Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Sara Levy's World

by Nancy Sinkoff

Anton Graff:
portrait of one of the Itzig sisters,
probably Sara
Sara Levy (1761–1854) was the fifth daughter of a prominent Jewish family, the Itzigs, who made their home in Berlin, court city of the Prussian Empire, in the second half of the eighteenth century. She was born just as the city was becoming a center of the Prussian Enlightenment.

Sara Levy shaped the cultural ideals of late 18th-century Berlin as a salonnière, patron, and performing musician. A keyboardist with connections to Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, she performed both in private house-concerts and the more public venue of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin. She interacted with Jews and Christians in Berlin’s enlightened circles, overcoming obstacles of religion and gender to transform Berlin’s artistic landscape and becoming a catalyst for the Bach revival of the 19th century.

Her work was the subject of a symposium on 29-30 September 2014 at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University in New Brunswick NJ, called Sara Levy's World: Music, Gender, and Judaism in Enlightenment Berlin. Financial support was provided by the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Videos of the conference papers and the original concert are linked HERE.
  • 2014 symposium posting HERE.
  • 2014 symposium home page HERE.
On Tuesday, 19 May 2015, a “followup” concert, “In Sara Levy's Salon,” takes place at the Leo Baeck Institute, Center for Jewish History, on 16th Street in New York City. It features music owned and played by Sara Levy in the program given below, with Rebecca Cypess, harpsichord and fortepiano and supporting musicians Frederick Urrey, tenor; Steven Zohn, transverse flute; Benjamin Shute, violin; Dongmyung Ahn, viola; Christine Gummere, cello; and Yi-heng Yang, fortepiano. The concert is introduced by Nancy Sinkoff, with commentary during the evening from Christoph Wolff. It is sponsored by the American Society for Jewish Music and the Leo Baeck Institute.

This text is an abridgement of Prof. Sinkoff's remarks.

Rebecca Cypess plays during the September 2014 symposium 

Music played a pivotal role in the salons created by German-Jewish women like Sara Levy. It was performed, listened to, and discussed by the salonnières and their guests, carefully chosen cultured individuals who could appreciate what was being played. Sara Levy came to her musical interests through her natal family’s value system. Daniel Itzig hired Johann Philipp Kirnberger, a student of and advocate for the famed Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach, for Hanna and Bella, his two eldest daughters. Sara’s younger sister Fanny, later a famous Viennese salonnière in her own right, was an instrumentalist who helped establish the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and later created the music hall that became home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. She and her husband Nathan Arnstein gave Mozart domicile in their home in 1781. Like her sisters, Sara Levy studied music, she with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, son of J. S. Bach, and became an accomplished keyboardist.

She commissioned progressive and noteworthy compositions from both Friedemann and his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, and she owned a massive collection of music manuscripts and printed editions of music from her own day and from the previous generation. Levy played the harpsichord and fortepiano, and owned both types of instruments made by the famous Silbermann family of Strasbourg. Being a “lady at music” did not necessarily mean playing solely for oneself. The eighteenth-century salon, though domestic, was not private, and therefore suggests that music-making allowed elite women to push the boundaries between the private, domestic female sphere and the public, male one. An orchestra of the eighteenth-century size could easily have fit into Levy’s salon, and she is thought to have played concertos as well as solo and chamber music in her home. When she played, she performed for an audience.

And she went even further in stretching the boundaries of expected female behavior. She performed for friends and acquaintances in the public venue of the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, a bourgeois choral society founded in 1791 by Carl Fasch, a harpsichordist to the Prussian court. Her relationship with the Sing-Akademie illustrates the central role that Jews played in the creation of German musical history. Carl Friedrich Zelter was appointed to the directorship of the Sing-Akademie in 1800 and became particularly committed to J.S. Bach’s work, performing excerpts from his Passions, Masses, and cantatas when it was not common practice to revisit the music of the past century. Becoming Felix Mendelssohn’s music teacher in 1811 when his parents Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn relocated to Berlin, Zelter passed his ardor for Bach to his remarkable student, ensuring continued interest in Bach’s music. So, too, did Sara Levy, who became particularly active in the Sing-Akademie after her husband Samuel Levy’s death in 1806, and donated her collection of music—which included instrumental pieces, solo works, chamber music, symphonies, and keyboard concertos, many by the Bach family—to Zelter.

Nancy Sinkoff is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Rutgers, director of the Center for European Studies there, and a resident of New York city.

Rebecca Cypess is Assistant Professor of Music at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. A forte-pianist and harpsichordist, she specializes in the history, interpretation, and performance of music in 17th- and 18th-century Europe, seeking to establish connections between musicology and performance practice.

Christoph Wolff is Adams University Research Professor at Harvard University and Curator of the Isham Memorial Library. Wolff is among the world’s leading scholars of J. S. Bach and his legacy.


In Sara Levy’s Salon

Johann Joachim Quantz (1697–1773)
Quartet in E minor for violin, flute, viola, and continuo,

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784)
Fantasy in D minor for solo keyboard, Fk. 19

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
Flute Sonata, BWV 1031, arranged for flute, violin and continuo

Carl Friedrich Zelter(1758–1832)
     “Kennst du das Land”
     “Heiß mich nicht reden”

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach 
     “Herz, mein Herz, sei ruhig”

Johann Philipp Kirnberger
     “Wie wunderlich, mein guter Mann”

Johann Sebastian Bach
Organ trio, BWV 526, arranged for harpsichord and fortepiano

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788)
Quartet in D major for flute, viola, and fortepiano, Wq. 94

Program notes by Rebecca Cypess

Sara Levy (1761–1854) was one of fifteen children born to Daniel and Miriam Itzig, among the most influential and wealthiest Jews in 18th-century Prussia. Daniel received special status as a “court Jew” to Frederick the Great, and his children benefited from his position. Along with her siblings, the young Sara received the finest musical education available. By 1774 she was studying harpsichord with no less a teacher than Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784), eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Under the tutelage of Friedemann, she exceeded the expectations of women of her age as musicians. Whereas the many “Damen Sonaten” (Ladies’ Sonatas) published in the 18th century suggest that women were generally seen as capable of playing only very simple pieces, accounts of Levy’s performances, along with the documentary evidence from her collection of manuscripts and printed editions, suggest that she was an extremely capable performer with eclectic tastes. Great-aunt to Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, Sara Levy’s activities as a performer, collector, and patron left an indelible mark on the course of German musical history.

This evening’s program consists of music associated with Sara Levy—works that she is known to have kept in her collection of manuscript and printed scores, and works that she is thought to have played or commissioned. Levy synthesized a wide range of music, keeping past traditions alive and initiating new styles and performance practices. This concert imagines a program of the sort that Levy might have heard and performed in her salon.

W. F. Bach’s keyboard Fantasy in D minor Fk. 19 presents a portrait of the composer at the keyboard, simulating his process of improvisation. The work moves easily between sections in diverse styles, including a rhapsodic triplet-figure motif, a theme in the style of a “French overture,” and a fugue. This fantasy survives only in manuscripts associated with Levy’s salon, indicating that she may have commissioned it (and paid handsomely for it). Friedemann’s song “Herz, mein Herz, sei ruhig,” based on a movement from one of his earlier keyboard sonatas, was evidently composed for Sara Levy’s wedding—a remarkable testimony to the close relationship between the composer and his pupil/patron.

The other songs on the program also have connections with Levy: the song by Johann Philipp Kirnberger is from a 1761 miscellany, published in Berlin, entitled Musikalisches Allerley. Levy owned this volume, a fact that attests to her interest in the preservation of older local traditions. The two songs by Carl Friedrich Zelter—settings of well-known texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, included in Zelter’s first book of Lieder (1797)—are included in the program as a nod to the relationship that would develop around the turn of the 19th century between Levy and Zelter’s Sing-Akademie, where she performed regularly as a concerto soloist. Indeed, this relationship proved most important for the present project: Levy apparently donated the bulk of her collection of music to the Sing-Akademie during her lifetime; its preservation there—complicated by its exile to Kiev during the Cold War and its subsequent repatriation to Berlin—has enabled this project.

Also significant was Levy’s wish to engage with German musical history and to bring it into dialogue with modernity. The quartets that start and close tonight’s program stand as examples of this tendency. The manuscript copy in her collection of the quartets of Johann Joachim Quantz—an important figure in the history of music in Berlin because of his role in the court of Frederick the Great—is the only surviving copy of these works, which fuse contrapuntal complexity with the rhetorically based aesthetic of the “galant” style. Quantz’s quartets were likely composed in the 1720s; Sara Levy’s decision to keep these works in her collection when they are absent even from the collection of Frederick the Great attests to her zealousness in preserving past musical heritage of the Berlin community.

The significance of the quartet as a medium was described by Quantz in his treatise on flute performance, published in 1752. There, he wrote, “The quartet, a sonata with three concertante instruments and a bass, is the true touchstone of a genuine contrapuntist, and is often the downfall of those who are not solidly grounded in their technique. Its vogue has never been great, hence its nature may not be well known to many people. It is to be feared that compositions of this kind will eventually become a lost art.”1 In the hands of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the quartet persisted but changed. No longer scored for three instruments with basso continuo (chordal accompaniment founded on the bass line), Philipp Emanuel’s quartets, apparently commissioned by Sara Levy toward the end of the composer’s life, treat the right hand and left hand of the keyboard as separate obbligato parts acting in counterpoint with the flute and viola. In addition, the musical style of C.P.E. Bach’s quartets diverges considerably from that of Quantz; Bach’s late works reflect his interest in the empfindsamer Stil (“sentimental style”), which features the fragmentation of musical ideas, intensely emotional passages, and surprising harmonies. 

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