I just don’t trust myself. Here’s the matter at hand:
From the Forward, a friend forwards a story about Jewish musicians in the Renaissance. Recent research by Roger Prior (though the articles I found were in the Journal of the Royal Musical Association in 1982 and Musical Quarterly in 1983; I’ll have to check further) indicates that a group of important musicians in the court of Henry VIII were Sephardi Jews, eking out a semi-protected existence away from the flames of the Spanish Inquisition (which by that time had spread to Portugal). It was not, of course, full protection; Henry was quite wiling to throw them in prison when he needed to look like a pious champion of Christendom. The musical angle here is that, according to this author (and I look forward to reading the research itself in addition to the cultural feature in the Forward, in order to make a good judgment), this means that Jewish people had a formative role in the formation of the viol consorts. Given that I dearly love viol consort music, this makes me smile. The consort Fretwork is building a concert tour around this idea; this also makes me smile because they are one of the premiere groups working today.
Some of this is not totally new; it has long been known that some Jews did continue to live in England between the banishment in the wake of the Hugh of Lincoln blood libel (c. 1255) and Oliver Cromwell’s reversal of the decree in the mid-seventeenth century. (A graduate student at Stanford mentioned something about this to me in the late 1980s, even; perhaps he had read Roger Prior’s articles.) Henry even consulted with Talmudic Rabbis in London on their understanding of divorce when he was trying to get out from under (so to speak) his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Plus, early music groups always need some kind of hook or organizing principle for their concerts. An interesting footnote, then, but perhaps not a real surprise.
My problem is that in my own mind I keep making it an ethnic joke, which is why I don’t trust myself to put a subtitle up there. It is no secret that any minority group takes pride in the accomplishments of its members (I think we’re all taught the relatively brief litany of Jewish athletes in our first five years), and certainly the Jews-and-violins business is already a stereotype, a vaudeville standard. There’s also the faint whiff of Soviet science, where the textbooks under Stalin and his followers attributed everything (the assembly line, Penicillin, the Polio vaccine, lighter-than-air flight, heavier-than-air flight, etc.) to Soviet scientists. We invented this, we pioneered that, we weren’t given proper credit for the other…
For example, I had not known that the Cremonese violin-making family Amati (Stradivari and Guarneri had studied with Nicolo Amati) had been of Jewish descent, as this article informs me. What do I do with this? “Y’see?? Not just Heifetz and Elman, but …”
You see the problem. Here are some outtakes:
Tudor String Music: You’re Welcome!
Tudor String Music: No, Don’t Thank Us, We’ll Just Sit Here in the Dark
Tudor String Music: And You Thought We Only Played Violin
Tudor String Music: FOUR CENTURIES IS TOO LATE FOR A THANK-YOU NOTE
Perhaps because there isn’t a large Jewish population where I live, I’m thinking a lot of what my family would do with this, complete with tones of voice, facial expressions, and theatrical apostrophizing of the heavens. I’ll bring it up when I’m in L.A.; perhaps they’re still up for some good Yiddish theater.
The ironic subplot is mentioned in the article itself: what people will do—what they will give up—in order to play music. This is Jewish history and every other kind of history too; I believe there was even an Israeli musician who died in the conflagration in Waco, TX. He’d been warned, even. No, he just wanted to play music; didn’t matter where. Shades of diehardism again.
I will try to blog from the American Musicological Society meeting in Los Angeles, but can’t promise. I’ll have the laptop, but there will be lots of activity, both professional and family-related. My paper is first on one of the first sessions, so I’ll be able to focus on other things after that.