be said (for instance, about the fact that it probably made fun of the Jews who immigrated to Livorno from North Africa, who pronounced “p’s” as “b’s,” as in “Burino” instead of “Purim” and who are stereotyped in pidgin Arabic…) – points the carnival imagination towards a time in which Jews were able to display, even if in a ritual form, their disappointment about a society and a culture that were essentially hostile to them. And this makes us think about how the public display of disappointment about power (a sort of “I would prefer not to” à la Bartelby, to be clear) is always subversive. 


Wal viva, viva, nostro Burino! (or, Cantica di Purim alla Moresca)

Wal viva, viva, nostro Burino! (or, Cantica di Purim alla Moresca)

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From Fieldwork to the Stage: Federico Consolo and the Quest for Sephardic Musical Antiquity in 19th-century Florence

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2009/03/03

This is the slideshow that accompanied my talk, From Fieldwork to the Stage: Federico Consolo and the Quest for Sephardic Musical Antiquity in 19th-century Florence, presented at the conference Creative Expressions of the Sephardic Experience (Indiana University, March 1-2, 2009). 

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