- Sara Levy's World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin ed. by Rebecca Cypess and Nancy Sinkoff
In late 1823 or early 1824, Babette "Bella" Salomon gave her grandson Felix Mendelssohn a gift: a manuscript copy of the score of J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion. What might we do with such a historical fact? One option would be to put it in the backstory to the work's performance led by Mendelssohn in Berlin just over five years later, a landmark event in the revival of Bach's music and its linkage to German national identity. Another would be to interrogate the religious tensions in and around the gift, a Christian work passed from a woman committed to her Jewish faith to her converted descendant. Another would be to turn attention to Babette Salomon as a woman, someone whose gift exemplifies the active participation and contributions of women in Berlin's musical life.
Sara Levy's World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin does each of these things, and readers interested in any one of them will find plenty to reward their attention. But the beauty and achievement of the volume, edited by Rebecca Cypess and Nancy Sinkoff, is to show how these historical threads connect through and around the person Sara Levy. Younger sister of Bella Salomon, Levy is at once representative and exceptional: she belongs to a "highly visible cohort of Jewish women actively engaged in becoming modern Europeans" (3), but she also "stands out among other Berlin salonnières for her resolute commitment to Jewish life" (6); her taste for older music was "hardly atypical among her peers, for Berlin salon culture was pluralistic in its consumption of literature and music from both past and present" (206), but her collection of Bach scores shows "a scope and character without parallel elsewhere" (44). The product of a symposium held at Rutgers University in 2014, the volume brings together contributions from scholars in musicology, German studies, Jewish studies, and women's studies and shows the power of joining different disciplinary strengths and perspectives to explicate a sociocultural moment both unique and consequential. This is Sara Levy's world.
Born in Berlin in 1761, where she lived until her death in 1854, Levy was nearly lost to music history. Fortunately, the 1999 rediscovery of her music collection [End Page 184] kicked off a Levy Renaissance. As Christoff Wolff recounts in his chapter, Levy donated her sizable collection of eighteenth-century chamber music (much of it by members of the Bach family) to the library of the Berlin Sing-Akademie in the 1830s. The donation was not cataloged, however, and sat unstudied through World War II, at which point the Sing-Akademie music archive was thought to be lost. Through twists and turns that could be the makings of a Cold War era spy novel (the music was "transferred to an undisclosed location in 1973"!), Wolff traces the eventual repatriation of the collection to Germany, the cataloging of the Bach sources by 2006, and their digitization for online access via the Leipzig-based Bach-Archiv.
While her contributions to Bach's legacy catalyzed the interest in Levy among musicologists, this volume turns a critical lens on how music mattered in Levy's world. As Sinkoff writes in the introduction, "Music was a critical vehicle" for Jewish women in the process of becoming modern Europeans. It was one of the "'gentile' arts" in which elite Jewish families educated their daughters to become "cultivated bourgeois housewives" (3), as well as an activity through which to share cultural space with Christians and press the case for Jews' equal rights (6, 124). Levy emerged from such education to become not only a collector of music manuscripts and prints but also a salonnière, hosting interfaith, mixed-gender social gatherings with music-making in her home; a keyboard performer in such salons, as well as on the public stage of the Berlin Sing-Akademie; and a patron of...