A few notes about Italian Jewish Music

by Francesco Spagnolo

The following was first posted to the Jewish-music mailing list, in response to a query about appropriate Italian Jewish music to be used as a soundtrack to a video about Italian Jews. This being a subject about which almost nothing is available, in print or online, I am especially grateful to Francesco for permission to reprint the article here. ari

I have been working on Italian Jewish music for a while now, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries (a completely unexplored period) and keep asking myself some basic questions, which I will try to share here with the list. At the same time, I will try to give some ideas about Judith's query.

Let me try to divide this issue in two parts, leaving liturgical music aside:

1. Italian Jewish "Popular" Music

As far as I can tell, there were very few instances of such a thing - or an equivalent of "klezmer". Again, the central issue of what "popular music" is for the Jews comes into the picture (including the question about klezmer being a "popular music")... but I will not go into that now. In Italy, it is a fair assumption to say -- most definitely about modern/contemporary times -- that the popular music of the Jews and of the non Jews was the same.

This included both folk songs -- which eventually became a "co-territorial repertoire" (that is, shared among Jews and Gentiles within the same area, as Zev Feldman defines one of the klezmer repertoires; I presented an extraordinary version of Had gadya in Judeo-Piedmontese in the CD "Italian Jewish Musical Traditions") -- and, in some instances, even Opera.

Opera can come into the picture as popular music (especially 18 -- and early 19 century opera), since in Italy it was always perceived also as a music for the common people, and not just for the elites. Rossini and Verdi are good examples: and both of them were worshipped by the Jews (the reasons for this in some other posting).

Popular music made by Jews in a Jewish setting has left very few traces, and they are mostly connected with paraliturgical events (see the Purim, Births and Weddings sections in the above mentioned CD). Operetta, or light opera, should also be put in this category.

2. Jews and art music in Italy

The Jewish involvement in art music by no means stopped after the late Renaissance/Baroque era. But ghetto life became more and more grim as the centuries went by, and only after the Emancipation (mid 19th century) did Jews really join in with the rest of the country's cultural endeavors. At that point, Jews became involved as performers and soon enough as composers. They were mostly involved in opera at first, but some were composers of operettas.,/p>

By the turn of the 20th century, many Jews became prominent in the Italian music world. Again, as performers, but also as musicologists (the first study about Verdi was published by a Jewish researcher), ethnomusicologists, historians (the Vivaldi renaissance was launched by a Jewish professor, who held the first university chair of music history in Italy's history), and, of course, composers.

Italian Jewish composers were involved in all fields, from the more conservative (late Romantics, Wagnerians, etc.) to the most modernist ones (but modernism in Italy was also, in a way, a part of the establishment's culture, thus often connected with Fascism...). They were numerous - relatively to the small Jewish population - and quite prominent.

Did these composers turn to "Jewish themes"? A few of them did. Probably more would have, if they'd had the time to do so. All in all, Jewish Emancipation in Italy lasted less than a century. In 1938, the anti-Semitic laws conceived by Mussolini's regime and signed by the same royal family that in 1848 has signed the emancipatory edicts, made in impossible for Jews to remain an active part of Italy's mainstream culture. Most of these composers fled their homeland, and only a few came back after the end of the war.

With few exceptions, these composers were almost entirely erased from Italy's musical memory, and are very little known even within the Jewish music world. A year ago, Yuval Italia started a research group that is currently working on establishing biographical information and list of compositions, as well as locating the scores. "New" names come up all the time. A concert took place at the Music Conservatory of Milan last January, presenting a first selection of works.

Yesterday, I was talking about this with the music librarians of the National Library in Jerusalem, where I'm spending the academic year. They were telling me that they know very little. I mentioned a few names, which were unknown to them, and said that in most cases these composers had been given appropriate entries in the Grove Dictionary of Music. Their reply -- which was accurate -- was that only on very few instances does Grove mention that they were Jewish... so how can they know?

By studying 19th century sources, I now have access to what happened to Jewish musicians of the previous generation (mostly active in composing synagogue music... again, this should go into a different posting!). The advantage in this is that I am no longer looking at the immediate past retrospectively.

I really appreciate the interest about this topic. It is crucial that images are matched by the appropriate musical selections. In most cases, anything that is "Italian/Jewish" is paired with Salomone Rossi's music (which was probably almost never, or only occasionally sung by actual Italian Jews...). Or, as in an otherwise beautiful documentary by Daniele Segre on the synagogues of Piedmont, the only soundtrack that anybody seems to be able to come up with for anything "Jewish" is, inevitably, klezmer....

Hag sameah from Jerusalem,
15 Apr 2003

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