December 15, 2017

In Sara Levy’s Salon

By Rebecca Cypess

When, in 1798, the Jewish writer Wolf Davidson published his treatise On the Civic Improvement of the Jews, he joined an ongoing discussion among both Jewish and Christian thinkers of the Enlightenment concerning the merits of Jewish emancipation in Prussia and the participation of Jews in civic and cultural life. By way of justifying his agenda of emancipation, tolerance, and citizenship for Jewish residents of the kingdom, Davidson cited a long list of Jews, from philosophers and educators to practitioners of the mechanical arts, who were already making significant contributions to Prussian society. Among these, Davidson mentioned a handful of musical “Dilettanten”— amateurs for whom music was an essential component of the moral and cultural edifying process known as Bildung. One such dilettante who, Davidson noted, had acquired a reputation as a “prodigious keyboardist here in Berlin,” was a certain Madame Sara Levy.

Sara Levy, née Itzig (1761–1854), was a Jewish woman, salon hostess, musical collector, patron, and performing musician whose long life spanned a dramatic and tumultuous period in German history, and her distinctive persona and historical profile offer a vista onto these historical circumstances that has remained closed until now. Through both research and performance, my work attempts to open this vista, and to understand Levy as a complete and complex individual—a Jew, a musician, a woman, a modern individual.

With the help of two research awards from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, I have recently brought one portion of my work on Levy to completion: a CD entitled In Sara Levy’s Salon, released in June 2017 on the Acis Productions label, which proudly bears the logo of the HBI. The second phase of the project is a collaboration with Nancy Sinkoff, my colleague in the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers. Nancy and I co-organized a conference entitled “Sara Levy’s World” in 2014, and we have expanded that project into a book of essays with perspectives from musicology, Jewish studies, history, philosophy, and related disciplines. This volume is due to be published in the spring of 2018 by the University of Rochester Press. At the same time, I have undertaken a single-author book entitled Resounding Enlightenment: Music as an Instrument of Tolerance in the World of Sara Levy, which is in progress. My goal is to retell the story of Levy’s world by placing her at the center of the narrative.

Born into one of the few wealthy and privileged Jewish families in eighteenth-century Berlin, Sara and her siblings received the finest educations available—appropriate, of course, to their sex—including unrivaled musical training. The only known student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710–1784), eldest son of the famed baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), Sara was performing as a harpsichordist for family guests by the time she was a teenager, and around the time of her marriage she began hosting a salon with musical performance at its center. Like other salons, that of the Levy home brought together family and friends, artists and intellectuals, philosophers and socialites, Jews and Christians. And she went still further, appearing in public performances as a concerto soloist at the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, a bourgeois amateur musical society with both Jewish and Christian membership, in an age when few aristocratic women would expose themselves to a public audience. By citing Levy’s musical skill as evidence of the contribution of Jews to society at large, Wolf Davidson asserted the power of music to act as an instrument of Enlightenment—as a bridge between diverse individuals within a tolerant society.

For some, like Davidson, Levy’s activities as a performer, patron, and collector of music fulfilled this idealistic promise. Yet for many of her contemporaries, Jewish participation in music was unthinkable: Jews, these detractors claimed, were inherently unmusical, and this unmusicality was both evidence for and a result of their immorality and errant ways. Levy’s connection to the Bach family highlights this tension: the legacy of J. S. Bach was fundamentally grounded in an orthodox, pre-Enlightenment Lutheranism colored by anti-Judaism, and his biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel, a close friend of W. F. Bach, included in his General History of Music (1788) a screed against modern Jews and their unmusicality.

Sara Levy knew of these tensions and debates, yet she left no written verbal testimony concerning them, nor any number of other pressing issues. She wrote no autobiography and no diary; all but a few of her terse letters are lost. Instead, what remains is the remarkable collection of some 500 musical scores that she assembled together with her husband, a banker and a proficient amateur flutist. Her collection did not appear by accident; instead, she cultivated it, shaped it, and left her mark upon it, inscribing each score with her name or stamping it with her distinctive ex libris. Seemingly in response to the accusation that Jews were inherently unmusical, Levy partook of German music and made it part of her own experience. In donating the majority of her holdings to the Sing-Akademie around 1815, she rendered her collection part of the Prussian patrimony and emerging cultural identity, and she inscribed herself—a Jewish woman—into that heritage. When her great-nephew Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy ignited the public “Bach revival” within the walls of the Sing-Akademie with his performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, he was picking up on family tradition.

If Levy’s participation in the musical culture of Prussia set her apart from other Jewish women whose salons focused solely on belles lettres, she stood apart from them in another essential respect as well: in contrast to many of the other salonnières, who left Jewish practice and identification, assimilated into the predominantly Christian society around them, converted, and married Christian husbands, Levy continued to identify strongly as a Jew throughout her long life. She provided financial support to numerous institutions of the Berlin Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), including a Hebrew publishing house and a Jewish school and orphanage. She was intellectually, financially, and socially engaged with the Haskalah to an extent unmatched by other women.

Levy is known among musicologists as a transmitter of important German music, and among scholars of Jewish studies as merely a peripheral figure in the world of Jewish salons. Consideration of the relationship among these aspects of her persona—unexplored until now—sheds new light on her life as an individual, and on the story of this tumultuous moment in European history as a whole. I argue that through her salon, her public concerts at the Sing-Akademie, and the cultivation of her collection, Sara Levy forged a common cultural environment with music at its center in which both Christians and Jews could participate.

***

Rebecca Cypess is Associate Professor of Music at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, and an affiliated faculty member in the Rutgers Jewish Studies Department. A harpsichordist and musicologist, she is founder of the Raritan Players, whose debut recording In Sara Levy’s Salon was released in 2017 by Acis Productions. Her publications include Curious and Modern Inventions: Instrumental Music as Discovery in Galileo’s Italy (University of Chicago Press, 2016), and she is co-editor, with Nancy Sinkoff, of Sara Levy’s World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin, forthcoming in 2018 from the University of Rochester Press.

Sara Levy’s story is fictionalized in the novel, And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer, a book selected by several of HBI’s Conversations programs.

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