While we know that Jews of the Iberian peninsula contributed significantly to the arts and sciences during the Golden Age of pre-inquisition Spain, we hear little of Jewish involvement in the “high culture” of the medieval, renaissance and baroque eras of Europe. In the context of ongoing repression and pogroms, was there even the possibility for intersections to develop between the Jews of Western Europe and the arts of the privileged class? Also, can baroque and klezmer music congruently share the same concert stage? Sémplice, an “Early Music” quartet based in Denver, will answer this question in their concert this Sunday in Boulder at Congregation Nevei Kodesh.
The following are experts of an interview I conducted with Carla Sciaki of Sémplice on October 24th:
SS: Hi Carla, my first question is, will the average concert goer attending the upcoming Sémplice concert- or for that matter the consummate musicologist – be able to detect what would be considered Jewish characteristics in the music?
SS: So its really that these happen to be Jewish composers, there is nothing where we hear some strands of old biblical trope or hints of Hava Nagila?
CS: (laughs) No, definitely not! We have so few people on a general list of composers and even musicians that we know lived sometime in those centuries and were Jewish. There’s so few of them, mostly because if they were Jewish, they converted or hid it- and part of how they hid it was to compose in the style of the general population at the time.
SS: European art music is associated with the more refined and privileged strata of society, with the more educated. While the Jewish people have always valued education, on account of anti semitism they were generally excluded from these elite endeavors. So, how much is known of the lives of these composers, did any of them keep their association with their Jewishness, and somehow manage to also live in both worlds?
CS: You’re probably right, Jewish people were not going to be in the privileged culture enough that they will have had music training in the styles of the time. But of course there were natural musicians who were great singers or cantors, or who perhaps got ahold of some instrument or made an instrument and played it, but anything they composed would long be lost by now, you know? It would have been destroyed in any of the disasters that happened in the Jewish ghettos of to the Jewish people at the time. However, the most famous Jewish composer of the early music era was Salomone Rossi. He was acknowledged as a Jew, he was classically trained in the music of the era, and by the age of 18 he was already working for the chamber orchestra of the local duke in Mantua, Italy. He was an accomplished musician, and the duke was so supportive that he gave him the keys to the palace gate so he could serve as the leader of the duke’s chosen musical ensemble. And he didn’t have to wear the yellow badge required of Jews at the time, but he was still allowed to be Jewish.
He wrote tunes of the liturgy – I may sing a Barchu that is still done today in choral groups. It’s phenomenal the amount of writing that he did in his lifetime. There was a whole publication of Jewish prayers and songs written by Rossi and arranged in Madrigal style. He started off as a violinist, and his sister was a singer, and she also was treasured by the court. When the one duke died, the next duke also embraced him, but after the second duke passed away, the troops of Ferdinand the Second looted the ghetto. It’s guested that he was killed, or died of illness, which killed off most of the ghetto.
SS: So very interesting, also tragic. Moving along, I see that you will be also playing some very old klezmer tunes in the concert. Putting on my devil’s advocate horns, I must ask: How will the more refined European art music meet with Klezmer music in the same concert setting? Klezmer coming from the Chasidim and the shtetls of Eastern Europe seems so much closer to gypsy music then it is to Haydn and Scarlotti!
CS: (giggles). Well, first of all, there will be an intermission in-between!
…And secondly, the four of us are kind of unique, that we live in both the camp of folk music and the camp of baroque/early music, and so we feel that we ourselves are the bridge between these two musical forms. But the other thing that we do as a group that’s different from most performance groups in the classical world is that we don’t write out a program, I am the announcer and I tell stories in a very chatty way just as I do in a folk concert. I talk to the audience about the lives of the composers, but its not presented in a scholarly way, its just presented conversationally.
We think of ourselves as drawing people who love folk music into learning how to hear and understand the music of the baroque era, because it’s so beautiful. That’s the main connection. The other thing is that the composers who wrote these works had very tender and passional feelings about their music, and so we’re also reflecting that passion with the exuberance of the klezmer music!
SS: Lastly, you are from Boulder, and while a student at Boulder High School you got your start with a folk ensemble called Propinquity. You’ve had a very successful career as a folk musician. How have folks who’ve followed you for so years reacted to your move into such a different musical direction? I think of Bob Dylan getting booed by the audience when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, or many people’s reaction when Joni Mitchell moved into jazz territory… Have you lost fans, have you lost people’s interest because of the Early Music ventures?
CS: I would say that there are some who don’t want to cross from one territory to another, but I would also say that there are a lot of folk fans who are equally drawn to baroque music, and so interestingly when I first started playing in the baroque chamber orchestra of Colorado in 2006, I’ve had audience members come up to me and say, um… are you the same Carla Sciaki, who?… And they are surprised, but that are also delighted. It was a professional stretch for me to join that orchestra because I had only been in the Boulder Philharmonic more than 30 years prior. It was stepping into a pretty intense learning curve. Ultimately playing baroque music has sharpened my ear so that I feel I’m a much better violinist, fiddler and singer, and even guitar player then I was before I was in the orchestr
SS: Excellent, Well, we look forward to hearing you and Semplice Sunday night.