29 August 2009

The violin: Did Jews invent it?

"How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" goes the old joke. "Practice, practice, practice!" is the answer.

As a former fiddler who switched to the viola very early (much more demand for viola players!) before I entered the High School of Music & Art in New York City (hooray for the old powder blue and magenta!). Questioning the color combo? Well, we were also an art school and we didn't have a football team!

I found this story fascinating. Did Jews invent the violin - and Sephardic Jews at that?

Some scholars believe that the Jewish connection to the violin may go back to the very beginning. According to Historical Performance Program director Monica Huggett of the Juilliard School, "It doesn't look like the violin is of Italian origin. It looks like it's of Jewish origin."

The origin of the violin has always been murky. Scholars have suspected that the violin's precursor, the viol, was invented in Spain in the second half of the 15th century - before the Jews were expelled. Then, shortly after the Spanish expulsion, the viol showed up in Italy, where it quickly developed into the violin we know today. But who brought the viol to Italy, and who is responsible for its development into the violin, have largely remained a mystery.

In the last few decades, some scholars have concluded that Jewish musicians were the ones responsible. The violin seems to have originated in Italy in the first half of the 16th century, around the same time that the expelled Spanish Jews would have settled there. And the viol seems to have traveled the same path and at the same time that the Jews fled Spain.

While few scholars have published research backing this theory, the idea is beginning to strike a chord in the music world. At a biannual violin symposium at the Juilliard School in May, which draws the world's top violinists, Huggett presented a keynote lecture outlining the history of the violin. She excitedly announced to the roughly 100 violinists in the audience that she's waiting for more research to be conducted that would definitively add the violin to the list of Jewish achievements.
At a violin symposium in May, Huggett gave a lecture on the instrument's history and announced she was waiting for more research to add the violin to the list of Jewish achievements.

Roger Prior, 73, a retired University of Belfast lecturer, was the first to propose the theory and has two articles and book on Jewish musicians under his belt.

"Did you know that there's no reference to the violin in Spain in the 16th century? When the Jews were pushed out of Spain, one of the obvious places they went to was Italy. That's where the violin seems to have been developed. That's the reason for linking the Jews and the violin. I think that's been quite well-documented," Prior says.

Prior serendipitously came to unravel the mystery of the Jewish musicians while researching a different discipline and a different part of Europe - the court of King Henry VIII. Around 1983, as a lecturer in the University of Belfast's Department of English, Prior was researching the identity of the "Dark Lady," the mysterious woman mentioned in several of Shakespeare's sonnets. Noted British historian A.L. Rowse suggested that the Dark Lady was a woman by the name of Emilia Bassano, and Prior began investigating her biography.
Bassano, of course, was Sephardic, and other court musicians were also Sephardic. According to Prior, the timeline is something like this, at least for the English court:

In the early 16th century, King Henry VIII began a campaign to increase the prestige of the English court. He started by hiring prestigious Italian musicians, and in 1540 a group of six Italian viol players showed up at his doorstep. Prior's research concludes that most of these viol players were probably Spanish or Portuguese Jews who had fled to Italy after the 1492 Spanish expulsion. Since Jews seem to have been leading viol players around the same time that the viol developed into the violin, Prior concludes that Jews may have played a role in the creation of the violin.
In 1541, historians have written, Henry VIII was told that there were "Marranos," Portuguese Jews who formally converted to Christianity but still practiced Judaism in secret, living in London. He had them imprisoned as he was currying favor with Charles V and believed that prosecuting secret Jews would help his cause as a Catholic. Charles's sister, and the Portuguese king and queen became champions for the imprisoned crypto-Jews and they were released.

Their identity has been a mystery until Prior made the connection to Henry VIII's viol ensemble. The records used to support the arrests were from Milan, where the viol players lived before coming to England.

In prison, however, two of the crypto-Jews died. They were John Anthony, a Jewish sackbut (a very early trombone) player, and viol player Romano of Milan. Anthony had a will and four of the viol players were witnesses. The official record, according to Prior, shows that Anthony's name appears as "Anthonii Moyses," and witness Ambrose of Milan became "Ambrosius deolmaleyex." Prior believes Anthony was Jewish, since "Moyses" was a common Jewish name.

As far as Romano's name of "deolmaleyex", Prior believes that an English clerk "butchered" the name "de Olmaliah" or "de Almaliah" - the Sephardi version of "Elmaleh," he says.

The two likely changed their names to hide their Jewish identities. In prison for being Jews, they no longer had to hide who they were.

Many of Henry VIII's court musicians were Jewish. There's a political angle to this as well as the artistic angle. As Jews, they didn't take sides against Catholics or Protestants, and they were considered very good musicians. There was also no organized Inquisition in England.

Back to the instrument itself and Prior's second major theory - that the famous violinmaker family Amati was Jewish. The are credited for being the modern instrument's first makers and also taught Antonio Stradivari - of Stradivarious fame - how to make them.

If they were Jewish, says Prior, it points to the instrument being of Jewish origin.

Prior looked at the family name and researched it - here come the genealogists! - in Bibliografia Ebraica, a Jewish-Italian name book by Carlo Barduzzi, who suggests that the Hebrew surname Haviv or Habib (lovable, likable - Hebrew) equals the Italian surname Amato (beloved - Italian).
Tracing the Tribe also consulted Pere Bonnin's Sangre Judia (4th expanded edition) and discovered Amat (Balearic Islands, 1391), Amato (1492, Tarazona) and Amatu (1366, Navarre). Another source is the Name Search Engine at Sephardim.com, which lists these recognized Sephardic names in a host of publications: Amat, Amato, Amator and Amatu. According to the search engine at Jeff Malka's SephardicGen.com, there are Amato/Amado (Rhodes, Turkey, Italy, Portuguese Inquisition records, Les Fleurs de Orient).

However, Prior says his research via Barduzzi is not enough to verify that the Amatis were indeed Jewish.

There are skeptics, such as University of London Jewish music ethnomusicologist Prof. Alexander Knapp who says there isn't enough evidence for Prior's theories.

"As far as I understand, the viol existed in Italy and lots of other places throughout Europe. One can't say it existed in Spain and was then brought to Italy. Even if it was, it doesn't mean to say that Jews are the only ones who played the viol. So the violin could have been invented by others, then the Jews traveled. But other people traveled too, like gypsies. So I think it's unrealistic, wishful thinking to say that," Knapp says.
Musicians themselves have chimed in, such as Russian-Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman.
"I hope I'm not perceived as chauvinistic, but it's a fact of life: The greatest violinists who ever lived were Jewish. I do feel that I am the next link. I carry on the tradition, to the best of my ability of course. I feel the
weight of generations on my shoulders."
Famous Jewish musicians include Salamone Rossi (17th century), and 19th century violinists Joseph Joachim (Brahms dedicated his violin concerto to Joachim), Ferdinand David (Mendelssohn dedicated his violin concerto to David), and violinist/composer Henryk Wieniawski.

The 20th century list is even more familiar to Tracing the Tribe's readers: Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein, Mischa Elman, Itzhak Perlman, Shlomo Mintz, Pinchas Zukerman, Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell, Hagai Shaham and Vadim Gluzman.

Why so many Jews? A wandering people would find it difficult to shlep along a huge brass instrument, double bass or set of drums. A flute or a smallish stringed instrument - now that fits in a bag that one person could carry!

Israeli violinist Hagai Shaham says in the story that "The violin is a much more sophisticated instrument than the clarinet - it's much more versatile." There are also more employment possibilities as orchestras have more seats for violinists than the small number of those for clarinet players.

Politics again played a role in Russia, for example, where Jews were restricted to living in certain places. A famous musician had no such obstacles. Many of the 19th-20th century's famous violinists went up and out of the shtetls and their families could legally live in big cities.

There's much more to the complete story, so read it at the link above.

1 comment:

  1. I think the Jews might have because in the 1800's our family was playing the violin as a tradition. I have a picture of my grandfather in his teens playing the violin in the early 1900's. I changed the tradition though and played the cello. It was taller than me!