bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

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

Archive for November, 2009

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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