Music, Acculturation, and Haskalah between Berlin and Königsberg in the 1780s

By Sela-Teichler, Yael | The Jewish Quarterly Review, July 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Music, Acculturation, and Haskalah between Berlin and Königsberg in the 1780s


Sela-Teichler, Yael, The Jewish Quarterly Review


IN MAY 1787, the elegiac cantata Sulamitb und Eusebia was performed in Königsberg at a grand concert in memoiy of the late Moses Mendelssohn. This solemn event, attended by several hundreds of the city's high society, Jews and Christians, was organized by the maskilic Society of Friends of the Hebrew Literature (.Hevrat dorjhe lee hon 'ever or Geselbchaft der hebräischen Literaturfreunde), led by Isaac Euchel. Among the many commemorative works written upon Mendelssohn's death in 1786, Sulamitb und Eusebia was the only one set to music. With a libretto by the poet Karl Wilhelm Ramler (1725-98) and music by a young and hitherto little-known Jewish musician, Carl Bernhard Wessely (1768-1826), the cantata had already been performed twice in Berlin; yet it was its third performance in Königsberg under the auspices of the Haskalah movement that would have the most far-reaching resonance, both among contemporaries and in early twentieth-centuiy German Jewish chronicles. While the cantata itself has sometimes been mentioned in modern scholarship, practically no attention has been given to the significance of this piece or its performances on a historical continuum.1 As Shmuel Feiner points out, Euchel's activities as a proponent of the Haskalah were geared toward establishing the maskilim as a group of Jewish intellectuals ripe for exercising cultural and educational influence.2 But to what extent was the 1787 concert in Königsberg a truly maskilic venture? And how could a musical piece, set to a German text written by a Protestant poet, serve the maskilic vision? Why, furthermore, was the piece performed in Königsberg more than a year after Mendelssohn's death, and how did this third performance differ from the first two? Considering the fact that music had not previously featured in the ideological or operational agenda of the Haskalah, and in light of a traditional ambivalence toward music in the early modern Ashkenazic world in general, the performance of the cantata Sulamitb und Eusebia in Königsberg raises questions regarding the role music had come to play in what David Sorkin describes as the cultural transformation in the early modern German Jewish experience during the last third of the eighteenth centuiy.3

The place of (art) music in the traditional Ashkenazic world has been marked throughout the Middle Ages and up to the modern period by ambivalence. Jews in central Europe were generally banned from all musical professions, and rabbinic Judaism saw secular music as a potential cause of promiscuity. Among particularly zealous rabbis, the mourning over the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem led to a ban on secular songs and instrumental music. Associated with Christian liturgy, music evoked anxieties of assimilation, and its emulation was hence shunned.4 From a Christian perception, the Jewish soundscape, largely circumscribed to the confines of the synagogue, was tarnished by a sonic accusation that labeled Jews as an unmusical aesthetic categoiy, as Ruth HaCohen has recently discussed.5 Deeply entrenched in medieval Christian theology, this ethos associated the Jewish synagogue's "noise" with the Jews' moral and religious degeneration and contrasted it with the harmony of the Church and its music. This set of images, as HaCohen suggests, informed cultural contexts that engaged both the proponents and the victims of the "sonic libel."6 The Christian attitude to the Jews' unmusicality, embodied in William Shakespeare's Shylock as "the man that hath no music in himself," whose spirit is "dull as night" and is therefore "fit for treasons,"7 continued to prevail throughout the early modern period. Long before Richard Wagner's polemic essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (1850), eighteenth-centuiy music commentators were deterred by the cacophonic sounds of the synagogue, inferring, as did the Berlin church musician Christian Carl Rolle in 1784, that it would be inconceivable for any Jew to ever become a musician. …

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