Sono un musicista, non un accademico. Ma la mia passione e il mio lavoro, sin dai tempi di “Patrilineare”, mi hanno spinto a lavorare intorno alle tradizioni musicali ebraiche, in particolare quelle italiane, e poi in particolare ancora quelle ferraresi (la mia comunità d’origine) e fiorentine (dove vivo e sono cresciuto). E a forza di investigare e studiare un ambito che per lo più è conosciuto solo dai membri di una congregazione, o a pochi grandi musicologi, va a finire che mi sono fatto un poco di cultura, e che spesso sia invitato a parlare, a insegnare, a spiegare.
The history of the music of Italian Jews is a rich and complex one: so rich and so complex that trying to trace its origins beyond the 1800’s music that lends to it much of its present form might be a pointless effort. Every Jewish community in Italy, be it large or small, maintained its own musical tradition up at least up to the early 1900s. The melodies, generally orally transmitted, show traces of constant cultural exchange. Italian Jews boast their own peculiar tradition, dating back from the communities present in Rome well before the Diaspora even began, before the destruction of the second Temple: but there are also many communities who follow the rito tedesco – Ashkenazim – or the rito spagnolo – the Sephardim, who arrived from Spain and southern Italy after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. In many towns, scuola (shul) italiana, scuola tedesca and scuola spagnola have stood side by side for centuries. The nineteenth century marked a turning point in the history of the Italian Jews: the opening up of the ghettoes, participation in the Risorgimento – the whole phenomenon usually referred to as the ‘emancipation’ that brought decades of something like euphoria. This included the building of enormous synagogues, and – why not? – the ‘modernization’ of the musical tradition: new melodies for the liturgy were commissioned from famous or near-famous composers, usually for hazan, choir and organ, often borrowing from the opera repertoire that was very fashionable – and very ‘Italian’. What is left, then, to explore in search of older memories? Not many explicit traces, to be sure; nor melodies easily identifiable as centuries old. However, the history of the music of the Jews in Italy is above all a history of interaction, and its primary interaction has always been with the surrounding world: decade after decade,
century after century with the contemporary trends of Italian music – the belcanto style used in the nineteenth century is just one of many examples. The same nineteenth century composers who were called upon to modernize and aggrandize had no desire to completely forget the entire history of this composite music: there
are so many instances of this, with ‘modern’ tunes carrying strong echoes of melodies from the eighteenth century, the seventeenth century, and, sometimes, earlier still. If we listen to the melodies that fill the synagogues of Italy every Shabbes and Jewish Holiday – although, in some cases, filled would perhaps be a more accurate term, referring to the situation before the Nazi- Fascist attempt to erase Italian and European Jewry made it very difficult for the communities themselves, especially in the smaller towns, to survive; if we listen to this repertoire that is miraculously still vibrant, and regularly sung, unlike so many other old traditions which have become limited to material for study by academics and researchers; if we listen closely, it is like listening to a condensed history of Italian Jews and of Italians in general.