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March, 2007

4MAr6:00 pm- 8:00 pmLa Istoria de Purim io te Racconto. That Hebrew accent at the Italian courtsCenter for Jewish History, 15 West 16 Street, New York, NY 100116:00 pm - 8:00 pm

Event Details

Delving into a vast and entertaining musical and poetic repertoire and highlighting the exuberant crossovers originating in the multi-ethnic cradle of the Mediterranean, Lucidarium brings to the audiences of today the magical atmosphere of Medieval and Renaissance Jewish festivities, the sophisticated beauty of the language at the time of Dante, and the tentative and colorful shades of regional dialects, tinged all over by the patina of Hebrew.

With a step into a contemporary cutting edge, Enrico Fink leads the narrative capturing the full spectrum of the sounds, imagery, and flavors of the Italian Jewish tradition.

Founded in 1991, Lucidarium specializes in medieval and Renaissance music. The members of the ensemble collaborate regularly with important educational and scientific institutions, such as the Centre de Musique Ancienne de Genève, the CERIMM of Royaumont and the National Conservatory of Lyon. Leading Lucidarium is a dedicated couple: Avery Gosfield and Francis Biggi. A Philadelphia-born performer and conductor, Avery passionately researches the myriads of intersections between Jewish and secular traditions in Renaissance Italy. Francis’s interests as a musician and a scholar embrace a vast segment of popular and early musical traditions. We find his touch in the marvelous recording by Fabrizio De André “Creuza de ma” and in the adventurous musical crossover “Dante: Lo mio servente core.” Enrico Fink is a jazz player, a poet, and an exuberant fabulator. His most recent endeavor “The Jazz Singer’s Return to Faith,” is a voyage starting with the music of the Italian Jews, and reaching unexpected shores between jazz, tradition and electronic invention.

La Istoria de Purim. Jewish Music and Poetry in Renaissance Italy

Adapted from the introduction to the CD La Istoria de Purim by Francis Biggi and Avery Goldsfield.

The Italian Jewish community is the oldest in Europe, its establishment on the peninsula going back to two centuries before the Christian era. 

Over the course of two thousand years Italian Jews and non-Jews shared and exchanged ideas and imagery. In spite of the often-precarious conditions under which communities negotiated their territory and ability to establish social, religious and business practices, Jews fully participated in the major economic, political and cultural movements that shaped the history of Italy.

With their cosmopolitan and diverse background, both by vocation and necessity, Jews erudites contributed strongly to the development of Renaissance Humanism. Whether court scholars, translators, artists, religious leaders, or man of business, Jews were remarkably active in the princely courts of the 15th and 16th centuries, walking a fine line between exclusion and recognition.

In daily life the Jewish communities largely succeeded in protecting their religious and cultural traditions. While they never isolated themselves from the larger world, Italian Jews assimilated the customs of others and transmitted their own in all fields of knowledge, crafts, and liberal arts.

The musical tradition of the Jews of Italy carries an especially identifiable mark of the centuries of trading forms and expressions both in the liturgical and secular arenas.

With this preamble the prominent Early Music Ensemble Lucidarium embarked in a performance project constructed between scholarship and free interpretation, and largely inspired by the historical ethno-musicological and philological studies of Leo Levi and the more recent ones of Francesco Spagnolo and Giulio Busi. La Istoria de Purim will inaugurate the ensemble’s US tour at the Center for Jewish History on Sunday, March 4.

Delving into a vast and entertaining musical and poetic repertoire and highlighting the exuberant crossovers originating in the multiethnic cradle of the Mediterranean, Lucidarium brings to the audiences of today the magical atmosphere of Medieval and Renaissance Jewish festivities, the sophisticated beauty of the language at the time of Dante, and the tentative and colorful shades of regional dialects, tinged all over by the patina of Hebrew.

Lucidarium’s leaders, Francis Biggi and Avery Goldfield, followed their fascination with a 16th century popular version of the Megillat Esther written in eight-lined stanzas by Rabbi Mordecay Dato. The poem is declared by its author to be composed for those women, who are not learned in the Scriptures, but are the ones who will prepare the delicious festive banquet and delight themselves in hearing the story of the beautiful Jewish orphan girl who becomes the Queen of Persia, discovers a conspiracy against the Jews, and saves them from slaughter. With a novelistic editing of the biblical text (i.e.: less politics, more romance, repeated hints at the kitchens of his audience, and lots of precious textiles, perfumed oils, brocade clothes, and oriental gardens), Dato seeks to elevate the souls of the women, and creates at the same time one of the earliest examples of literary popularization in Judeo-Italian language.

Moving from this delightful finding (see: Giulio Busi, La Istoria de Purim Io Ve Racconto, Rimini, 1987) the leaders of Lucidarium explored the story of a Jewish theatrical group once in residence at Gonzaga court in Mantua.

They imagined a pre-modern world where the gentile population would visit the Jewish quarter to observe the Purim festivities, enlightened clerics learned about Jewish learning and practice, and Jewish musicians, composers, theatrical troupes, directors, costume makers, dancing masters, poets and playwrights, as well as doctors, linguists, and scientists, abounded throughout the peninsula.

While this may look more like a dream of today than the reality of those times, the high degree of integration and exchange among Jews and non-Jews in Italy and more broadly the confluence of Mediterranean cultural and philosophical forms into the late Medieval society that gave the foundation to modern Europe, is an intriguing and documented story that many scholars today try to explore with new eyes.

At the time in which La Istoria de Purim was written the Jewish communities of Northern and Central Italy were of diverse provenance. Next to the Italikim, those whose ancestors had arrived in Italy prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, lived Yiddish-speaking groups from Northern Europe and a significant Sepharadic population from Spain, Portugal, and the Levant: all of them contributing to the rich and dynamic cultural spectrum of Italian Jewry.

At the same time, the blending of the various communities in everyday life was such that the terminology applied to each group – tedescospagnolo or italiano – soon came, in practice, to refer exclusively to the Synagogue it attended and the kind of religious service it followed. Although families tended to conserve the specific liturgical order and traditional melodies of their ancestors, Italian (or the local dialect,) albeit sometimes peppered with Hebrew or another foreign tongue, was, with few exceptions, the language spoken by the Italian Jews at home and on the street, no matter what their origin.

Attempting to reconstruct the soundscape of a Jew in 16th Century Italy, Lucidarium drew from a variety of sources: sung poetry in Giudeo-Italian, Yiddish and Hebrew; the liturgical and para-liturgical repertoire as preserved orally in the various communities of North and Central Italy; and specific pieces from the instrumental and vocal canon of the era.

A great deal of what is known about the musical practices of these isolated Italian Jewish communities abroad, as well as liturgical and folk music traditions among the Jews in Italy, is due to the monumental research conducted by Leo Levi in the years following World War II. Traveling between Italy, the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and Israel, he recorded and transcribed the melodies remembered by what were often the last survivors of once flourishing communities. His work is irreplaceable, not only because without it, the memories of entire communities would have been lost forever, but because he possessed the cultural tools, as well as the musicological and ethno-musicological knowledge, that allowed him to analyze, compare and make important conclusions about the vast amount of material he collected.  And what he found was surprising, mirroring trends that seem to have already been present in the 16th century and earlier, going back even to the earliest examples of notated liturgy. With its often archaic traits, this music gives us not only an irreplaceable tool in reconstruction, but also a vibrant repertoire.  Levi’s work has been carried on and codified by several ethnomusicologists, most notably Francesco Spagnolo (who edited the CD that serves as a model for two of the pieces used here) and the late Roberto Leydi.

This program was developed with the support of the European Association for Jewish Culture

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