Of Marranos and musicians

Did Jewish 'Ministers of Pastime' shape the music of the Tudor Court?

November 2, 2006 10:30
fretwork feat 88 298

fretwork feat 88 298. (photo credit: )


Dear Reader,
As you can imagine, more people are reading The Jerusalem Post than ever before. Nevertheless, traditional business models are no longer sustainable and high-quality publications, like ours, are being forced to look for new ways to keep going. Unlike many other news organizations, we have not put up a paywall. We want to keep our journalism open and accessible and be able to keep providing you with news and analyses from the frontlines of Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish World.

As one of our loyal readers, we ask you to be our partner.

For $5 a month you will receive access to the following:

  • A user experience almost completely free of ads
  • Access to our Premium Section
  • Content from the award-winning Jerusalem Report and our monthly magazine to learn Hebrew - Ivrit
  • A brand new ePaper featuring the daily newspaper as it appears in print in Israel

Help us grow and continue telling Israel’s story to the world.

Thank you,

Ronit Hasin-Hochman, CEO, Jerusalem Post Group
Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief


What's in a name? Shakespeare may have found little of value, but for historians investigating the music of Tudor England, a handful of names unlocked a secret history at the very root of art music in England. Roger Prior, a retired lecturer in English Literature at Belfast University, investigated the names of the instrumentalists imported from Italy in the late 1530s by Henry VIII and found that one by one they revealed their bearers to be Jewish. Some of these Jews - among them the Bassanos, Comys and Lupos - were to found musical dynasties that definitively shaped the English style and dominated the King's music. This weekend, the English viol consort Fretwork presents a concert dedicated to the music of these Jewish musicians in New York before taking the program on a tour through the United States. Fretwork, one of the premier early music ensembles in Britain, had long been performing music by one of the descendants of the first generation of Italian immigrants without suspecting his identity. "We had been playing Thomas Lupo without knowing where he came from, or what his antecedents were," says Richard Boothby, a founding member. How these Jewish musicians came to England had always been well documented: in preparation for his fourth marriage, Henry VIII instructed his ambassadors to seek out the best "musicians and other ministers of pastime" throughout Europe and bring them to his court. An English resident in Venice identified four brothers thought to be among the best musicians in the city and recruited them for the king - against the express wishes of the Venetian government, which refused to grant the Bassano brothers permits to leave the city. The Bassanos, all wind players, were soon followed by a group of six string players, also from Venice. With first names like Alberto, Vincenzo and Antonio, and family names denominating towns in northern Italy - Bassano, Vicenza and Milan - there was nothing about them identifying them as Jews. But according to Prior, the musicians had one set of names they used in official business, and another set of names which were revealed only in private or at rare documented moments, such as the witnessing of wills. In these, "John Anthony" became "Anthonius Moyses," "Peregrine Symonds" became "Simon de Maion" and "Antony Maria" signed as Cuson or Cossin, both variants of the name Gershon. Another musician, Ambrose of Milan, appeared in one record as "deolmaleyex," which Prior convincingly interprets as an English scribe's awkward attempt to transliterate the name "de Almaliach." Beyond the Jewish character of these names, the discovery of these "secret" names was significant for the evidence they provided of a Spanish, and in some cases Portuguese, origin of the musicians. De Almaliach, or Elmaleh, was a well-known Jewish family from pre-expulsion Spain. Two other string players in the King's consort, George and Innocent de Combe, could be traced back to Coimbra in Portugal. Of course the very fact that the Italian musicians had been active in Venice outside the Ghetto - as the Senate's attempt to keep them in the city suggests - is evidence that they were Marranos who had settled in Venice, living outwardly as Christians. Their official names, including several Johns and Baptists, confirm this. But the uncovering of the crypto-Jewish identity of the musicians, together with their Iberian roots, allowed Prior to shed light on an episode in Anglo-Jewish history which had long been a riddle. "Toward the end of 1541, Henry VIII received information that some Portuguese nationals living in London were 'secret Jews,'" recounts Prior. "Normally, so far as one can tell, he would have taken little notice of such an accusation. All his other actions suggest that, if anything, he tended to favor Jews rather than persecute them. But the circumstances were exceptional. He was anxious at this time to ally himself more closely with the Emperor Charles V, and the prosecution of crypto-Jews was one way of showing himself a true Catholic and a friend of Spain. Around Christmas time of 1541, these 'certain persons' were imprisoned and their property confiscated." The imperial envoy in London, Eustace Chapuy, reported the arrests to the chief minister in Spain. However, due to pressure from the Emperor's sister, and of the King and Queen of Portugal, Chapuys was forced to retract his accusations and ask Henry VIII to free them again. When they were released, in March 1543, Chapuys wrote in a bitter letter to Madrid: "Most likely, however well they may sing, they will not be able to fly away from their cages without leaving some of their feathers behind." Chapuys seemed to be calling the prisoners songbirds, a metaphor for musicians. "But," explains Prior, "this interpretation had always come up against the difficulty that no Portuguese or Jewish musicians were known of in Tudor England, and the remark has never been explained. It is now no longer a problem, for we know that there were musicians in England who were both Portuguese and Jewish." In addition, court records showed that the other Jewish musicians left England abruptly at the time of their colleagues' arrest, and returned only the next summer when the affair had blown over. The Jewish musicians stayed at the Tudor court, shaping the nature of English music. The appointment of the original six string players from Venice, incidentally, marks the first use of the word "violin" in English, although the terms viol, violin and violon would continue to be used interchangeably to describe the different-sized string instruments of the court band. Its function was essentially as a dance band, according to Boothby, and the rediscovery of some of the earlier viol music in Fretwork's new program brought to the surface the original Italian dance rhythms. "It was a discovery to play some of these more obscure composers. It's very clear, functional dance music," says Boothby of the Pavanes, Courantes, Allemandes and other dances the Jewish musicians brought over to England. "By the end of the sixteenth century, it becomes much more intricate and arty, more sophisticated, but not as danceable as the music of the original generation. "The Lupo family established themselves as stalwarts of the royal music establishment and stayed there for a century," says Boothby. "They developed what came to be called the English style." In addition, they developed reputations as excellent instrument makers, with the Ashkenazic families specializing in wind instruments, and the Sephardic families in the making of string instruments. The Bassanos turned out wind instruments that, according to contemporary records, were "so beautiful and good they are suited for dignitaries and potentates." And it was the daughter of one of these, Emilia Bassano, who may have left the greatest mark of all on English culture as Shakespeare's Dark Lady. The inspiration behind his central sonnets, the poet immortalized her beauty, wit and cruelty - but not her name. After all, what's in a name?

Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>

Related Content

Joan Rivers
August 28, 2014
Joan Rivers rushed to hospital following throat surgery