bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

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

Archive for December, 2008

The 40th Annual Conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS)

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/12/27

This is the schedule of my participation in the conference. More information about this can be found here



AJS Participation Schedule

AJS Participation Schedule

Posted in ideas, identity/identità, italy, lectures, music, uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The Thorny Issue of “Jewish Music” (English Only)

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/12/20

Below is the original text of my notes for tonight’s concert, Pomegranate and Figs, at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California. I am grateful to a new friend, Kaila Flexer, for including me in the program. (The published version of the concert notes can be downloaded here

I always felt that the “Italian link” in understanding the history of the notion of “Jewish music” deserves better attention, and here I tried to plug it into a general overview of the subject. 

Today, the thorny question of what makes music “Jewish” is often avoided (and feared) by scholars, musicologists and cultural historians alike, but it does occasionally spark heated discussions on e-mail lists, and gathers the attention of bloggers worldwide. It is indeed a question with a thousand possible answers, and one that generates additional questions, which in turn end up blending and overlapping with one another… Invariably, the answers fail to consider the world of sounds, and instead raise issues concerning the many Jewish identities and cultures that surround us.

However, it was not so in the past, when European scholars – Christian and Jewish – shaped the modern notion of Jewish music, and in a way almost invented it. The first interest in the musical world of the Jews – and especially in what Jews sang in their place of worship, the synagogue – arose since the 16th century among Christian humanists, to whom we owe the very notion of musica hebræorum (in Latin, “music of the Hebrews”). These scholars, who immediately understood that the music of the Jews had long been transmitted by way of oral tradition, hoped to find within Jewish liturgy the traces of Hebraic antiquity, and thus the roots of Christianity itself. Instead, what they found was a universe of diverse sounds (a ”world music” of sort) generated by the fact that Jews had lived in Diaspora for many centuries. In the fourth volume of his Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica (Rome, 1693), Father Giulio Bartolocci listed three different ways in which the Jews of his times chanted the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), and provided musical transcriptions according to the “German,” “Spanish” and “Italian” traditions, de facto stating the cultural differences between Jews who originated from ancient Palestine and those who lived in Central Europe (also known as Ashkenazi Jews) or that descended from the Iberian Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal after 1492 (Sephardic Jews). Other Christian researchers followed in this path and by the 19th century, when Jewish scholars also became interested in the topic, it was very clear that there was no such thing as one “Jewish music” that characterized all Jews living across the four corners of the earth, and that Jews sang and played a host of musical traditions, almost all transmitted orally, which shared their traits more with the host non-Jewish cultures than among themselves. This diversity preoccupied Jewish intellectuals, whom in the midst of the Romantic and nationalistic fervors of 19th-century Europe were instead trying to prove, once and for all, the unity and distinctiveness (and thus the intrinsic value) of Judaism. The study of Jewish music by Jews themselves was therefore initially aimed at creating a place for Jewish musical culture, and not just for its supposedly ancient Hebraic construct, within the canons Western cultural history. This preoccupation, and especially the rise of Zionism, led to a progressive focus on the diversity of the oral tradition and on the importance of non-European Jewish cultures. In 1907, when Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882-1938), the founder of modern Jewish musicological research, moved to Palestine, he was confronted with an overwhelming variety of Jewish oral traditions, which included liturgical music, folk songs and instrumental practice by Jews originating from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe, the Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East, the Arabian peninsula and Central Asia. Already then, the Eurocentric dicotomy between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish musical worlds was proving insufficient: Arab music, its modes (or maqamat) and aesthetic sensibilities were equally essential to Jewish musical history and required a whole new consideration. Throughout the 20th century, Idelsohn’s quest for the unifying traits in this panoply of sounds has morphed into a research field that combines musicology, ethnography and anthropology, and that examines the variables of musical production in the context of the cultures of the Jews in the Global Diaspora.

  Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ideas, music | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Hanukkah in Venice: Music and Traditions of the Italian Jews – San Francisco, Dec. 23, 2008

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/12/18


Posted in italy, lectures, music | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Bel Canto?!? A few notes on a recent Nextbook podcast — Pensierini a proposito di un podcast apparso recentemente su Nextbook

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/12/15

One of my favorite sites, Nextbook, recently posted a new podcast, Bel Canto, which centers around composer Yotam Haber’s Death Will Come and She Shall Have Your Eyes, which he composed during a year-long residency at the American Academy in Rome, and presented there last May. This composition, excerpts of which can be listened to via Nextbook, is based on — among other things — field recordings of Italian Jewish music that Leo Levi (Casale Monferrato, 1912 – Jerusalem, 1982) made between 1954 and 1962, kept in the Ethnomusicology Archives of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Italy’s National Music Academy, in Rome. I give some background information on Leo Levi in this blog (see my bibliography page), and I plan to give more in the future. 

I never enjoy criticizing other people’s work, and I will try to do it here in as few words as possible. Let me just clarify that my critique has nothing to do with Yotam Haber’s music (for one thing, I absolutely LOVE his reference to Cesare Pavese), and everything to do with his words in the course of the interview, and with Nextbook’s podcast itself. Normally, I would keep this kind of criticism to myself, or share it among my colleagues. However, the exposure that Nextbook gives to Haber’s misconceptions makes me want to take a slightly more public role than the one I am usually more comfortable with. 

A bit of background. In the years 1998-2002 I worked for the Accademia di Santa Cecilia and cataloged Levi’s field recordings of Italian Jewish music, which are kept both in Rome and at the National Sound Archives of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. I also edited an anthology based on these recordings: a CD+booklet was issued jointly by the Accademia and the Jewish Music Research Center of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In addition, Levi’s recordings are a major source for my dissertation, The Musical Traditions of the Jews in Piedmont (Italy), written at the Hebrew University, for several articles I published in academic journals, and for a bunch of papers I have presented at academic conferences around the world. I list these facts only to assure my readers that I have been giving a great deal of thought to these recordings. This of course does not automatically mean that I understand them better than anyone else, but it does make me a somewhat informed listener of Italian Jewish music, and a fairly conscientious listener of Nextbook’s podcast.  

It is not the first time that Nextbook deals with Italian Jewish music. They did so in an interview with yours truly (by Boris Fishman), which I enjoyed very much: Ghetto Music. And I am sure that Yotam Haber, whom I have not met in person, but with whom I had several e-mail exchanges after he contacted me while he was in Rome researching the sources of his work, was as excited as I was about being featured on Nextbook. I am also convinced that Haber meant well, and that his enthusiasm for Roman Jewish music is genuine and, altogether, a “good thing” for Italian Jewish music. 

This being said, my critique of Haber’s interview is very simple. There is virtually NOTHING in what he says in Nextbook’s podcast that matches anything I have learned about the musical traditions of the Jews in Rome: 

  • The “dusty old recordings of Roman cantors” mentioned in the podcast were digitized in 2001: their catalog is accessible online, either through the website of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia or through that of the Jerusalem National Sound Archives;
  • It is unlikely that the music of the Roman Jews is 2000 years old (or more);
  • Historically, Ashkenazi traditions have had very little to do with the Roman community (I am not sure why Haber suggests that they did);
  • The music of the Roman Jews is everything BUT “unadulterated” by external influences: in the 19th century, Roman Jewry was “colonized” by the Jewish communities of Northern Italy (Piedmont above all), and a host of new music was composed in order to “modernize” what the rest of Italian Jewry perceived (note: “perceived”) as a backwards tradition, still steeped in the darkness of ghetto life; in the 20th century, Rome’s synagogue music was “colonized” again, this time by the “Sephardic” music of Livorno, and by a host of Livornese Rabbis-Cantors, like David Prato and, more recently (but for over fifty years), Elio Toaff; in addition, some of Rome’s liturgical songs were arranged in the 1950’s by a handful of composers active in Cinecittà, like Nino Rota; finally, in the 20th-21st century, Rome’s ritual authorities “imported” aspects of the liturgy of other Italian Jewish communities: the Roman rendition of the haftarah, for example, was modeled on that of Turin, since its “original” tradition had been lost;  
  • The influence of the music of the Catholic Church on the sounds is particularly evident in Rome: most non-Roman Italian synagogue cantors commonly joke about how Rome’s synagogue “sound” is similar to that of the Church; 
  • These influences (Jewish and Christian) do not mean that Roman Jewish music is not “ancient,” or “authentic”: it is, by all standards, a unique body of Jewish music, in which some fairly ancient rituals (like the amazing Mishmarah) coexists with more recent additions. 

As any scholar of Jewish music knows, our field is crowded with misconceptions. These have to do with music, but more often with history, and with the cultural identity of the Jews. In some cases, these misconceptions give way to real — and really disturbing — stereotypes. This is when I feel like reacting strongly. It has very little to do with my integrity as a scholar, and everything to do with my responsibility as a thinking and culturally active person. 

When Yotam Haber contacted me last year, I did suggest all of the above to him in the course of a lengthy e-mail exchange. It would have been wonderful to find an echo of the complexity of Italy’s Jewish musical culture in his statements to Nextbook. It is really too bad that his interview became instead a vehicle to propagate a host of stereotypes about Italian Jewry (its antiquity and exoticism, just to be precise) that really do not belong in an informed narrative about Judaism and its cultures. 

Well, at least I am glad that Yotam Haber is not a musicologist: we can always enjoy his music.


Uno dei miei siti preferiti, Nextbook, ha recentemente pubblicato un nuovo podcast, Bel Canto, che si occupa di Death Will Come and She Shall Have Your Eyes (“Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi”) del compositore Yotam Haber, un brano composto durante la sua residenza di un anno presso l’Accademia Americana di Roma, e presentato là lo scorso mese di maggio. Questa composizione, di cui si possono ascoltare alcuni brani su Nextbook, è basata — fra altre cose — sulle registrazioni sul campo di canti ebraici italiani che Leo Levi (Casale Monferrato, 1912 – Gerusalemme, 1982) realizzò tra il 1954 e il 1962, e che sono conservate presso gli Archivi di Etnomusicologia dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia a Roma. Ho già fornito alcune indicazioni su Leo Levi in questo blog (vedi la mia pagina bibliografica), e conto di fornirne ancora in futuro. 

Non mi piace criticare il lavoro degli altri, e cercherò qui di farlo con il minor numero di parole possibile. Vorrei chiarire che la mia critica non ha nulla a che vedere con la musica di Yotam Haber (ad essere franchi, ADORO il riferimento a Cesare Pavese), e tutto a che vedere con quanto dichiara nel corso dell’intervista, e con l’intero podcast di Facebook. In genere tenderei a tenermi le critiche per me stesso, o a distribuirle fra i miei colleghi. La pubblicità che Nextbook offre alle nozioni strampalate espresse da Haber, però, mi suggerisce che sia il caso di adottare un profilo leggermente più pubblico di quello al quale sono solito.

Un po’ di retroscena. Tra il 1998 e il 2002 ho lavorato per l’Accademia di Santa Cecilia e catalogato le registrazioni dei canti ebraici italiani di Leo Levi, che sono conservate sia a Roma e alla Fonoteca di Stato presso la Biblioteca Nazionale e Universitaria di Gerusalemme. Ho anche curato un’edizione antologica di queste registrazione: un CD+libretto è stato pubblicato congiuntamente dall’Accademia e dal Jewish Music Research Center dell’Università Ebraica di Gerusalemme. Le registrazioni di Levi hanno inoltre avuto un ruolo importantissimo come fonti per la mia tesi di dottorato (Le tradizioni musicali degli ebrei in Piemonte, scritta presso l’Università Ebraica), e per svariati articoli che ho pubblicato in riviste accademiche, e in un bel po’ di conferenze che ho tenuto in varie parti del mondo. Elenco queste cose solo per assicurare i miei lettori del fatto che ho prestato parecchia attenzione a queste registrazioni. Questo non significa automaticamente che io li comprenda meglio di chiunque altro, ma di certo mi rende un ascoltatore abbastanza informato della musica ebraica italiana, e un ascoltatore altrettanto coscenzioso del podcast di Nextbook.  

Non è la prima volta che Nextbook si occupa di musica ebraica italiana. Lo aveva fatto in un’intervista con il sottoscritto (condotta da Boris Fishman), che avevo molto apprezzato: Ghetto Music. E sono sicuro che anche Yotam Haber, che non ho mai conosciuto di persona ma con cui ho avuto diversi scambi di e-mail dopo che mi ha contattato durante il suo soggiorno romano, quando stava facendo ricerche sulle fonti del suo lavoro, sia altrettanto felice di quanto lo sia stato io per l’inclusione in Nextbook. Sono anche convinto delle ottime intenzioni di Haber, e che il suo entusiasmo per la musica ebraica romana sia genuino, e tutto sommato positivo per la musica ebraica italiana. 

Ciò detto, la mia critica all’intervista a Haber è molto semplice. Non trovo praticamente NULLA di quanto lui dichiara nel corso del podcast di Nextbook che coincida con quanto ho appreso sulle tradizioni musicali degli ebrei di Roma: 

  • Le “vecchie registrazioni polverose dei cantori romani” citate nel podcast esistono in versione digitale dal 2001: il loro catalogo è accessibile in rete, sia tramite il sito web dell’Accademia di Santa Cecilia che quello della Fonoteca Nazionale di Gerusalemme
  • Mi pare assai improbabile che la musica degli ebrei romani sia vecchia di 2000 anni (o più); 
  • Storicamente, le tradizioni ashkenazite hanno avuto ben poco a che vedere con la comunità di Roma (non sono sicuro del perchè Haber suggerisca il contrario);
  • La musica degli ebrei romani è tutto meno che “incontaminata” da influenze esterne: nel XIX secolo, l’ebraismo romano venne “colonizzato” dalle comunità ebraiche del nord Italia (soprattutto il Piemonte), e un nuovo repertorio musicale venne composto allo scopo di “modernizzare” quanto il resto dell’ebraismo italiano percepiva (nota: “percepiva”) come una tradizione primitiva, ancorata nell’oscurità della vita nel ghetto; nel XX secolo, la musica sinagogale di Roma fu “colonizzata” nuovamente, questa volta dalla musica “sefardita” di Livorno, e da una piccola schiera di rabbini-cantori di estrazione livornese, quali David Prato e, più recentemente (ma per oltre cinquant’anni), Elio Toaff; inoltre, alcuni dei brani liturgici romani vennero arrangiati negli anni Cinquanta da una manciata di compositori attivi a Cinecittà, come Nino Rota; infine, tra il XX e il XXI secolo, le autorità rituali di Roma hanno “importato” aspetti della liturgia da altre comunità ebraiche italiani: la versione romana della haftarah, per esempio, è basata su quella di Torino, in quanto la tradizione “originale” era andata perduta;  
  • L’influenza della musica della Chiesa Cattolica sul “sound” ella sinagoga è particolarmente evidente a Roma: molti fra i cantori di sinagoga italiani (non romani) scherzano spesso sul fatto che questo “sound” romano assomiglia a quello della Chiesa; 
  • Queste influenze (ebraiche e cristiane) non significano che la musica ebraica romana non sia “antica”, o “autentica”: è un corpus unico di musica ebraica, in seno al quale alcuni rituali piuttosto antichi (come la fantastica Mishmarah) coesistono con aggiunte ben più recenti. 

Come qualsiasi studioso di musica ebraica sa bene, il nostro campo è pieno di idee balzane, che spesso hanno a che vedere, più che con la musica, con la storia, e con l’identità culturale degli ebrei. In alcuni casi, queste nozioni aprono la strada a veri – e sgradevoli – pregiudizi. E’ in casi del genere che mi viene da reagire con una certa veemenza. Sono casi che hanno poco a che vedere con la mia integrità di studioso, e tutto a che vedere con la mia responsabilità di persona pensante e culturalmente attiva.  

Quando Yotam Haber mi ha contattato lo scorso anno, gli suggerii tutto quello che ho elencato sin qui nel corso di un lungo scambio di e-mail. Sarebbe stato bello trovare un’eco della complessità delle culture musicali ebraiche in Italia nelle sue dichiarazioni a Nextbook. E’ invece un peccato che questa intervista sia diventata un veicolo per propagare una serie di stereotipi sull’ebraismo italiano (la sua antichità, il suo esotismo, per essere precisi) che non sono di casa in un discorso bene informato sull’ebraismo e le sue culture.  

Beh, almeno Yotam Haber non è un musicologo: possiamo sempre goderci la sua musica. 

Posted in italy, music | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »