Sara Levy’s World: Music, Gender, and Judaism in Enlightenment Berlin
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Sara Levy’s World: Music, Gender, and Judaism in Enlightenment Berlin

An exceptional musical program last month at the Center for Jewish History under the auspices of the Leo Baeck Institute and the American Society for Jewish Music's Jewish Music Forum, was broadcast on the Classical Network, wwfm.org. The program celebrated the legacy of Sara Levy (1761 – 1854 ), a philanthropist, saloniere, patron, musician and music collector. Every piece on the program, introduced by Christoph Wolff, was associated with her, and displayed the breadth and depth of her taste.

Nancy Sinkoff of Rutgers University put Levy’s life in the context of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment spearheaded by Moses Mendelssohn, and supported by Daniel Itzig, Sara Levy’s father. Sinkoff sketched, as well, the social life of Berlin, in which wealthy Jewish women – Dorothea Schlegel and Rahel Varnhagen among them -– made prominent places for themselves through their salons, sometimes made easier by conversion to Christianity, a choice Sara Levy refused.

Levy was the fifth daughter of Miriam and Daniel Itzig. Her father was banker to Frederick the Great, the king of Prussia. In addition to supporting the Haskalah, the Itzigs were passionate exponents of the music of J.S. and C.P.E. Bach. For ten years, Sara Itzig studied with Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. When she and Samuel Levy married in 1783, W.F. Bach composed a song for the occasion, one of the works performed at the Center for Jewish History. It was Sara Levy’s niece, Lea, married to Abraham Mendelssohn (second son of Moses) who with her husband bought the musical estate of the Bach family, thus saving it.

The Mendelssohns donated this collection to the Berlin Sing-Akademie, the institution at the center of Sara Levy’s public musical life, as her salon anchored her private life. At both she was a virtuoso performer. She was also a musical patron, commissioning, for instance, a concerto that was C.P.E. Bach’s last work. All the while she collected scores, some of which survive in no other copy, and gave them to the Sing-Akademie in her lifetime. The Akademie’s whole collection was spirited away during the war by the Red Army and only recovered from Kiev in 2001 –- a fascinating story is promised, but Christoph Wolff did not have time to tell it.

C.P.E. Bach’s Quartet in D major for flute, viola and fortepiano stood out, a fascinating piece in which Bach deployed melodic elements like skeins of melody intertwining. Other wonderful moments were offered by the tenor Thomas Urrey’s performance of songs, and a J.S. Bach organ trio arranged for harpsichord and fortepiano, played by Yi-heng Yang and Rebecca Cypess. This was preserved in a single copy by Sara Levy’s sister, Fanny von Arnheim, a patron of Mozart.

The ensemble, led by Rebecca Cypess who organized the evening with Nancy Sinkoff, played on period instruments. These –- the unresonant fortepiano and harpsichord, the strings played almost without vibrato, untethered, in the absence of chin rests or shoulder pads, from the players’ bodies, the violin muted –- reminded one powerfully of what a different sound music had in the Baroque era: more modest, perhaps more precise, certainly more focused on the music itself. It is thanks to the collecting of Sara Levy and her family that many of the pieces we heard survived.

Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.

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