bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

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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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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

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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.

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The Jewish Theory of Everything: Negotiating Jewish Identities in Italy

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/11/05

The Jewish Theory of Everything, Talk at the Jewish Community Library of San Francisco, Nov. 5, 2008

The Jewish Theory of Everything, Talk at the Jewish Community Library of San Francisco, Nov. 5, 2008

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Siena, 1786

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/09/10

The performance – Il concerto

The performance – Il concerto: music by V. Gallichi & F. Drei for the inauguration of the synagogue of Siena (1786).

On the evening of September 6, 2008, motze shabbat shofetim, I was invited to introduce the first modern performance of the music composed in 1786 for the inauguration of the synagogue of Siena in the very same building in which it was first presented. The music, composed by Volunio Gallichi (a Jewish amateur musician) and Francesco Drei (a Catholic Senese composer) to a libretto made of locally written Hebrew poems, was studied, edited and published several decades ago by Israel Adler, and I believed to be already quite familiar with it well before I found myself here:

La sera del 6 settembre del 2008, motze shabbat shofetim, sono stato invitato a introdurre la prima esecuzione moderna delle musiche composte nel 1786 per l’inaugurazione della sinagoga di Siena nello stesso edificio in cui vennero presentate la prima volta. Le musiche, composte da Volunio Gallichi (un ebreo dilettante di musica) e da Francesco Drei (un compositore senese cattolico) su un libretto costituito da poemi ebraici scritti da autori locali, sono state studiate e pubblicate a cura di Israel Adler diversi decenni or sono, e io credevo di conoscerle abbastanza bene prima di ritrovarmi qui:

Siena: Outside the Synagogue/Fuori dalla sinagoga

It was an amazing visit. Seeing the music being rehearsed the day before the performance, then watching the crowd climb into the building (the sanctuary is upstairs) at night, presented me with a whole new understanding of what may have happened there over two centuries ago. A ceremony that served many purposes: aligning the different “souls” of the local Jewish community (which was presumably divided in “Italian” and “Sephardic” Jewish currents, who met at the two pre-existing synagogues – with the Italians interpreting the role of the “conservatives” and the Sephardic Jews starring as the “innovators”) while celebrating a nocturnal Kabbalistic ritual (a progressive form of Judaism, at the time) and involving the local non-Jewish rulers to witness a newly united Jewish community, under the same roof. Keywords that come to mind are, of course, “inter-cultural” and “inter-faith” – the music, the very score, were the products of multiple hands and multiple cultures. People came from far away (even Piedmont) to be present at the performance. The fact that the music was originally presented at night is consistent with other Kabbalistic rituals that Jewish confraternities performed in different Italian cities since the end of the 16th century. Re-reading the text of the ceremony really resonated with me for the first time as a truly innovative attempt to address the structure of the community: it became clear how music was a catalyst in a complex communal process centered around the move to a new synagogue, and thus around abandoning old rituals, old habits, and old social structures. The liturgical IS political, after all.

I have to thank Anna Di Castro and Lamberto Piperno for their vision, their warmth, and (of course) their hospitality. One should really check out these amazing people at their home in Monaciano, which can be found here.

E’ stata una visita straordinaria. Vedere le prove il giorno prima del concerto, e poi il pubblico arrampicarsi su per il palazzo (la sinagoga è al primo, ripidissimo, piano) durante la notte, mi ha messo davanti a un modo tutto nuovo di capire che cosa potrebbe essere accaduto lì oltre due secoli or sono. Si trattava di una cerimonia che aveva diversi obiettivi: allineare le diverse “anime” della locale comunità ebraica (che era con tutta probabilità divisa in due correnti, “italiana” e “sefardita”, che si riunivano in due sinagoghe differenti – con gli italiani nel ruolo dei “conservatori” e i sefarditi in quello degli “innovatori”), e al contempo celebrare una cerimonia qabalistica notturna (la qabalah era, allora, una forma di ebraismo progressista) prevedendo anche il coinvolgimento e la presenza delle autorità cattoliche, che venissero a verificare di persona l’esistenza di una comunità ebraica unificata, sotto il medesimo tetto. Le parole chiave che vengono in mente sono, ovviamente, “inter-culturale” e “inter-religioso” – la musica, la partitura stessa, furono il risultato di un lavoro a più mani e culture. Il pubblico venne anche da molto lontano (persino dal Piemonte) per presenziare all’esecuzione. Il fatto che la musica sia stata originariamente presentata durante la notte è in linea con altri rituali qabalistici praticati da confraternite ebraiche in varie città italiane sin dalla fine del XVI secolo. Rileggere il testo della cerimonia ha acquisito per la prima volta un significato tutto nuovo per me: il tentativo, innovatore, di cambiare la struttura della comunità. Mi si è chiarito come la musica sia stata l’elemento catalizzatore all’interno di un complesso processo comunitario incentrato sul trasloco in una nuova sinagoga, e dunque sull’abbandono dei vecchi riti, delle vecchie abitudini, delle vecchie strutture sociali. L’ambito liturgico è, dopotutto, politico.

Voglio ringraziare Anna Di Castro e Lamberto Piperno per la loro creatività, il loro calore, e (ovviamente) per la loro ospitalità. Vale veramente la pena di andare a vedere chi sono queste persone straordinarie, nella loro dimora di Monaciano, che si trova qui.

Rehearsals in the synagogue/Prove in sinagoga

Rehearsals in the synagogue/Prove in sinagoga

the audience/il pubblico

Siena: the audience / il pubblico.

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Ruth Gruber on the European Day of Jewish Culture

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/09/03

Hadassah Magazine runs an article Ruth Gruber wrote on the European Day of Jewish Culture in its current edition. You can read it online — click HERE, then click on current issue (August/September 2008 Vol. 90 No. 1), then scroll down to Letter from Europe: A Jewish Holiday for Everyone.

She writes:

Italy is one of the most enthusiastic participants. Last year, events in more than 55 towns and cities at­tracted 50,000 people—about 15,000 more than the country’s entire Jewish population. This year, even more venues have been added.


Ruth Gruber ha scritto un articolo sulla Giornata Europea della Cultura Ebraica per Hadassah Magazine. Lo si può leggere in rete – fate click QUI, poi su “current issue” (August/September 2008 Vol. 90 No. 1), e infine su Letter from Europe: A Jewish Holiday for Everyone (“Lettera dall’Europa: Una festa ebraica per tutti”).

Ruth scrive:

L’Italia è fra i partecipanti più entusiasti. Lo scorso anno, eventi svoltisi in oltre 55 località hanno avuto 50mila visitatori – circa 15mila in più dell’intera popolazione ebraica della Penisola. Quest’anno sono state aggiunte nuove località.

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Se il titolo vi incuriosisce… – If the title makes you wonder…

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/09/01

…no, questo non è un blog dedicato alla Traviata. La musica, però, c’entra eccome. La musica come cultura, e come identità culturale. La musica come luogo di interazione fra persone e idee.

A un secolo e mezzo dalla prima di Nabucco (1842), ancora non è chiaro di chi sia la “patria” cui si riferisce “Va, pensiero”: degli italiani, o degli ebrei?

L’unica cosa certa a proposito di patria è che è bella e perduta.

Questo blog è dedicato a un’Italia che non c’è, che non c’è più, o che non c’è mai stata, dipinta e ascoltata tramite la musica ed il canto. E’ dedicato a chi sogna l’Italia da lontano, e a chi da vicino prova a immaginarla diversa.


… this is not a blog about Traviata. And yet, music rests at its core. Music as culture, and as cultural identity; music as a space of interaction among people and ideas.

A century and a half since the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco (1842), it is still unclear whose “homeland” the one referred to in the lyrics of ‘Va, pensiero’ is: the Italians’? the Jews’?

The only thing that’s certain about homelands is that they are beautiful and lost .

This blog is dedicated to an Italy that does not exist, or that is no more, or that never was – painted and heard through music and song. It is dedicated to those who dream of Italy from afar, and to those who from up close try to envision it differently that it is.

Listen to ‘Va, pensiero’

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