Did Jews invent the violin?

An affinity for the violin has long been a part of the Jewish identity.

Vadim Gluzman 88 248 (photo credit: )
Vadim Gluzman 88 248
(photo credit: )
From Fiddler on the Roof to the ubiquitous fiddler in the works of painter Marc Chagall to world-renowned musician Itzhak Perlman, the violin has long been associated with the Jewish people. What accounts for this connection? The answer is still unclear, but scholars believe that Jewish ties to the violin may go back to the very beginning. "It doesn't look like the violin is of Italian origin. It looks like it's of Jewish origin," says Monica Huggett, a violinist and artistic director of the Historical Performance Program at the Juilliard School in New York City. The origin of the violin has always been murky. Scholars have suspected that the violin's precursor, the viol, was invented in Spain in the second half of the 15th century - before the Jews were expelled. Then, shortly after the Spanish expulsion, the viol showed up in Italy, where it quickly developed into the violin we know today. But who brought the viol to Italy, and who is responsible for its development into the violin, have largely remained a mystery. In the last few decades, some scholars have concluded that Jewish musicians were the ones responsible. The violin seems to have originated in Italy in the first half of the 16th century, around the same time that the expelled Spanish Jews would have settled there. And the viol seems to have traveled the same path and at the same time that the Jews fled Spain. While few scholars have published research backing this theory, the idea is beginning to strike a chord in the music world. At a biannual violin symposium at the Juilliard School in May, which draws the world's top violinists, Huggett presented a keynote lecture outlining the history of the violin. She excitedly announced to the roughly 100 violinists in the audience that she's waiting for more research to be conducted that would definitively add the violin to the list of Jewish achievements. The first to propose this theory was Roger Prior, 73, a retired lecturer from the University of Belfast. He's written two articles and a book about Jewish musicians around the time of the violin's origin. "Did you know that there's no reference to the violin in Spain in the 16th century? When the Jews were pushed out of Spain, one of the obvious places they went to was Italy. That's where the violin seems to have been developed. That's the reason for linking the Jews and the violin. I think that's been quite well-documented," Prior says. Prior serendipitously came to unravel the mystery of the Jewish musicians while researching a different discipline and a different part of Europe - the court of King Henry VIII. Around 1983, as a lecturer in the University of Belfast's Department of English, Prior was researching the identity of the "Dark Lady," the mysterious woman mentioned in several of Shakespeare's sonnets. Noted British historian A.L. Rowse suggested that the Dark Lady was a woman by the name of Emilia Bassano, and Prior began investigating her biography. He noticed parallel language describing her and Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. It led him to suspect that Bassano was Jewish. He began to gather evidence confirming his hypothesis, but didn't expect to find that several members of the Bassano family were the original members of the wind consort at King Henry VIII's court. That discovery led him to the king's Jewish string consort. HERE'S HOW the story goes: In the early 16th century, King Henry VIII began a campaign to increase the prestige of the English court. He started by hiring prestigious Italian musicians, and in 1540 a group of six Italian viol players showed up at his doorstep. Prior's research concludes that most of these viol players were probably Spanish or Portuguese Jews who had fled to Italy after the 1492 Spanish expulsion. Since Jews seem to have been leading viol players around the same time that the viol developed into the violin, Prior concludes that Jews may have played a role in the creation of the violin. "I haven't got any definite proof, but there's an awful lot of evidence that the viol players were Jewish," Prior says. One piece of the puzzle Prior points to is a historically mysterious event in English history. Scholars have always known that in 1541, Henry VIII was told that there were "Marranos," Portuguese Jews who formally converted to Christianity but still practiced Judaism in secret, living in London. He had these crypto-Jews imprisoned. Prior says that Henry normally wouldn't hurry to imprison crypto-Jews, but the circumstances were exceptional; he was trying to win Charles V's favor at the time, and thought that prosecuting "secret Jews" would prove himself as a Catholic. Charles's English ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, praised the arrests. But suddenly, Charles's sister and even the king and queen of Portugal wrote to Chapuys as advocates of the prisoners. In the end, the crypto-Jews were released. Though this story has long been known, the identity of these secret Portuguese Jews has always been a mystery - that is, until Prior connected this account to his research of Henry VIII's viol consort. First, he noticed that the records used to support the arrests came from Milan, which is where many of the viol players lived before coming to England. Prior also studied a chilling letter Chapuys wrote in 1542, referencing the imprisoned Portuguese Jews: "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." According to Prior, this cryptic sentence is no longer a mystery: The birds Chapuys refers to must be a metaphor for musicians - namely, the Jewish viol consort of King Henry's VIII's court. Though the songbird reference strongly suggests that the prisoners were musicians, what does Chapuys mean when he says that the prisoners can't leave "without leaving some of their feathers behind"? Prior thinks that he may be referring to the deaths of two of the musicians while in prison. Here, another piece of the puzzle comes together. John Anthony, a Jewish sackbut (early trombone) player, and Romano of Milan, a viol player, both died in prison. Anthony drew up a will, using the four members of the royal viol players as witnesses. Prior noticed two oddities in the official record of his will two days after his death: Anthony's name suddenly appears as "Anthonii Moyses," and one witness's name, Ambrose of Milan, suddenly becomes "Ambrosius deolmaleyex." Prior quickly concluded that Anthony was Jewish, since "Moyses" was a common Jewish name meaning "son of Moses." The trickier name to unravel was the enigmatic name "deolmaleyex." Prior thinks that an incompetent English clerk butchered the name in a failed attempt to write down "de Olmaliah" or "de Almaliah," which Prior says is the Sephardi version of "Elmaleh." Prior presumes that the two probably changed their names to John Anthony and Ambrose of Milan to hide their Jewish identities. Most likely, he suspects, they revealed their real names in prison because they had nothing to hide anymore since they were imprisoned for being Jewish. And, on his deathbed, John Anthony probably figured he had nothing to lose. It's probably no coincidence that most of Henry VIII's court musicians were Jewish. According to Prior, Henry probably chose Jewish musicians because they didn't owe allegiance to either the Catholic Church or the Lutheran Church and were therefore more likely to be reliable servants for the English court. Another possibility is that at that time in England, Jews were renowned for being excellent musicians. Jewish musicians, in turn, saw England as a safe place of refuge from the Inquisition. THERE'S FURTHER evidence that the violin may be of Jewish origin. It's based on Prior's second theory: that the renowned Amati family was Jewish. The Amatis are famed for being the first makers of the modern violin (and for teaching Antonio Stradivari, widely regarded to be the best violin craftsman in history). If the Amatis were Jewish, this could once again point to the violin being of Jewish origin since they were the earliest prominent makers of the modern violin. Once again, in collecting evidence about the Amatis, Prior looked to their last name. He consulted Bibliografia Ebraica, a book of Jewish-Italian names by Carlo Barduzzi, which posits that the Hebrew surname "Haviv," which means lovable or likable in Hebrew, is equivalent to the Italian surname "Amato," which means beloved in Italian. "Their last name may be evidence of the Jewish connection with the violin. They may have chosen the name, of course. I think it's the Jewish habit of taking positive-sounding names which bring good luck," Prior says. Despite this evidence, he acknowledges that it's not enough to verify for certain that the Amatis were Jewish. At this point, Prior's theories are only theories. One skeptic is Prof. Alexander Knapp, an ethnomusicologist from the University of London who specializes in Jewish music. He contends that there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that the violin is of Jewish origin. "As far as I understand, the viol existed in Italy and lots of other places throughout Europe. One can't say it existed in Spain and was then brought to Italy. Even if it was, it doesn't mean to say that Jews are the only ones who played the viol. So the violin could have been invented by others, then the Jews traveled. But other people traveled too, like gypsies. So I think it's unrealistic, wishful thinking to say that," Knapp says. WHETHER OR not Jews were instrumental in creating the violin, some of today's leading violinists have their own theories about Jews' historically disproportionate affinity for it. These violinists, needless to say, are Jewish, too. "The violin has always been a Jewish instrument," says Russian-Israeli violinist Vadim Gluzman. "I hope I'm not perceived as chauvinistic, but it's a fact of life: The greatest violinists who ever lived were Jewish. I do feel that I am the next link. I carry on the tradition, to the best of my ability of course. I feel the weight of generations on my shoulders." That tradition includes 17th-century Jewish virtuoso violinist Salamone Rossi (credited with being one of the first composers of violin music), and three of the leading violinists in the 19th century: Joseph Joachim, to whom Johannes Brahms dedicated his violin concerto; Ferdinand David, to whom Felix Mendelssohn dedicated his violin concerto; and Henryk Wieniawski, who was a virtuoso violinist and composer of significant works for the violin. The list of the 20th century's leading violinists is heavily dominated by Jews, each considered to be among the best violinists of all time: Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein and Mischa Elman, among others. And many of today's leading violinists carry on the torch in the world's concert halls, including Itzhak Perlman, Shlomo Mintz, Pinchas Zukerman, Gil Shaham, Joshua Bell, Hagai Shaham and Vadim Gluzman. What accounts for the phenomenon? There are about as many theories as there are Jewish violinists. A popular theory posits that the Jews have historically been a mobile people and therefore have preferred a mobile instrument. So why is there no strong connection between the Jewish people and, say, the flute? "The flute hasn't captured the Jewish imagination as much as the violin has," Knapp conjectures. "String instruments have a certain intensity and passion, and capture the feelings of the heart in a way that's intense and immediate." Israeli violinist Hagai Shaham suggests that this "intensity and passion" of the violin is well-suited to Jewish music. And he has an answer for why the clarinet, which is both portable and important in klezmer music, has not been picked up by as many Jewish musicians. "Jewish music in general is much more expressive. The violin is a much more sophisticated instrument than the clarinet - it's much more versatile. And there are more job possibilities for a violinist, since there are many more violin seats than clarinet seats in an orchestra. The violin was a better bet," Shaham says. During the 19th and 20th centuries, when career paths for Jews were limited, the potential for job opportunities was a strong selling point for taking up the violin. "At least for Russian Jews, that was the only way out of settlements," Gluzman says. "If you were accepted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory, that was your way into the big city. So the violin became a tool of hope, because it was convenient. They were the children of hope: Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Nathan Milstein. That was the way for them and their families to move and have the legal right to bigger cities." He adds that this inevitably led to competition among families: "Every Jewish momma had to have her son play the fiddle; otherwise she'd be losing to the mom next door." Shaham says that Jewish families in recent history were prepared for the challenge to rise to the top. "Jewish society is very competitive; it strives for excellence. Part of the culture of excellence was that young kids from the age of three were sent to study in the heder [Hebrew school]. Education, discipline and perfectionism were very important. It yielded good results, and they applied it also in musical studies," Shaham says. IF A culture of excellence and discipline accounts for the number of leading Jewish violinists, this same cultural tradition could account for the recent surge in leading Asian violinists. "In the 20th century, it was part of the Jewish culture - everyone studied the violin. In recent years, we have Asian violinists in great numbers because everyone studies violin there," Shaham says. A further link between Judaism and the violin may lie in the hassidic musical tradition. "The root of it is in the hassidic tradition, of course," Gluzman says. "Hassidism gave importance to celebration in music. The violin was the instrument, next to clarinet and bass drum, depending on what they had in the village at the time. They played music to celebrate everything, from births to weddings." Yet another consideration is the musical tradition in the synagogue. "It may be that the violin appeals to the Jewish soul because of the intensity of its music. Maybe it recollects the intensity of the hazan's voice," Knapp says. The jury is still out on the origins of the violin, and the reasons for the remarkable affinity Jews have had to this instrument. But there's one more theory, proposed by a simple dairy farmer named Tevye. "A fiddler on the roof: sounds crazy, no?" Tevye begins in the opening of the popular musical which has become synonymous with Jewish life. "But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say, every one of us is a fiddler on the roof - trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy... And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition! Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as, as... as a fiddler on the roof!"