Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Music has always formed an essential component of the Klau Library’s efforts to represent the Jewish experience in the full sweep of geography and history, of form and genre. The continuing flow of scholarly insights that spring from the trove of the Birnbaum Collection, for example, highlights our distinctiveness in this field.
Periodically the Rare Book Room is able to augment its musical holdings and recently we have been able to do just that with a rare Portuguese translation of the libretto to Fromental Halévy’s grand opera La Juive (1835). An eminent composer of comic as well as serious opera of the period Halévy was also, as a professor at the Paris Conservatoire, the teacher of Gounod, Bizet, and Saint-Saëns. (Indeed, his daughter would go on to marry Bizet.) Much of his fame rested on the suceess of La Juive. Set in the early 15th century against the backdrop of the Council of Constance La Juive tells the complicated tale of a Christian girl who was adopted by a Jewish man and raised as a Jew. Her love for a Christian man who had disguised himself as a Jew leads to tragic recognitions and reversals of fortune, all culminating in a scene of anti-Jewish violence.
It is remarkable that only a year later the Paris Opera would see the premiere of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. This opera culminates with the famous massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, the anti-Huguenot pogrom in Paris in 1572. These two dramatic pleas for religious tolerance represent the high-water mark in mid-19th century French grand opera. The librettos to both operas were written by the prolific Eugène Scribe, who would be elected to the Académie Française later that year. That both were composed by Jews indicates a kind of artistic moral center that can in part be seen as an outgrowth of the religious liberalization after the July Revolution of 1830.
The opera is no less relevant today than it was in 1835, though its popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years. The libretto acquired by the Klau Library is a Portuguese translation from 1874 and attests to the opera’s wider popularity even 40 years later. This book is one of two known copies in the United States.
Contributed by Jordan Finkin, Rare Book Librarian