The Xuhui district of Shanghai is perhaps equivalent to New York’s Upper West Side. Tall luxury apartment buildings are interspersed with art deco condos separated from their sisters over in the French Concession, a juxtaposition of old and new. Down the street in one direction, there’s a Paris Baguette and a Starbucks. In the other, a Franco-Japanese coffeehouse next to a museum. Thai and Euro-fusion restaurants abound in the neighborhood, though the food of choice before about 6pm comes either from street vendors or local canteens. It really feels like West 72nd Street.

So far, Richard and I usually head out the door at 7am or so to get coffee number one at Starbucks, followed by breakfast, followed swiftly by coffee number two at Café Lumiere, the local precious Japanese coffeehouse (selling coffee in-house roasted beans at $40 a bag, not an uncommon site in bourgeois neighborhoods here). Coffee was more pertinent than it might normally be: armed with a kitchen knife and a disposable emory board, my post-breakfast routine would entail an hour of voicing a Klop Italian harpsichord. Quite a bit of the repertoire on the menu this week is Italian, but there’s enough French repertoire to merit working on the instrument. Italian harpsichords are super “plucky,” even unsubtle, while French harpsichords tend to have bloom to them. Like regional variations in wine or cuisine, there are trends, flavors and guidelines to preparation. Evoking two at the same time can be tricky territory – combining Italian and French wines in the same glass has yet to be recommended to me. (Especially, if you’ve just had three cups of coffee at $8 a piece.)

The art of harpsichord voicing is one of those fantastic and frustrating activities where any physical exactness you see with your eyes must be totally subject to the sonic result when put to the test. As harpsichord strings are plucked (rather than hammered, as on a piano), it’s necessary to make sure that the little pieces of quill or Delrin are the right shape and density. In a way, you really want a plectrum to function like a finger: strong enough to make an impact, yet supple enough to give the illusion of dynamic subtlety. If they’re too square, they pound. If they’re too narrow, they won’t properly move the string. If they’re too thin on the top, they won’t pluck properly. If they’re too hard on the bottom, they’ll slam back into the strings every time you release a note. Combined with the fact that a plectrum is maybe 1/8 of an inch wide and ¼ centimeter thick… and that the pieces of wood they’re wedged in expand and contract with humidity… and temperature… you get the idea. It’s an exercise in patience.

Between 8 and 9, as I’d be voicing and tuning the harpsichord, the other members of the Shanghai Camerata would make errands to pick up steamed buns and wonton soup and coffee to fortify the troops. If Richard wasn’t out the door to a museum already, he’d be researching where to go. Throughout the morning, a steady stream of delivery boys would come bearing fruit, vegetables and green juices for those who wished to be homebodies for the morning, avoiding the cold smog which hovers over the city like a cloud.

By about 9:30 I’d be scratching my head still trying to work out a tuning temperament that would allow for easy transitions from Italian 17th century music to more chromatic music from France of a later period. While Italian music basks in the purity of just intervals, sitting most comfortably in D minor or close by, music from France requires a more “equal-opportunities” approach with regards to key centers. Some keys can be colorful or spunky, but none need be a total red zone. Just as with voicing the instrument, coming up with a mediating zone for the music to work on the instrument takes a bit of cultivation.


Fast-forward: tonight was our final concert of the week. Though coinciding with festivities for the Chinese New Year, the hall at the Shanghai Conservatory was packed. The concert began with the Prologue from Orfeo, Western Music’s first “opera” by many definitions. First performed in 1607 during the Carnival season in Mantua, Orfeo speaks of the power of music to charm the senses and soothe the soul. In the end, it is music that is more powerful than Orpheus himself. In his voyage to save Eurydice from Hades, the one condition of her safe passage is that Orpheus does not look to see if she is following him. But not even music can defeat human folly: Orpheus hears a noise and turns around, breaking the deal. He loses Euryidice forever.

I remember visiting the French Concession in Shanghai in 2011, and still there are few places as inspiring as this other worldly miniature cosmopolis. Indeed, events in the French Concession seemingly attract a wide array of local cultural figures from around the city. Among the audience was a documentarian by the name of Shuibo Wang. Our concert was just on the heels of the release of his new feature Who is David Bloch?, an account of the survival of a Jewish artist survival in a Nazi concentration camp and his subsequent emigration to Shanghai.

With the opening of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum in 2008, there has been increasing awareness of the place of émigrés in Shanghai. A synagogue has been restored, documents have been collected, and accounts of life in Shanghai have been drawn from former residents now planted in Israel and the United States. And yet the old world flavor of the French Concession carries the same uneasy feeling that one gets in Europe: that something has been erased. Following the visit of Nazi officers to Shanghai in 1942 (most notably Josef Meisinger, the “Butcher of Warsaw”), the Japanese established a ghetto in Hongkew, away from the French Concession, though admittedly not far by Shanghai’s current geographic standards. Though it applied to “stateless persons” having arrived after 1937, the implications of the new urban planning scheme were clear. Hongkew was emancipated, but the subsequent rise of Communism and expulsion of foreigners have left only traces of what’s left.

While Monteverdi’s life in Mantua is marked for its variety and creativity, the city in which Monteverdi arrived in 1591 was much changed by the time he departed in 1613. Once known as an isolated and wealthy cosmopolitan center for culture, the Gonzaga Duchy increasingly succumbed to the pressures associated with the counter-Reformation. By 1611, the Duchy was virtually bankrupt, necessitating both Claudio and his brother’s dismissal from court in 1613. Despite Mantua’s reputation as a hub for musicians, various restrictions necessitated the importation of musicians from Florence and Venice for the first performance of Orfeo in 1607. In 1600, some 70 years behind the rest of Italy, Mantua constructed a wall to form a ghetto.

Like Chinese New Year in Shanghai, Carnival was one of the main events in the calendar in Mantua. But in sixteenth century Mantua, carnival was not merely a Christian celebration of the passage from the season of Epiphany into Lent, but also often coincided with the Jewish festival of Purim, one of the most licentious celebrations in the Jewish calendar. Lavish plays for Purim were composed in Mantua and often performed before the court alongside sacred allegorical and secular humanist dramas during for the Carnival. Prominent in these productions were Jewish musicians in the court. Harpists and choreographers especially were prominent in these productions, as the genre of the pastoral drama grew throughout the sixteenth century.

Perhaps the most “Orphic” representation within Montevderdi’s Orfeo, is the appearance of a harp solo in Act III, the first harp solo of its kind to appear in a large scale vocal work. It’s a complex solo, filled with florid scales and overlapping harmonies, appearing at the crux of the work when Orpheus floats down the Styx to fetch Euridyce from Hades. No less striking was the performance in 1607 by a famous Neapolitan harpist, Lucrezia Urbana, who had served in the court regularly since 1606 at a salary of 20 ducats per annum (though other records report regular performances in Mantua as early as 1603-5). So pleased was the Duke of Mantua with her performance, that he made special mention of her skills in a letter of recommendation for Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Based on reports of her Neapolitan training by Asciano Mayone and contemporary documents describing her instrument, it is apparent that Lucrezia Urbana performed on the relatively new Neapolitan arpa doppia, a peculiar instrument with two rows of diatonically tuned strings (hence the term “doppia”) and a middle row of chromatic strings.


In this light, much scholarship has traced the placement of the harp in Orfeo through Neapolitan sources, marking the ritornello in Act III as a point of maturation of the harp in Italy. This is perhaps not very surprising, as musicologists Cheryl Ann Fulton and Dinko Fabris point out that the advent of the arpa doppia also marked the advent of specific compositions for the harp outside of the Iberian Peninsula, where the Spanish arpa de dos ordenes had been composed for and discussed pedagogically in treatises since the mid-sixteenth century. Similarly, contemporary figures described the new arpadoppia in great detail, while literary sources on other forms of the harp in Italy are practically non-existent. Vincenzo Galilei informs us that a new model of harp ”represented a natural progression from the former and had three rows of strings thus offering harpists more freedom of technique than the earlier version.” Agostino Agazzari echoed Galilei’s observations, noting that “the arpa doppia is an instrument of broad texture which works well both on the high notes.” Bernardo Giobarnardi described its expressive effects as “marvelous” and Marin Mersenne declared the harp to have reached its “epitome” in the form of the arpa doppia. Highest praise came from Giovanni Battista Doni, who declared the qualities of the arpa doppia “best suited to represent Antiquity.”

While literary sources describing other harps in Italy are limited and there is no extant repertoire, the harp was not an unvalued or invisible instrument in Italy prior to the advent of the arpa doppia. Throughout the sixteenth century, the harp in fact held a special place at the court in Mantua. Though the court kept a rather small number of continuously salaried musicians, a line of harpists from the Jewish community was continuously employed. In 1522, a Jewish harpist named (curiously) Giovani Maria was employed in the service of the court to perform and to tutor the children of MarcheseFrancesco. Most famously, Abramo dell’Arpa was employed in the service of Duke Gugliemo Gonzaga in 1542, famously performing the part of Pan in a pastoral spectacle before the court in the same year. Soon after accepting an invitation to serve in the court of Ferdinand I in Vienna, Abramo was replaced by his nephew Abramino, who comforted Duke Gugliemo upon his deathbed in 1584. From the 1580s into the 1590s, one Isacchino Massarano served in the court and played a key role in the production of Guarini’s Il Pastor Fido in 1591. It was only with the passing of Isacchino Massarano in 1599, coupled with the decline of the Mantuan Jewish community under pressure from the Holy See, that harpists from outside Mantua performed regularly in the court. From 1600 onwards, female harpists and singers were imported from Naples to perform in the Mantuan court, including Lucrezia Urbana in 1603. Though these women undoubtedly influenced the forms of music heard in the court, their presence in Mantua did not represent a departure, but rather a continuation of the special place of the harp in the court of Mantua.

Woodcut, Seder Haggadah shel Pesah, Mantua, 1609.

Other sources reveal the esteem with which Jewish court musicians were held, both within the Jewish community in Mantua and in the court. Giovanni Maria was raised to the level of royalty by Pope Leo X for his performances on the flute and harp. Abramino dell’Arpa also appears to have been a particularly prominent musician, and an important figure in the political relations between the court and the Jewish community. Multiple accounts of a case of forced conversion in 1587 (a very rare occurrence in Mantua) detail the attempts to coerce three prominent members of the Jewish community: Abramino dell’Arpa, his uncle Sansone dell’Arpa, and renowned Talmudist Rabbi Judah ben Moscato. While official court records and Jewish sources diverge as to whether or not Abramino in fact converted, his place as a symbolic figure for both the court and the Jewish community perhaps bear witness to the standing of such musicians in Mantua. Employment records in 1580 also reveal that Abramino’s salary appears to have been competitive with non-Jewish musicians (Jewish musicians were generally paid less), receiving a salary of 36 scudi per annum, nearly two-thirds of the salary of maestro di capella, Giaches de Wert. Outside of Mantua, Abramino’s skills as a harpist were compared to those of Giovanni Leonardo dell’Arpa, a prominent harpist in Naples and one of the earliest performers on the newly invented arpa doppia. In 1585, poet and painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo spoke of the skills of Giovanni Leonardo as “excelling in comparison with the Jew [Abramo] of Mantua and his grandson [Abramino].”

But apart from the figure of Abramino, the harp held a special place in the theology of Rabbi Judah ben Moscato, one of the most important figures of the Italian Renaissance. Like many of his Jewish contemporaries, Moscato believed that all the languages of culture were derived from Judaism and that it was the duty of Jews to acquire these branches of knowledge, of which they had once been masters. This was particularly true of music and the mastery of ancient instruments. The first two of his 52 sermons published under the title Nefuẓot Yehudah (Venice 1588) are entitled “Sounds for Contemplation on a Lyre” and “Song of the Ascents of David.” The first sermon, written for the first day of Simchat Torah, opens with a proclamation of God’s ordering of creation in accordance with “the ratios of music,” just as “he himself… is the master of perfect music.” The initial midrash in the sermon is a consideration of David’s kinnor, an open instrument of multiple strings which was commonly translated as the “lira” or “Cithara” by Christian hebraists, but explicitly translated as the “arpa” by Jewish philosophers and linguists in Italy. For Moscato the harp was not simply a musical instrument of praise; it was the instrument designated for the house and lineage of Levi, as a manner of fulfilling Mosaic law. In his sermon on the kinnor, Moscato explicitly praises Abramino dell’Arpa, equating his skills as a harpist with those of King David. For Moscato, the combination of study of the Torah with music of the harp represented the perfection of the manifestation of law into praise, quoting to Psalm 119: “Your [God’s] Laws became songs to me.”

With these considerations in mind, historian Don Harrán astutely remarked that “questions still surround the popularity of the harp and its practitioners in the late sixteenth century. The questions are not just of relevance to Moscato’s sermons and Jewish musicians in the Renaissance but, clearly, to the history of music at large.” But what bearing do such considerations have upon Orfeo? Though the harp may have been prominent in Mantua throughout the sixteenth century, drawing an explicit link with with the Jewish community in Mantua is still contentious. That being said, some have drawn links between the involvement of Mantua’s Jewish community and theatrical productions: In 1489, a production of the biblical story of Judith in Hebrew was presented before the Duke; Leone de’ Sommi’s prominence as a stage producer from the 1550s into well into the 1590s, including performances of Gaurini’s Il Pastor Fido in Mantua and Ferrara in 1592; the appearance of Purim plays Mantuan Carnival celebrations, such as one performed at Vincenzo Gonzaga’s second wedding in 1584. However, the construction of the ghetto in Mantua in 1601 saw a severe decline in the involvement of the Jewish artists and musicians in the theatrical life of Mantua. Indeed, the records of performers in the 1607 performance of Orfeo reveal no presence of Jewish performers at all.

However, other evidence reveals that Monteverdi had explicit ties with Jewish Italian cultural life. Records of correspondence exist between Monteverdi and Salamone Rossi, who also served as a notable composer in the ducal court. The two composers even worked together in a collaborative composition, La Maddalena in 1604. It is known also that Rossi’s sister, Europa Rossi, sang the role of Dorilla in several performances of Montverdi’s Arianna. Some scholars have even speculated that the role of La Musica in Orfeo may have even been composed with Europa in mind. Further scholarly speculation has been offered in relation to Monteverdi’s clerical training in Cremona, a notable center of Hebraic studies.

But far more interesting may be consideration of the influences of Jewish liturgical music upon portions of Orfeo. Musicologist Jonathan Angress has addressed issues of modality in the ritornello for solo harp in Act III. Unusually chromatic in comparison with other portions of the opera, Angress argues that the harp evokes Jewish prayer modes, namely the Ahava Rabba, a mode named after a portion of the Jewish morning liturgy. The unorthodox rhetorical grouping of sixteenth notes highlights the dissonance between the E-flat and the F-sharp, an intervalic conflict not seen in the rest of the opera. Monteverdi was known for being unorthodox at times with his use of dissonance, as a letter between Salamone Rossi and Guilio Cesare Monteverdi (Claudio’s brother reveals). Specifically, the letter criticizes the use of “foreign” intervals, such as the incorporation of augmented seconds and tri-tones.

What’s most interesting to me though, is that while this solo has often been known as a work for a Neapolitan harp, it’s completely possible to play it – and the whole opera, in fact – on a harp with a single row of strings, a type known to Mantua throughout the 16th Century. The harp solo bears a small, but recognizable imprint of the context in which Orfeo was wrought, not just in the creation of an opera, but in the expansion of the Pastoral tradition of Purim. Even in the shadow of erasure, one can get a glimpse of something that once was.


In walking the harpsichord from the gate through the Shanghai Conservatory campus after unloading it from the van, I could sense that I would have another hour or so of work ahead of to get the instrument in shape. Harpsichords, though large, are fragile, sensitive to the minutest changes in temperature and humidity. But I didn’t mind a great deal. The Conservatory campus alone is worth seeing, even if just for a quiet stroll. A relatively new concert hall is attached to a fantastic 1910s clubhouse, formerly the home to Jewish Club of Shanghai. Complete with palm trees and a lawn perfect for a round of croquet, there’s an incredible sense of preservation in the midst of a city and culture known for rapid and unstoppable change – an appropriate setting perhaps, for a performance of some Monteverdi by China’s first early music ensemble.

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