bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

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Archive for December, 2009

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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