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Rutgers prof explores music, ethos of Jewish salonniere
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Rutgers prof explores music, ethos of Jewish salonniere

Rebecca Cypess, at her harpsichord.
Rebecca Cypess, at her harpsichord.

Musicologist Rebecca Cypess, associate professor of music at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, first performed music from “In Sara Levy’s Salon,” her newly released CD (Acis Productions), at a Rutgers conference on Levy (1761-1854), a Jewish salonniere, patron, and musician who shaped the Berlin cultural landscape, surmounting hurdles of religion and gender and bringing together Jews and Christians for weekly musical recitals. 

At the 2014 conference — which Cypess organized with her colleague Nancy Sinkoff, associate professor of Jewish studies and history — and on the CD, Cypess played harpsichord with the Raritan Players. The ensemble, which she founded, explores “lost” repertoire and performance practices of the 17th and 18th centuries. 

The works offered, now collected on the CD, the group’s first recording, reflect Levy’s role in keeping the Bach tradition alive, including music by three Bachs — Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, and Wilhelm Friedemann — and by 18th-century composers Johann Joachim Quantz and Johann Nikolaus Forkel.

The conference also propelled additional research that will culminate in Cypess’s forthcoming book, “Resounding Enlightenment: Sara Levy and the Music of Jewish Modernity.” 

Levy, in contrast to most other members of her circle of Jewish salonnieres, did not convert to Christianity. Cypess told NJJN that in 18th- and early-19th-century Berlin, the spectrum of Jewish identification was broad and sometimes vague — “Conversion didn’t always mean the adoption of Christian beliefs and practice; sometimes it was for convenience and sometimes there was a spiritual component” — but Levy was particularly notable for her active involvement in Jewish causes.

Citing the research of historian Natalie Naimark-Goldberg, author of “Jewish Women in Berlin And Enlightenment Culture,” Cypess said Levy financially supported Jewish educational institutions and orphanages and underwrote Hebrew language publications.

Hers was not “a casual affiliation with Judaism,” said Cypess. “Levy stands out in this group [of Jewish salonnieres] as somebody who adhered to Judaism intentionally and not because she couldn’t be bothered to convert.” 

It may be because she had no inclination to leave Judaism and was relatively religiously conservative that Levy’s role in musicology has been underemphasized, Cypess said. Pointing to a tension within the German musical establishment over acknowledging the role Jews played in German cultural history, Cypess said that even though Levy’s great-nephew and great-niece, Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn, who were baptized by their parents, “were at least officially Christian,” they were still accused of “having Jewish sensibilities.” 

Levy herself experienced overt anti-Semitism when the German-Christian poet and novelist Achim von Arnim appeared at Levi’s salon, possibly drunk, and, Cypess said, “picked a fight with the people in attendance and was raging on in a very anti-Semitic way.”

Against this backdrop of persistent tensions between Jews and Christians, Cypess said, Levy’s goal through her salons “was to create a space where people of different backgrounds and different faiths could gather and establish bonds with each other through shared artistic experience.”

In her forthcoming book, Cypess explores this unacknowledged role that Levy played; the book’s thesis, Cypess said, is that Levy “crafted her collection of music and established herself as a practitioner of German musical history in such a way that it created a common musical and cultural identity that could be shared by Jews and Christians.”

During the Enlightenment, music and other arts were thought to be able to create positive connections between people, the result being ethical interactions in the world outside the concert hall, according to Cypess. 

“The idea is that when people play or listen to music together,” she said, “they are experiencing an emotional state at the same time and in the same way and emerge from that artistic experience as different human beings than they would have if they hadn’t had that experience.” 

The result of these shared artistic experiences, said Cypess, is empathy for one another, “so when we see someone in difficulty, distress, or pain, we are moved to act on their behalf.” 

In the period of Levy’s salons, debates raged in Prussia and the Holy Roman Empire over whether Jews should be granted citizenship and the right to pursue whatever professions they wished. Some writers, Cypess noted, advocated citizenship for Jews because of their “contribution” to mainstream society, and in fact, 18th-century Jewish writer Wolf Davidson mentioned Sara Levy and her sister as Jews who had contributed in important ways to German culture, citing Levy in particular as an outstanding keyboardist.

But Cypess expressed the other side of this argument, that if “contributions” to society are required for Jewish emancipation, then the obverse might also be true. “If at some point someone decides that contributions are not coming anymore or are not valuable,” she said, then these rights could be taken away. This argument can be seen in contrast with American and English Enlightenment thought, which held that Jews are entitled to these rights simply by virtue of their status as human beings.

Cypess grew up in Worcester, Mass., the sole musician in her family. In high school, she said, a teacher who sang and played baroque flute sent Cypess “on a path to music and to early music in particular.” 

She earned a bachelor’s degree in early keyboard instruments at Cornell University and then a master’s in harpsichord from a historical performance program at the Royal College of Music in London.

After graduation, Cypess used the eight or nine months she had before starting a doctorate program in musicology at Yale University to study at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York, drawn to its full-time study program in Talmud, Bible, and other Jewish texts and its “strong feminist tenor.” At Rutgers, she is also a faculty affiliate of the Department of Jewish Studies in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Cypess graduated from Yale in 2008. In her dissertation and first book, on early 17th-century Italian music, she explored “the use of musical instruments, trying to understand why in the early 17th century instrumental music came into being in a big way.” She viewed musical instruments in the broader context of science and art, where instruments, she said, “served to mediate between the individual and the world around.” 

“A lot of musical instruments from the early 17th century dramatize that aesthetic, as if the player were just picking up the instrument for the first time and figuring out what to do with it,” Cypess said. “That is written into the compositions; they are meant to sound improvised, rhapsodic, dreamy, and imaginative.”

Thinking about both her scholarly and hands-on connection to Sara Levy, Cypess said, “Focusing on the salon, which was an institution that centered around women, allows us to gain new perspectives on music as a living art. Her activities as a musician were linked with her social and cultural situation as a Jewish woman. My goal is to understand her as a complete and complex individual.”

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