Michele Bolaffi, Jewish liturgical songs for solo, choir and instruments; 1826, Synagogue of Leghorn.

The manuscript
Jewish liturgical music in Italy
The concert

Some musical extracts

The manuscript

Among the treasures of the Birnbaum Collection, conserved at the Hebrew Union College Library in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A., there is a priceless manuscript, duly classified and minutely described by Israel Adler in the R.I.S.M. book devoted to the manuscripts of written Jewish music, featuring fourteen compositions for one or two solo voices, choir and bass throughout (the first, however, with full orchestra) titled: "Versetti posti in musica dal Professore Michele Bolaffi, dedicati al Signor A. Crocolo, 1826".
This collection is actually a highly interesting unicum, since the songs it features are intended for the regular liturgy of the Shabbat, that according to the Hebrew rule at the time of the diaspora forbids the use of instruments, as well as of polyphony, during the span of time between Friday evening and Saturday, before the return of the Messiah and the consequent reconstruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. Two of these "Versetti" —certainly original compositions by Michele Bolaffi, considering their style, clearly characteristic of his time— are still sung today in a number of Sephardic-rite Italian synagogues, although reduced to a simple monophonic melody, and without the slightest trace of their author's name. So this should allow us to imagine a short period of time in which, around the first quarter of the nineteenth century and undoubtedly inspired by the great cultural and social innovations of the period, in a synagogue of Leghorn it was felt to be time to refresh the solemnity of the rite by the joyfulness of instruments as in Biblical days, perhaps interpreting metaphorically the notion of "Messianic era", when the Sabbath, meant not just as a time of repose but especially as an interruption in linear time, could be conceived as a "place" in which the Messiah was already present, or perhaps simply longing for a swift coming of the Messiah, seen as a time of universal peace and understanding of the brotherhood of men, beyond separations and differences.
It is a sad fact that Jewish history has been an uninterrupted series of persecutions and sorrows, and maybe the oblivion in which this group of musical compositions and their author had fallen conceals a secret tale of denied hopes and disappointments. Nonetheless, the conservation of these melodies seems to signify the survival of the idea of continuing a wonderful dream, never abandoned, eternally present, written in the universal language of music: the dream of a world where differences can live under the same sky, in perfect harmony.

Synagogal music in Italy and the work of Michele Bolaffi.

Sh'lomo me Adumim, in other words the Jewish famous violinist and composer Salomone de' Rossi, appears to have been the first musician to introduce polyphony, and maybe even the use of instruments, in the Jewish liturgy, thus largely contributing to the renewal that occurred in the early seventeenth century in the communities of Venice, Mantua, Ferrara, Padua and Casale Monferrato. The Ferrara synagogue, in 1605, was the first to follow the innovations suggested by Salomone and backed in Venice by Rabbi Leone da Modena, who was determined to modernize the ritual, up to then traditionally bound to the idea that "joyfulness and songs were forbidden in the Synagogue since the destruction of the Temple" (Teudath Sh'lomo, Sh'lomo Lifschitz, Offenbach, 1718, about the responsa in the Venetian controversy, published several times by Leone da Modena and then again discussed a century later in Germany, when the use of instruments before sundown on Friday night was introduced). The one remaining example is precisely the one published in Venice in October 1622: Ha shirim Asher LiSh'lomo: the "Songs of Solomon", by Salomone de' Rossi, printed in mobile characters with the Hebrew text from right to left and the music from left to right, in separate parts. Yet in these compositions there was no sign of traditional Jewish melodic or harmonic features, precisely because they were in fact intended as a "modernization".
The essay was short-lived: already by 1715 in the synagogue of Ferrara the music of a benediction was altered, and the one who was responsible for it, Nehemia Cohen, excommunicated. So those fourteen Versetti by Bolaffi are precisely the only other indication of renewal of synagogal liturgical music in Italy; however in these, unlike Salomone de' Rossi's endeavours two centuries earlier, the melodies were inspired by traditional Jewish manners, with the clear intention of displaying their features, while also updating their form in the style of his time: that of a musical Italy that listened to Rossini and Paganini, but was beginning to examine with curiosity and respect the works of Beethoven and the great German classics.
As regards the Jewish/Leghorn musical tradition, from which the author of this precious manuscript drew his inspiration and to which he offered his compositions, it is worthwhile mentioning the figure of Federico Consolo, a Jewish violinist born in Ancona in 1841 and who died in Bolaffi's Florence in 1906, the author of the Libro dei Canti d'Israele, Antichi Canti Litugici del Rito degli Ebrei Spagnoli: Consolo had actually devoted himself to the study of the synagogal songs of the Jews of Leghorn, one of the leading Hebrew communities in Italy, formed after the Jews had been cast out of Spain in 1492.
Yet actually, as evidenced by Abraham Zvi Idelson (Jewish Music in Its Historical Development, New York, 1929), the musics recorded therein are exclusively homophonic and exclusively vocal, usually in an antiphonal form with soloists and choir, and not just of Sephardic origin, but largely derived from the tradition of northern Italy, featuring, in fact, Levantine as well as Ashkenazic influences, or simply deriving from seventeenth and eighteenth-century Italian songs. So Bolaffi may well have wanted to blend the most cultured Italian and Jewish musical traditions, following the example of the experience of Central European synagogues, that unlike the Italian ones had adopted the novelty of polyphonic song with instrumental accompaniment, elaborating that great tradition of which the kletzmer is the legitimate descendant, since worldliness and the divine service, in the Jewish life culture, are interwoven and blended without ever being separated.

Michele Bolaffi, some biographical data.

We know next to nothing about Michele Bolaffi (1769-...): among the rare, terse data on his life, we have that in the Dizionario Universale dei Musicisti by Carlo Schmidl, published in Milan in 1938 by the publisher Sonzogno, where we can read, in the appendix to the first and second volume: "He was born in Leghorn (not in Florence). In 1822 he went to Venice as tutor in the household of the lawyer Aless. Vivanti; he was chapel master at the Court of Louis XVIII (1816-1818), then at that of Tuscany at Leghorn (1835). Composed also 6 Salmi Penitenziali for two voices with throughout bass."
Furthermore, at the website Marco Bazzotti has devoted to the so-called minor nineteenth-century guitarists, he is presented as a "composer of the first half of the nineteenth century", the author of a Romanza for voice, piano and guitar published in Florence at Lorenzi's in 1860. A more in-depth research performed at the national data base of the Biblioteche dei Poli SBN adds to that Six nouveaux nocturnes italiens à deux voix avec accomp.t de piano ou harpe : oeuvre 2.me, published in Paris at Carli's, in c. 1815; Il Mese armonico for song, guitar and piano, Lorenzi 18.., and perhaps the same above-mentioned Romance: La Pace, cantata a voce sola opera 4. Poesia e musica di Michele Bolaffi fiorentino..., not datable and with no indication of publication, and last Il Pastore e la pastorella delle alpi: Farsa Per Musica su libretto di G.D. Campagna, printed in Venice by Rizzi.
To complete this brief catalogue, a Letter from Michele Bolaffi on the work of Maria di Rudenz (Leghorn, Tipografia Meucci, 1838), as well as the mysterious Teodia, o sia, Inno filosofico a Dio: odi semilibere, traduzione da antico testo orientale, Leghorn, Angeloni, 1836, the latter conserved at the Biblioteca Comunale Labronica of Leghorn. That is all that appears to remain of an author inexorably missing in the encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries and even in the major writings devoted to Hebrew music. Last of all, thanks to David and Itzach Crocolo's gift of the manuscript to the synagogue of Leghorn in memory of their father, a singer and friend of Michele Bolaffi, we now can discover the original version and the name of the author of some of the most beloved liturgical songs, passed down orally and conserved in the Sephardic-rite Italian synagogal tradition.


The "Versetti posti in musica..." by Michele Bolaffi were entirely executed in chamber music form and as a world Première in the synagogue of Ancona, Friday, 10 July 2000, at 4 P.M., before the beginning of the Shabbath, with the baryton Alberto Jona, Andrea Coen at the organ and Claudio Ronco at the cello, on the occasion of the fifth edition of the Festival di musica Kletzmer.

Andrea Coen
Alberto Jona
Claudio Ronco

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