Airing the closet-kosher music loved by the Tudors

By Rodney Greenberg, September 12, 2008
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Although they were officially banned, Jewish musicians were top of the charts in Elizabethan England. Now a modern group is replaying their hits.

 

The Tudors are in the news these days. BBC2 is unfurling its lavish, 10-part drama about Henry VIII and his coterie of minions and lovers, while the Royal Mint is striking a £5 coin commemorating the 450th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth I.

Diligent researchers and specialist performers have been rediscovering the music of the Tudor Court. We hear it today played on copies of original instruments.

You may not think there could be a Jewish connection, given that the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by Edward I and did not officially return until 1655 when Oliver Cromwell re-admitted them, 52 years after the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, died.

Richard Boothby is one of the founders of the group Fretwork, an ensemble (known as a "consort") of viols specialising in Elizabethan and Jacobean music.

The name comes from the frets over which the strings of a viol are stretched. They have been hailed by one critic as "the finest viol consort on the planet".

They play on modern versions of Renaissance and Elizabethan viols - forerunners of today's violins, violas and cellos - whose luminous sound conjures up the ceremonial and dance music popular throughout the courts of Europe in the 16th century.

Boothby takes up the story. "In 1492, the year Columbus discovered America, Spanish Jews were expelled from their homeland. Many became refugees in Italy. They had pioneered playing a guitar-like instrument called the vihuela, not with the fingers, but with a bow. This became the vihuela d'arco (guitar of the bow) and evolved into the viola da gamba (viol of the leg) because it was by this time held between the knees." So Jewish viol players from Iberia can take some credit for founding the modern string quartet, and for the quintessential sound of the English consort.

How did they arrive at the English court? "The first viol players came over from the Netherlands in 1520," says Boothby. "Twenty years later, Henry VIII cast his net wider and headhunted some Italian musicians already prominent in Venice. Among them was a whole family of string players, the Lupos. They were Marranos - Jews who had publicly converted to Christianity but covertly practised their own religion. Unlike in Spain, there was no English Inquisition. King Henry might even have protected these expert Jewish musicians. Queen Elizabeth's physician, Lopez, was Jewish. And if Jews were totally banned in England, where did Marlowe get his Jew of Malta character from, or Shakespeare his Shylock?"

Another Jewish family were the Bassanos, five brothers who specialised in music for wind instruments rather than the viols beloved by the Lupos.

"The Lupo and Bassano clans were prominent in court circles for over a century. Their Italian musical style dominated English music," says Boothby.

It is the familiar tale of "Jewish music" that does not sound at all Jewish, so thoroughly were its creators assimilated within a non-Jewish tradition.

Boothby says there is no fund of liturgical music from these families, because they would need to have written for the church. "You couldn't write an In Nomine and be a secretly Jewish composer. So they poured their energies into instrumental pieces."

This was not a problem for another, more famed Italian composer, Salamone di Rossi, who also features in Fretwork's concerts.

Rossi was so respected by the ostentatious Duke of Mantua that he was spared the indignity of wearing the yellow badge that otherwise identified the city's Jews, and was proud to set Hebrew words to music firmly in the Italian Renaissance idiom.

Fretwork are performing on Sunday at London's Wigmore Hall, a varied and extravagant programme that includes music by Rossi, the Lupos and the Bassanos. They will add a contemporary twist, bringing the Jewish viol story into our own century with an intriguing work by the English composer Orlando Gough (born 1953). The title, Birds on Fire, is also that of their recent, much-praised CD.

"We commissioned this piece in 2001 for viols and dancers," says Boothby, "because Gough has a background in music for dance and he brings tremendous rhythmic drive to it."

The work was inspired by the novel Badenheim 1939 by the Romanian writer Aharon Appelfeld, born in 1932 and deported to a concentration camp aged eight. He escaped, hid for three years in the Ukraine, then joined the Russian army. He made his way to Israel in 1946 and lives in Jerusalem.

The novel is about a group of Jewish musicians in a fictitious Austrian holiday resort as the Nazis close in, secretly playing klezmer tunes in their hotel at night, and Gough gradually weaves these melodies into his music. Secrets and viols - much like the gifted Lupos and Bassanos.

Fretwork are performing at Wigmore Hall, London W1, at 7.30pm on Sunday. Tel: 020 7935 2141 for tickets. Their CD, Birds on Fire, is on Harmonia Mundi.

    Last updated: 12:52pm, October 12 2010