- Sara Levy's World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin ed. by Rebecca Cypess and Nancy Sinkoff, and: Münzen, Hände, Noten Finger: Berliner Hofjuden und die Erfindung einer deutschen Musikkulture by Liliane Weissberg
On March 11, 1829, the composer Felix Mendelssohn conducted a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's Saint Matthew Passion in Berlin. Felix and his sister Fanny had been baptized by their parents in 1816, when he was seven and she was eleven. During Bach's lifetime and also after his death in 1750, his music had rarely been performed in secular settings. But this magnificent concert attracted over a thousand Berliners, many of them grandees with power. In time, Bach's music came to be seen as integral to defining the German nation. Felix's talented sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, who had participated avidly in the rehearsals for the 1829 performance, was "transported into a new musical world" by the oratorio and later exulted that the "overflowing hall gave the impression of a church."1
Historians of Judaism have understandably been less than thrilled that the grandson of the esteemed Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn played a pivotal role in the performance of an oratorio whose libretto included distinctly antisemitic references. From this critical perspective, Mendelssohn's revival of Bach's choral music was a classic case of Jewish intellectuals who patronized art, music and literature featuring Christian motifs, while neglecting Jewish themes altogether. Gershom [End Page 216] Scholem famously criticized generations of Jewish composers, poets, playwrights and novelists for failing to integrate values, images and motifs of both religions in their work. Scholem identified the beginning of this trend in the era of Felix Mendelssohn and lamented that because of this failure, the emancipation project began with a "false start."
The editors of the collection Sara Levy's World aim to illuminate the importance of Felix Mendelssohn's great-aunt, Sara Levy, in the musical history of modern Germany. Indeed, the volume's able co-editor Nancy Sinkoff starts us off in her introductory essay with an impressive list of goals for the volume, which include paying more attention to the significance of the Court Jews, examining the connections between aesthetics and social class formation, and focusing on Jewish women's roles as performers and patrons of music. The volume, she promises, will uncover the engagement of Jewish reformers in what she calls sonic integration. These are lofty aims, and some of them are indeed realized in the collection. But the elephant in the book's room is why Sara Itzig Levy and her sister Bella Itzig Salomon, both of whom were adamantly opposed to conversion out of Judaism, would want to learn, perform, purchase and herald Christian music.
The volume had its origins in a stimulating conference held at Rutgers University in 2014, which brought together scholars of music history, of the history of Jewish women and of the Mendelssohn family. The essays explore Sara Levy's role as a music student and patron of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and as collector of Bach scores, and her role as a donor and performer at the Singakademie, a mixed choir founded in 1791. Liliane Weissberg's short book devoted to the same era, published in German, proves to be a splendid companion volume to Sara Levy's World. Another new resource that also had its origin in the 2014 Rutgers conference is the DVD entitled In Sara Levy's Salon (2017),2 which includes music performed at Sara Levy's salon in Berlin.
Even those who are aware of the late eighteenth-century Berlin salons may well scratch their heads when they encounter the name Sara Levy. Unlike her better-known peers Rahel Levin Varnhagen, Henriette Herz and Dorothea Mendelssohn Veit Schlegel, Levy never converted, nor did she marry outside the faith. Like another lesser-known salonnière, Amalia Beer...