Alkemie’s newly-created program “Mirroring the Other: Reflecting Jewish Experience in Medieval Germany” looks at the Jewish experience in medieval Germany through new transcriptions of extant monophonic and polyphonic works alongside Alkemie member Niccolo Seligmann’s newly-composed settings of medieval Yiddish texts. Alkemie seeks to expand the musical representation of this richly cultural world by combining their experience performing medieval music with Seligmann’s lived experience of Jewish musical and cultural history and practice.
This program explores the intersections between the German Jewish/Christian world. In the words of the Yiddish literature scholar Jean Baumgarten, “The broad integration of the stylistic and literary models from German epic poetry permits one to posit profound cultural contacts between the Jewish community and the surrounding society. The abundance of formulae, phrases, themes, and entire narratives taken directly from German epics and masterfully incorporated into Jewish texts clearly demonstrates that the epic literature of the Christian world was well known and widespread in the Jewish community. From this cultural encounter, strictly delimited chronologically, originated some of the most innovative texts and one of the most productive genres of Old Yiddish literature.”
The program includes the following repertoire:
“Hannah’s Prayer,” and “Hannah and Peninah” from the 15th-century Shmul-bukh. The Shmul-bukh presents a fusion of the Hebrew tradition and the Jewish vernacular tradition — uniting the world of German epic poetry and the Jewish heritage and exploring both biblical themes and post-biblical legends and tales. It functions as a ‘textual mirror’ that reflects the multiple cultural spheres with which German Jews were in contact at the end of the Middle Ages. “Hannah’s prayer” is mirrored by a setting of the “Magnificat” (Song of Mary) taken from the St. Emmeram Codex (15th-century Regensburg) that has been newly transcribed and edited by Elena Mullins.
“Der Wolf’s Tanz,” “Shatans Boych Vall,” and “Wie Got die Welt Besafn Hat,— new instrumental works written by Seligmann using the synagogue modes and traditional Ashkenazi harmonic progressions. These pieces are written to accompany new settings of Jewish and Yiddish poetry and prose, including Susskind of Trimberg's iconic poem “The Fable of the Wolf.” Susskind was one of the few (that we know of) German Jewish minnesingers who flourished in the second half of the thirteenth century. The six poems of his which have been preserved in the Manesse Codex show that he was ranked highly among the poets of his time. The picture on our website for this program is from the Manesse Codex and likely portrays Susskind — identified by the pointed “Jew’s hat” that he is wearing.
Purimspiel Excerpt: “Mordechai won’t bow to Haman.” The Purim-play, with its connections to the contemporaneous Fastnachtspiele (comic farces performed during Carnival in Germany), takes on an "importance for understanding the dynamic within Jewish culture and the complex relations that it had, on the one hand, with religious texts and, on the other, with the literature of the surrounding culture. The study of these relations with German theatre tradition, and with biblical and midrashic texts, provides the necessary background for analyzing the problematic contacts between Jewish and Christian literature” as well as the beginnings of Jewish theatre. “The Purim-shpiln thus provide important access to the study of cultural exchange with the coterritorial society, and the ongoing process of rewriting the foundational narratives of the Jewish tradition, adapted to the contemporary socio-political context.” Niccolo Seligmann has written new musical settings of this comic text.
Speaking of Carnival…This program also includes four pieces by Oswald von Wolkenstein, another famous minnesinger who was rumored for many years to have lost his eye to a mock-duel as a child during Carnival. (His skull was exhumed in the 1970s, whereupon it was decided that his missing right eye was in fact a congenital defect.) These pieces include “Der mai mit lieber zal” — an onomatopoeic song which echoes the sounds and cries of medieval German life — including hilariously personified bird-songs, farm and mill-wives calling to beasts of burden, a rambunctiously neighing foal, and instructions to a hunter.
Also, on this program are three Hebrew liturgical pieces — the earliest that we know of written in modern musical notation. These pieces, discovered in the Cairo Geniza documents, are by the 12th-century Jewish convert Obadiah the Proselyte, and represent the oldest surviving staff notation of Jewish music — set in the same type of neume-based notation used by Christian monks. We are singing “Baruch Hagever” (Trust in the Lord), “Mi'al Har Horev” (the Praise of Moses) and “Va-Eda’ mah” (Teach that I might know). These songs are piyyutim — Jewish sacred poems which are often used in the context of a religious service, but may also be sung outside the synagogue.
Alkemie exists to explore and share the life-affirming and alternative perspectives to be experienced in the sounds of centuries past. Comprised of singer-performers playing over a dozen instruments (including vieles, harps, psaltery, recorders, douçaines, and percussion), the ensemble has a particular interest in the porous boundaries between the court and folk music of the medieval period. Grounded in historical performance practice and fed by a love of experimentation, Alkemie’s performance on the Indianapolis Early Music Festival in June 2018 was lauded as “enchanting” and “indicating [the] future health” of the field of early music.”
Founded in 2013 and incorporated as non-profit since 2018, Alkemie is based in Brooklyn and also performs nationally. In 2018-2019, Alkemie inaugurated an ongoing partnership with the Medieval Studies program at Fordham University, and made their debut on the Music Before 1800 concert series in New York. Alkemie has also appeared at the Amherst Early Music Festival (New London, CT), Amherst Glebe Arts Response (AGAR – Amherst, VA), Beacon Hill Concert Series (Stroudsburg, PA), the Capitol Early Music Series (Washington, DC), Gotham Early Music Scene (GEMS – New York City), and the War Memorial Arts Initiative (Baltimore). In 2019-2020, Alkemie and Elliot Cole premiered a new setting of the fourteenth-century Morte Arthur on the Five Boroughs Music Series (New York). was also featured on the Cambridge Society for Early Music series (MA). Alkemie presented “Sweet Friendship” (a new program of late 15th-century French and Italian songs, dances, and poetry, including period dancing) at Fordham University in January 2020. In 2020-2021 Alkemie looks forward to premiering new programs featuring medieval German Jewish repertoire and the music of Hildegard von Bingen, as well as to the launch of the NYC-based initiative “Alkemie & Friends.”
Alkemie’s members are also committed to the lively teaching of medieval and Renaissance performance practice and history. Alkemie was in residence at Fairmont State University in 2016-2017, and has presented workshops and educational outreach programs at the Capitol Early Music Series (VA), Ramaz High School (NY), and at Fordham University (NY). Alkemie members teach collegiate and amateur students at Case Western Reserve University (OH), Fordham University (NY), the Strathmore Arts Center (MD), Amherst Early Music Festival (CT), the Baroque Performance Institute at Oberlin (OH) and through the Early Music Access Project (VA).
The AGAR Amherst Music Series is presented by Amherst Glebe Arts Response, Inc. (AGAR) in part with support from the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Greater Lynchburg Community Foundation, Centra Foundation, and the Piepho Charitable Fund, and donations from corporations and individuals. Lynn Kable is producer of the series.