Kita on Cypess and Sinkoff, 'Sara Levy's World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin'

Rebecca Cypess, Nancy Sinkoff, eds.
Caroline A. Kita

Rebecca Cypess, Nancy Sinkoff, eds. Sara Levy's World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2018. x + 292 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-58046-921-0

Reviewed by Caroline A. Kita (Washington University in St. Louis) Published on H-Judaic (August, 2020) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

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Sara Levy’s World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin, edited by Rebecca Cypess and Nancy Sinkoff, brings much-needed attention to the life of a remarkable German Jewish musician and patron who helped to shape German musical heritage as we know it today. Born in Berlin to the prominent Itzig family, Sara Levy’s (1761-1854) appreciation of music was fostered from a young age. She took piano and harpsichord lessons from Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784), the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and later served as a patron of Wilhelm and his brother Carl Philipp Emmanuel (1714-1788). Her music salon was renowned and many of the works she commissioned from the Bach family were first performed there. In addition to these commissioned works, Levy amassed an impressive collection of musical manuscripts during her lifetime, which she later donated to the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin. However, while her musical archive may have sparked initial interest in Levy, this volume probes far beyond the “Bach Tradition” she fostered. Emerging from an international and interdisciplinary symposium held at Rutgers University in 2014, this rich collection of essays takes Levy’s life as a springboard to rethink the role of elite Jewish women in the Jewish and German Enlightenments, and, more broadly, to reconsider assumptions about the Jewish co-constitution of German culture at the turn of the eighteenth century [1].

Nancy Sinkoff’s introduction situates Levy in the scholarship of Jewish studies, German studies, music history, and women’s history. As a Jewish salonnière who did not convert to Christianity; as a woman participating in the Haskalah; as a Jewish woman who helped to preserve and promote the music of a canonical German composing family; and finally, as a female musician who performed publicly, Levy was exceptional on many fronts. Sinkoff also articulates the stakes of bringing Levy to the forefront of scholarship—neglecting the stories and contributions of individuals like Levy, she argues, leads to a “distortion” of our understanding of a number of key aspects of life in Enlightenment Berlin, from the “Court Jewish phenomenon” to the role of Jews in “cultivating musical historicism” to the engagement of enlightened Jews with music and musical aesthetics (p. 8).

The rest of the volume is organized into three sections. The first focuses on Levy as a salonnière, a patron, a Jew, and a musician; the second reflects on art and aesthetics as a reflection of Jewish-Christian relations in Levy’s time; and the final section analyzes the musical manuscripts in Levy’s collection, using these documents as a lens to understand the dynamics of the social world in which Levy moved. The epilogue offers a documentary analysis of selections of Levy’s correspondence. Thus, the first and third sections and the epilogue speak to Levy’s own life and influence, whereas the essays in the second section reflect more broadly on ideas about art, gender, and religious-cultural identity circulating in Levy’s time.

The first section begins in a space familiar to those studying the role of elite German Jewish women in eighteenth-century culture: the salon. Marjanne E. Goozé’s essay, “What was the Berlin Jewish Salon around 1800?” offers an overview of this cultural establishment and an insight into its reception history. Goozé also notes how recent scholarship has challenged assumptions about the salon, in particular, the idea that these were necessarily spaces of Jewish “integration” into German society, leading to religious conversion. This context is helpful for understanding the significance of this space for Levy; the salon allowed her to showcase her prodigious musical talent and her patronage of talented artists, such as the Bach sons, and it also created a “liminal space” where she might engage with others of different faiths without the need to abandon her own (p. 29).

Christoph Wolff’s essay, “Sara Levy’s Musical Salon and Her Bach Collection,” focuses on Levy’s own relationship to the Bach family and to the Sing-Akademie. According to Wolff, Levy’s collection of music manuscripts reveals “a scope and character without parallel elsewhere” (pp. 44-45) in that it includes not only the scores of significant works by J. S. Bach and his sons but also individual instrument parts, likely performed by Levy and her friends. In his reflection on the chamber works that Levy commissioned from C. P. E. Bach, Wolff remarks on the unique orchestration of these works, which call for dialogue between woodwinds and string instruments, and in particular the use of a viola rather than a violin to acoustically draw attention to the “middle ground” of the score (p. 45). Wolff likens this arrangement to the ideal of a balanced conversation between opposing viewpoints fostered at Levy’s own salon. This essay concludes with a brief synopsis of the history of the Sing-Akademie archive, which disappeared after the Second World War. Only with its recovery in Kiev in 1999 were Levy and her music collection finally made known to a wider public.

Natalie Naimark-Goldman’s essay, “Remaining Within the Fold,” highlights Levy’s support of leading maskilim in the Haskalah. While the Jewish Enlightenment has traditionally been read as a movement “created primarily by and for men” (p. 58), Levy’s subscriptions to Hebrew books and the financial assistance she provided to Jewish writers and intellectuals demonstrates the active role that women played in promoting education and modern ideas in the Jewish community at this time. Moreover, they offer further evidence of Levy’s public commitment to Jewish culture and institutions, even as she performed at the Berliner Sing-Akademie and donated to this Christian organization her considerable manuscript collection. These actions, Naimark-Goldman notes, point toward Levy’s ambiguous position in between the Jewish and Christian worlds that she navigated daily.

George B. Stauffer’s contribution, “Women’s Voices in Bach’s Musical World,” turns back in time, focusing on the careers of two female performers of J. S. Bach's works in the generation preceding Levy: Christiane Mariane von Ziegler (1695-1760) and Faustina Borndoni (1697-1781). Stauffer’s essay reveals how these vocalists paved the way for Levy to perform Bach’s music in public at a time when such opportunities for women were rare.

The second section address how Jewish-Christian relations in Levy’s time resonated in the realm of aesthetics. Essays by Martha B. Helfer and Elias Sacks focus on two of the most prominent thinkers of the Jewish and German Enlightenments who were contemporaries of Levy—Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn. Helfer’s essay, “Lessing and the Limits of Enlightenment,” complicates the image of Lessing the philo-Semite, highlighting the latent anti-Semitism in popular dramatic works such as The Jews (1749). Turning from drama to other aesthetic forms, Elias Sack’s essay, “Poetry, Music and the Limits of Harmony,” examines Moses Mendelssohn’s translation of the Psalms and his “aesthetic critique” of Christianity. Mendelssohn’s critique is grounded in music, which he links to the ethical life. He suggests that with its neglect of the musical recitation of biblical text, the Christian tradition “lost a critical tool for moral formation and human flourishing” (p. 135). Sack’s analysis of this argument reveals how Mendelssohn's aesthetic writings stood at times in contrast to the larger Enlightenment project of identifying uniform and universal values. For Mendelssohn, a study of musical practices reveals not commonalities between the two religious, but rather a central flaw in Christianity. 

While Helfer and Sack’s readings focus on the works of canonical male Enlightenment writers, Yael Sela’s essay, “Longing for the Sublime: Jewish Self-Consciousness and the St. Matthew Passion in Biedermeier Berlin,” centers on the writings of Jewish women for evidence of how the tensions between Jewish and Christian culture played out in aesthetic debates. Sela suggests music can be read as a “distinct topos” in the epistolary and autobiographical texts written by women; she defines this topos as “a literary strategy of critical reflection, self-fashioning and cultural negotiation through learned scrutiny and sensual contemplation” (p. 148). In her essay, Sela focuses on the revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829 and the reception of this performance by Levy’s contemporary, Rahel Varnhagen. A number of other contributions to this volume draw attention to Sara Levy’s personal connection to this event: Felix Mendelssohn was Levy’s grand-nephew; the manuscript of the Passion was gifted to Mendelssohn by Levy’s sister, Bella Salomon; and Mendelssohn’s teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, who likely fostered the young composer’s fascination for Bach, was the caretaker of Levy’s musical estate at the Sing-Akademie. As Bach was the composer who for many defined the German Protestant music tradition, the revival of this work by a Jewish composer has been viewed as a great German-Jewish collaboration, and arguably as one of the most significant musical events in nineteenth-century German history [2]. In her essay, however, Sela highlights Varnhagen’s ambivalent review of the work, which the salonnière believed failed to achieve the sublime—the “expressive marriage between music and words that brings out the deepest, most primal sentiments of all human existence” (p. 164). Instead, Varnhagen expresses a preference for oratorical texts that recognize the sublimity of the Hebrew scriptures (such as Handel’s Judas Maccabeus) and for Bach’s instrumental works. This essay reveals how the writings of Jewish women highlight key moments of Jewish estrangement from the project of building the German Kulturnation through music.

The third section of Sara Levy’s World brings us back to the salon to examine the chamber music manuscripts found in Levy’s musical collection for insights into the cultural norms and debates of elite Prussian Enlightenment society. Rebecca Cypess reads Levy’s duets as expressions of contemporary aesthetic and religious philosophy, in particular, Moses Mendelssohn’s idea of “Einheit in der Mannigfaltigkeit” (Unity in Multiplicity), his model for a “tolerant society in which Jews and Christians could co-exist in perpetuity” (p. 182). Steven Zohn turns to more recent studies of musical sociability and Edward Klormann’s idea of “multiple agency” (p. 215) to demonstrate how the salon’s ideals of dialogue and conversation shaped the quartets by C. P. E. Bach that Levy commissioned and performed in this space. These essays are supplemented by audio recordings of works by Bach and his sons found in Levy’s collection. Performed by the Raritan Players, these excellent recordings are accessible on the website of Acis Productions and offer a unique experiential component to the volume. Not only do these recordings allow readers to follow along with the musical examples cited in the text, but they also provide the opportunity to “listen in” to Levy’s salon as it might have sounded in her own day.

Finally, Barbara Hahn’s epilogue, which features four letters sent by Levy to the Swedish diplomat to Prussia, Karl Gustav von Brinckmann, highlights how correspondence allowed for sociable and intellectual exchange between Jewish women and Christian men. For Hahn, Levy’s correspondence might be read as a “stage” upon which she “presented to her addressee … a world created by Jewish women” (p. 252). These personal notes illuminate Levy’s personality and wit as well as offer documentary evidence of the individuals with whom she regularly interacted. While the relationships fostered through correspondence, like those in the salon, may not have been sustainable outside of these spaces, these institutions and practices nonetheless reveal significant interactions that took place between individuals of different genders, cultural backgrounds, and religious faiths during the Enlightenment.

Sara Levy’s World offers a compelling portrait of a woman who shaped the musical and intellectual landscape of her time. In fact, it was so successful in piquing my curiosity about Levy that I must confess to disappointment that not all of the essays link their arguments back to Levy and her life in a substantial way. As a result, one at times loses the “red thread” tracing Levy’s unique position that Sinkoff sets up so convincingly in the introduction. Nevertheless, with its contributions from scholars of Jewish studies, German studies, and musicology, this volume speaks to a broad, interdisciplinary readership and offers diverse readings of eighteenth-century German and Jewish culture. Its essays challenge familiar narratives about the salon as an institution, about gender roles in the Jewish Enlightenment, and about Jewish “acculturation” and the Enlightenment credo of religious tolerance. They also invite us once again to rethink the role that music played for German Jews as a foundational aspect of Bildung—education and self-fashioning of character—believed to be a necessary step to becoming a fully engaged member of modern culture. The contributors to this volume reflect critically on what it meant for Jews such as Levy and her contemporaries to build and sustain a German musical tradition grounded in a faith that was not their own. Scholars such as Ruth HaCohen, Leon Botstein, and Philip Bohlmann have identified the Enlightenment as a crucial moment in the development of narratives surrounding Jewish otherness in music; HaCohen reminds us in particular how the Enlightenment search for a “normative aesthetics,” revived long-standing stereotypes of Jews as “noisy” and “unmusical”—the antithesis of Christian harmony.[3] Although Levy’s archive does not appear to contain any specific documentation articulating her position on these issues, she was likely aware of these articulations of cultural difference. Moreover, reading Levy’s life and musical archive through this lens reminds us once again that Jewish engagements with German culture during the Enlightenment were often quite contradictory, and that categories of belonging must be understood as dynamic and fluid, always developing in response to shifting social landscapes.

This introduction to Levy’s world thus offers further evidence of the unique cultural entanglements between Germans and Jews during the Berlin Enlightenment that created the German musical tradition we celebrate today. It serves as a model for interdisciplinary, collaborative scholarship and is an important contribution to the ongoing work of moving Jewish female artists and intellectuals from the margins of German Enlightenment history to the center.

Caroline A. Kita is Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Jewish Difference and the Arts in Vienna: Composing Compassion in Music and Biblical Drama.


[1]. For more on the idea of “co-constitution” see Steven E. Aschheim, In Times of Crisis: Essays on European Culture, Germans and Jews (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001).

[2]. A significant study of this history is Celia Applegate’s Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the “St. Matthew Passion” (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014). 

[3]. Ruth HaCohen, The Musical Libel Against the Jews (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011); Philipp Vilas Bohlman, Jewish Musical and Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); and Leon Botstein, “The Jewish Question in Music,” Musical Quarterly 94, no. 4 (2011): 439-53.

Citation: Caroline A. Kita. Review of Cypess, Rebecca; Sinkoff, Nancy, eds., Sara Levy's World: Gender, Judaism, and the Bach Tradition in Enlightenment Berlin. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL:

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