Sara Levy

Julia Neumann

Thursday, September 29, 2016

This entry in our series RISM A–Z comes to us from Julia Neumann, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Gifted harpsichordist, avid collector of musical sources, an early appreciator of Bach, Berlin salonnière, and not least of all great-aunt of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy – the letter L takes us today to one of the most versatile music patrons of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Sara Levy (also spelled Levi or Löwy).

Sara Levy was born in 1761 as the tenth child of the Berlin banker and court Jew Daniel Itzig and his wife Miriam (neé Wulff). As the “financial entrepreneur” of Frederick the Great, Daniel Itzig enjoyed a special position in the Prussian state; this can be seen in the “Itzig palace” not far from the Berlin palace. The parents stressed the value of a comprehensive education for their sixteen children, where music especially played a central role. Early on, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was cultivated in the family – certainly motivated by the fact that the Bach pupil Johann Philipp Kirnberger taught piano to Sara Levy’s older sister Bella Salomon, the grandmother of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. In turn, one of Sara Levy’s music teachers is said to have been the oldest Bach son Wilhelm Friedemann.

When she still lived in her parents’ palace, Sara Levy appeared as a harpsichordist at musical events, often with her sister Zippora, who was only one year older. After her marriage to the banker Samuel Salomon Levy in 1783, she occasionally performed as part of the “Fliessische Koncerte“ and soon afterwards started her own salon. This salon, which she led until her death in 1854, welcomed numerous Berlin musicians, writers, artists, and intellectuals of the time.

Starting around 1806, Sara Levy’s musical activities were increasingly directed at the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, which was at the time directed by Carl Friedrich Zelter. Together with the “Ripien-Schule,“ an instrumental ensemble affiliated with the Sing-Akademie, between 1807 and 1815 she brought numerous harpsichord and piano concertos by the Bach sons, as well as other composers, before the public.

It is highly likely that Sara Levy commissioned works by both of the oldest Bach sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, and also encouraged Joseph Haydn to compose. She was a subscriber of a number of printed editions of challenging keyboard music (including works by Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian Bach). In this way, she promoted the dissemination of the music of the Bach sons.

In the course of her long life – she lived for 93 years – she put together a comprehensive collection of music manuscripts and printed music, including several autograph manuscripts by the Bach sons and sources with works by Carl Heinrich and Johann Gottlieb Graun, Johann Gottlieb Janitsch, Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Joachim Quantz, and others. While she was still alive, she presented large portions of this collection to the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin; the sources that remained with her first were passed on to an interem owner after her death, and from there they were dispersed throughout the world.

The portion of Levy’s music collection that went to the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin has been accessible to scholars at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin since 2002, the year in which the archive returned from Kiev. It is completely documented in RISM. Currently, the RISM online catalog has 457 works in sources with Sara Levy as the previous owner.

Music manuscripts that were in her possession often have a small, round stamp that bears the letters “SSLev” (image 2); according to recent research, the intertwined double S in the monogram means that the ownership stamp could have been used by Samuel and Sara Levy together. The name “Sara Levy geb Itzig” can also be found on some title pages that were in her possession (image 3).

Levy ownership stamp

Image 2: Small, round stamp with the monogram “SSLev“ for Samuel and Sara Levy (from SA 3136, Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, RISM ID no. 469313600)

Levy signature

Image 3: Levy’s signature: “Sara Levy geb Itzig“ (from Bach P 703, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz – Musikabteilung mit Mendelssohn-Archiv)

Selected bibliography:
Bach-Archiv Leipzig/Internationale Mendelsohn-Stiftung, eds. “‘Bach-Kultus’ in Berlin um 1800. Sara Levy und ihr musikalisch-literarischer Salon,” Katalog zur Ausstellung im Gartenhaus des Mendelssohn-Hauses Leipzig vom 30. Oktober bis 15. Dezember 2002.

Bartsch, Cornelia. “Levy, Sara.” In MUGI. Musikvermittlung und Genderforschung: Lexikon und multimediale Präsentationen, edited by Beatrix Borchard and Nina Noeske. Hamburg: Hochschule für Musik und Theater, 2003ff. Article published June 29, 2014.

Henzel, Christoph. “Die Musikalien der Sing-Akademie zu Berlin und die Berliner Graun-Überlieferung.” Jahrbuch des Staatlichen Instituts für Musikforschung Preußischer Kulturbesitz 2002, 60–106. Mainz: Schott, 2004.

Wollny, Peter. “‘Ein förmlicher Sebastian und Philipp Emanuel Bach-Kultus.’ Sara Levy, geb. Itzig und ihr literarisch-musikalischer Salon.” In Musik und Ästhetik im Berlin Moses Mendelssohns, edited by Anselm Gerhard. Wolfenbütteler Studien zur Aufklärung 25, edited by Lessing-Akademie, 217–255. Tübingen: Max Niemeyer, 1999.

–. “Ein förmlicher Sebastian und Philipp Emanuel Bach-Kultus.” Sara Levy und ihr musikalisches Wirken. Mit einer Dokumentensammlung zur musikalischen Familiengeschichte der Vorfahren von Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Beiträge zur Geschichte der Bach-Rezeption 2, edited by Bach-Archiv Leipzig. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 2010.

–. “Levy, Sara.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Musik begründet von Friedrich Blume, zweite neubearbeitete Ausgabe, edited by Ludwig Finscher. Personenteil 11, clms. 44-45. Kassel: Bärenreiter and Stuttgart/Weimar: Metzler, 2004.

–. “Sara Levy and the Making of Musical Taste in Berlin.” The Musical Quarterly 77 (1993): 651–688.

Image, top: Sara Levy, lithograph by Paul Rohrbach, ca. 1850. From “Paul Erman: Ein Berliner Gelehrtenleben 1764–1851” by Wilhelm Erman (Berlin, 1927, after p. 96.).

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