- Sara Levy's World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin ed. by Rebecca Cypess and Nancy Sinkoff
Until relatively recently the history of western music in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has been written with scant (if any) attention to the interests of those less favoured in European society—among them, notably, women and Jews. Rebecca Cypess and Nancy Sinkoff have produced a magnificent tribute to a figure who represents both those strands in the male-dominated and overwhelmingly Christian culture of her time. Their volume makes an unusual, refreshing, and important contribution to its field. Exploring the role of music in the Berlin Jewish community during a period of significant change, and with the spotlight on a remarkable and influential woman—Sara Levy (1761—1854), great-aunt of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn—it adds nuance to the wider narratives of musical life, Jewish identity, and women's history in late eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century Europe. The nine chapters (prefaced by an Introduction by Nancy Sinkoff, and followed by an Appendix with commentary by Barbara Hahn, featuring letters of Sara Levy to the Swedish diplomat Karl Gustav von Brinckmann), collectively provide new insights into diverse areas of social and cultural history.
Among the topics threaded through the volume are the cultivation of J. S. Bach's music and that of his sons, together with notions of the 'Bach revival'; the salon culture that flourished during the period, and was a site for social and religious intermingling; and the role of the Berlin Sing-Akademie in the city's musical life.
Sara Levy was until recently a shadowy figure in the background to the more well-known members of the Mendelssohn family. As Nancy Sinkoff puts it, 'Though Sara Levy's life intersected with the major social, ideological, political, and musical issues in the history of the European, German, and Jewish Enlightenments, she has been largely ignored' (p. 5). It is possible to give here only a glimpse of the richly detailed picture of Levy's life and activities, and the surrounding context, that the book presents (its origins were in an enterprising conference, 'Sara Levy's World', held at Rutgers University in September 2014). The scope of the book's contents, and its interdisciplinary character, are conveyed by the headings of the three parts in which the chapters are grouped: 'Portrait of a Jewish Female Artist: Music, Identity, Image'; 'Music, Aesthetics, and Philosophy: Jews and Christians in Sara Levy's World'; and finally 'Studies in Sara Levy's Collection'.
While the chapters overlap fruitfully in many respects, there is a certain amount of repetition among them, most noticeably in the contributions by Christoph Wolff and George B. Stauffer to Part I (Chapter Two: 'Sara Levy's Musical Salon and her Bach Collection', and Chapter Four, 'Women's Voices in Bach's Musical World: Christiane Mariane von Ziegler and Faustina Bordoni', respectively). Wolff's chapter opens dramatically with the declaration by J. S. Bach, writing to his cousin Johann Ernst Bach in 1742, that 'now in Berlin a new epoch has begun'. Moving on to consider the (at that time unforeseen) impact of the Seven Years' War (1756—63), he views this as having 'the beneficial side effect of an unprecedented growth of musical activities outside the court' (p. 39). Wolff goes on to depict Sara Levy's role in the transmission and preservation of Bach's music, and outlines the complex history of her collection, donated to the Sing-Akademie in Berlin (a story to which I will return further below).
Stauffer's chapter begins by rehearsing again the importance of Sara Levy's collection, and summarizing its history. As a bridge to his own topic Stauffer then compares the neglect of Sara Levy ('whether. . . due to ignorance, bias against women, or German anti-semitism') with that of the role of women in J. S. Bach's life and...