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Music, Acculturation, and Haskalah between Berlin and Königsberg in the 1780s

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 103, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 352-384 | 10.1353/jqr.2013.0025



Of all the works written in 1786 in memory of Moses Mendelssohn, the elegiac cantata, Sulamith und Eusebia was the only one set to music, and that by a young Jewish musician, Carl Bernhard Wessely, to a text by the renowned German poet, Karl Wilhelm Ramler. Having been twice successfully performed in Berlin, it was the third performance of the piece, organized in 1787 by the maskilic Society of Friends of the Hebrew Literature in Königsberg, which gained the most far-reaching resonance. The Maskilim had not previously –nor consequently –shown a concern for music, and considering the traditional ambivalence toward music in Ashkenazi Judaism, their engagement with the concert raises questions regarding attitudes to music and aesthetics in the Haskala and the role of music in the Jewish Enlightenment in general during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Tracing these events, the article begins to explore the significance of music, more than any other art, in early modern German-Jewish acculturation against the backdrop of the discourse about the civic improvement of the Jews and the politics of emancipation in Prussia during the 1780s. Focusing on the Königsberg performance of the cantata in 1787 in particular, the article sheds light on the complexities within enlightened Jewish circles in Berlin and Königsberg. Methodologically, the article demonstrates how music and aesthetics offer a historical prism that allows for a more differentiated view of the complexities that mark the Jewish Enlightenment and European Jewish modernization, its various cultural and ideological strands.

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