bella e perduta: music, italy, & the jews

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

Posts Tagged ‘kabbalah’

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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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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Italian Jews and the Origins of the Symphony – Gli ebrei italiani e le origini della sinfonia

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on 2008/09/18

So, I went to another conference last weekend. In Alessandria, Italy. A very interesting international symposium on Italian composer Antonio Brioschi (who florished around 1730-1750) that had many different institutions involved: the Music Department of the University of Milan (my alma mater), Ricordi, Sony BMG, and Atalanta Fugiens, an early music ensemble conducted by Vanni Moretto, who also happens to be an old friend (whom I had not seen in 20 years, yes t-w-e-n-t-y…).

Nu, what was I doing there? It so happens that one of the earliest sinfonie by Brioschi, an obscure composer whom, along with Sammartini, is at the origins of the new genre of the sinfonia (at a time when people were actually doing something interesting in Milan, my hometown: they were busy “inventing” human rights and the symphony – not bad, uh?) – so, one of Brioschi’s symphonies appears as an ouverture of a Hebrew cantata for Hosha’na rabbah, performed in Casale Monferrato in 1733.

I will post later on this cantata, which was performed in the synagogue of Casale Monferrato for the first time since 1733 last Sunday, September 17, 2008. Right now I am just copying the program of the entire, two-day conference below.

E così me ne sono andato a un altro convegno lo scorso fine settimana. Ad Alessandria. Un convegno molto interessante sul compositore italiano Antonio Brioschi (fiorito nel 1730-1750), che vedeva diverse istituzioni coinvolte: il Dipartimento di Musica dell’Università di Milano (la mia alma mater), la Casa Ricordi, la Sony BMG, e Atalanta fugiens, un ensemble di musica “antica” diretto da Vanni Moretto, che poi è un vecchio amico (che non vedevo da ben 20 anni, sì, proprio così).

E allora, che ci facevo lì? Beh, si tratta del fatto che una delle prime sinfonie del nostro Brioschi, un oscuro compositore che, insieme con Sammartini, è all’origine del nuovo genere della sinfonia (in un’epoca in cui la gente faceva cose interessanti a Milano, la mia città: tipo “inventare” i diritti umani e la sinfonia – mica male, no?) – allora, si dà il caso che una felle sinfonie di Brioschi sia stata inclusa, come ouverture, in una cantata ebraica per Hosha’na rabbah, eseguita a Casale Monferrato nel 1733.

Scriverò più avanti di questa cantata, che è stata eseguita nella sinagoga di Casale per la prima volta dal 1733 la scorsa domenica (17 settembre, 2008). Per ora copio qui di seguito il programma completo della conferenza, che è durata due giorni.


Convegno Internazionale

Antonio Brioschi e il nuovo stile musicale del Settecento lombardo:
ricerca storico-critica, prassi esecutiva, aspetti produttivi

Alessandria, Palazzo Cuttica, 20 e 21 settembre 2008

* Associazione Atalanta Fugiens

* Sezione Musica del Dipartimento di Storia delle arti, della musica e dello spettacolo dell’Università degli Studi di Milano

* Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Alessandria

La riscoperta di Antonio Brioschi (fl. 1725 ca. – 1750 ca.) è lo spunto e l’occasione per una complessiva riconsiderazione del Settecento strumentale lombardo. Intorno a questo tema s’incentra il convegno, orientato da due direttrici di fondo. Da un lato, la verifica di un’ipotesi di lavoro o, se si preferisce, di una sfida critica e storiografica che riguarda il ruolo di Brioschi e degli altri autori milanesi – o comunque operanti in Lombardia – nella definizione di un nuovo stile strumentale di rilevanza europea; dall’altro, l’intento di accompagnare e integrare la ricerca musicologica con lo studio sulla prassi esecutiva. Il convegno segna del resto un primo importante momento di riflessione nell’ambito del progetto «Archivio della sinfonia milanese», che si propone di raccogliere il repertorio sinfonico del Settecento lombardo al fine di promuoverne lo studio, l’esecuzione e la diffusione. Il progetto punta infatti a coordinare gli aspetti della ricerca storico-critica, della prassi esecutiva, dell’organizzazione musicale e della produzione editoriale e discografica coinvolgendo diversi soggetti e istituzioni: anzitutto l’Associazione Atalanta Fugiens, la Sezione Musica del Dipartimento di Storia delle arti, della musica e dello spettacolo dell’Università degli Studi di Milano, Casa Ricordi, la Sony BMG Music.

Tra gli obiettivi principali del progetto vi sono:

* la creazione di un centro di ricerca dedicato alla raccolta sistematica, alla digitalizzazione delle fonti e allo studio dei compositori milanesi o comunque operanti in Lombardia nel corso del Settecento, e in particolare di quegli autori che manifestano un orientamento stilistico progressivo e una personalità di respiro europeo;

* la pubblicazione di una collana, edita da Ricordi, delle composizioni più significative di questi autori (i primi volumi saranno dedicati ad Antonio Brioschi, Fortunato Chelleri, Nicola Antonio Zingarelli); l’intento della collana è di offrire testi che corrispondano a limpidi criteri critici e musicologici e che, al contempo, soddisfino le esigenze della prassi esecutiva;

* la pubblicazione, in parallelo, di una collana discografica da parte della Sony BMG Music;

* l’organizzazione di corsi e seminari dedicati alla prassi esecutiva storica.

Sabato 20 settembre

ore 9.30

Saluti di benvenuto delle Autorità

Apertura dei lavori

Gianfranco Pittatore, Presidente Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Alessandria

Presiede Vanni Moretto

Cristiano Ostinelli

Luciano Rebeggiani

CESARE FERTONANI, La sinfonia “milanese” e il contributo allo sviluppo di un nuovo stile strumentale.

LUCA AVERSANO, Classicismo e musica strumentale nel Settecento italiano

BERTIL VAN BOEHR, A radical change; The influence of Brioschi on the Development of the Swedish Symphonies of Johan Helmich Roman

RENATO MEUCCI, Strumenti e strumentisti intorno a Mozart a Milano.

Ore 15.00

Presiede Bertil Van Boer

VANNI MORETTO, La sinfonia milanese del Settecento: aspetti e problemi di prassi esecutiva.

RUDOLF RASCH, Gli anni 1730 fra barocco e preclassicismo: la variazione formale nel repertorio sinfonico del centenario del Teatro di Amsterdam (1738).

FRANCESCO SPAGNOLO, Il mondo in Sinagoga. Dialoghi musicali tra ebrei e cristiani a Casale Monferrato (XVIII-XIX sec.)

MATTEO GIUGGIOLI, Intorno ad alcuni esempi di ‘sinfonismo’ lombardo: strategie retoriche a confronto.

Ore 21.00

Concerto, Cattedrale di San Pietro di Alessandria

Domenica 21 settembre

ore 9.30

Presiede Cesare Fertonani

SARAH MANDEL YEHUDA, Issues of Authenticity in Eighteenth- Century Sources of Symphonies: The Case of Antonio Brioschi.

BATHIA CHURGIN, A Brioschi Borrowing from Sammartini: The Andante from his Trio Symphony, Fonds Blancheton, Op. II , 61.

Interventi del “Gruppo di ricerca del Dipartimento di Storia delle Arti, della Musica e dello Spettacolo dell’Università degli Studi di Milano”.

DAVIDE DAOLMI, coordinatore

Luca Civelli Jacopo Franzoni Matteo Magarotto

Ore 17.00

Concerto, Sinagoga di Casale Monferrato

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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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