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).
Niccolo Seligmann, raised in Congregation Beth Ahabah in Richmond, Virginia, is the only Ashkenazi Jewish member of Alkemie Medieval Music Ensemble, based in Brooklyn, NY. When Alkemie decided to delve into Medieval Yiddish and German Music for its program named “Mirroring the Other,” the group called on Seligman to play a leadership role in choice of text and musical composition.
Seligmann says that a formative influence in his musical life was Natan Berenshteyn, Music Director and Accompanist at the Beth Ahabah. Seligmann learned to read and chant Hebrew from the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah at Beth Ahabah.Yiddish is a high German language (a secular language mixed with some Hebrew and Aramaic, and including some Slavic and Romance words) historically spoken by Ashkenazi Jews. Western Yiddish was spoken in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, while Eastern Yiddish was used in Poland, Russia, Romania, Eastern Hungary, Bosnia, Lithuania, Belarus, and the Ukraine. Originating in the ninth century in Central Europe, the Yiddish language is sometimes described as being pronounced like German and written in the Hebrew alphabet. Before World War II, Yiddish was spoken by 11 to 13 million people, primarily living in Europe and Russia. After the Holocaust, in which 6,000,000 Jews, mostly Yiddish speakers, were killed by the Nazis, there was suppression of the language in the Soviet Union, and encouragement of use of Hebrew over Yiddish in Israel. By the 1990’s the numbers of Yiddish speakers had fallen to 1.5 million. In the United States, most people currently speaking Yiddish are from the Hasidic communities.
“Alkemie had mostly been singing in French, Italian, Latin and English,” said Seligmann as he prepared for a rehearsal, “and Sephardic languages in Spanish Medieval music. I’m not sure why there hasn’t been much representation of Yiddish medieval music. Personally, I really appreciate the richness and diversity of tune, the humor, earnest devotion, and yearning for freedom in Yiddish music. There is so much room for exploration. There isn’t just one narrative to it.”
In preparing the program for Alkemie, Seligmann said, “We wanted to define medieval Ashkenazi culture in a greater social context. The Jews were secluded, but they did relate. -- Who did they relate to? ….. First of all, each other. Their Christian neighbors, evidence supports it. Islamic traditions. Northern Italians such as nobleman Oswald von Wolkenstein. The Jews were secluded but at the same time they were part of a larger community. The Trent Jews were Jews, but they also lived in Trent. We have tried to show how different traditions related in text and music.”
The concert has music from old Hebrew chant. instrumental dances and songs to old Yiddish texts written by Niccolo Seligmann using the Synagogue modes and Klezmer music from the period, settings of medieval Yiddish texts. In some cases, these pieces are compared with contemporary composers from other traditions such as songs by poet, composer and diplomat Oswald von Wolkenstein.
The earliest music performed in “Mirroring the Other” was found in the Cairo Genizah. It was physically written by Obadiah the Proselyte, who was born a Christian-Swiss-Italian nobleman in the latter part of the 11th Century. He became a monk, and then converted to Judaism in 1102. His music dates from the beginning of the 1100’s; it is the oldest music notation found in the Hebrew language.
“While the music was without doubt written in Obadiah’s own hand, it is unknown whether it was his own composition, whether it was pre-existing, or even who wrote it,” says Seligmann. “It looks like Neumes, the system in which European and American music is written, but it is written right to left, as Hebrew would be. Alkemie is singing the music set down with text using Ashkenazi pronunciation.”
Niccolo Seligman, with fellow Alkemie members Elena Mullins (musicologist, vocalist) and David McCormick (Director of Early Music Access Project, Charlottesville) set to work choosing, arranging, sometimes composing music, and sourcing texts. Seligmann explored synagogue modes (scales and modal patterns) used in klezmer music, as well as Islamic traditions and Northern Italian songs of the period. Seligmann said, “Many of the Yiddish texts were sourced from ‘Introduction to old Yiddish Literature’ by Jean Baumgarten. Seligmann says, “Even though they were not printed on a press, these texts were hand-printed, and were probably read or sung to friends.”
Alkemie also worked with Sasha Kaoru Zamler-Carhart, who teaches music history at Mannes School of Music/ The New School, in New York City. Before moving to New York, Zamler-Carhart led the Medieval Music Program at the Royal Conservatoire in the Hague, and directed The Ascoli Ensemble, a vocal ensemble for medieval polyphony. Seligmann says, “Sasha was extremely helpful in how to read the Hebrew texts in Yiddish. Sasha helped me to understand how Yiddish works. I can pronounce and read German, and I learned to read Hebrew and read the Torah for my Bar Mitzvah in Richmond. For ‘Mirroring the Other’ I learned to make transliterations of Yiddish that the rest of Alkemie uses to sing the different texts.”
When asked what he likes most about the music Alkemie will perform in “Mirroring the Other”, Seligmann said: “It gives us a chance to see a diversity of Medieval mindset. We hear from the anti-authoritarians in the Purimspiel. And, on the other hand, from those in authority -- von Wolkenstein was the local Count. The music is a celebration of what there is to connect in the many cultures of the place and time.
Niccolo Seligmann says he has “Found this program a way for me personally to reconnect to my Jewish heritage from a place of pride and discovery. It has been reaffirming – Yiddish is the language of my ancestors. It gave me a chance to really reconnect. Warts and all – treatment of women not always great in medieval times. But I have been able to look at the past and be proud of what Jews were able to share, what they believed what they accomplished.”
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.