Concert Sheds Light on Obscure Sisters

Tempesta di Mare Chamber Players. Becky Oehlers
Tempesta di Mare Chamber Players. Becky Oehlers

When thinking about composers, some classic names that come to mind are perhaps Bach and Beethoven.

But we might not think about Bach in the revered way we do without the help of Sara Itzig Levy and two of her sisters, Bella and Fanny.

The problem is you’ve probably never heard of them.

When Gwyn Roberts first learned about these three 18th-century Jewish women, she thought, “Why the heck didn’t I know about this before?”

Roberts is the co-director, with husband Richard Stone, of Tempesta di Mare Philadelphia Baroque Orchestra, whose chamber musicians will perform “Sara and Her Sisters” this weekend, featuring music from the sisters’ collections (including sonatas and quartets by Bach and his sons as well as other composers). The concerts will take place at 8 p.m. at the National Museum of American Jewish History on Jan. 21 and at 4 p.m. at Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill on Jan. 22.

Each performance will be preceded by a talk with writer and art historian Anne Schuster Hunter an hour before and will give the audience a chance to get to know the women whose influence has lasted well beyond their lives in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In 1999, a collection of music was discovered including original Beethoven manuscripts and the Bach family archives that belonged to the Berlin Singakademie that had been missing for decades. After a long search, it was found in the archives of Kiev, where it ended up after being captured and dispersed with no records by the Red Army after World War II. It later was housed in the Kiev Conservatory and then the archives.

Once the music was found in Kiev, it was repatriated back to Berlin. There it was discovered that a large portion had been the property of Sara Itzig Levy. The Bach family archive had been the property of her niece.

“So I was reading about this, and I was like, ‘Wow, who are these women who had all of this amazing music?’” said Roberts, who plays the recorder and baroque flute.

Sara, Bella and Fanny were three of 15 children of Daniel Itzig, who was Frederick the Great’s finance minister.

“He was what they called the Court Jew,” Roberts said. “He was the highest-ranking Jewish person in Berlin at the time, and he had access to not just the court but to society in general.”

He was also a “Bach nut,” she added with a laugh. Sara and her siblings took music lessons in their home and her keyboard teacher was Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons.

Portrait of Sara Levy, daughter of Daniel Itzig, 1903. Wikicommons
Portrait of Sara Levy, daughter of Daniel Itzig, 1903. Wikicommons

She and her sisters became salonnières, as many young Jewish women in Berlin began to hold salons. Sara’s were particularly focused on music — specifically the music she grew up with.

“The music of her childhood, the music her father was attached to, the music of the Bach generation and of the middle 18th century, was the music she stays attached to and continues to promote and listen to and perform all the way through her life,” Roberts said. “She lives well into the 19th century, so there’s a continuous thread of activity around this mid-century baroque music that is kept going by Sara Itzig, who married Samuel Salomon Levy.”

While Sara was more active in music, her sisters had their fair share of influence as well.

In 1829, Felix Mendelssohn did a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and was credited with the revival of Bach music in Berlin. However, he was only able to do this as he was given the manuscript for the piece by his grandmother: Bella Itzig Salomon.

Fanny Itzig von Arnstein moved to Vienna where she took in lodgers and held salons focusing on the music of Bach and Handel. In the early 1780s, one lodger was none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who fell in love with the music of Bach and Handel as he heard it played downstairs.

“This is the influence of and the power of these Itzig sisters and their continued interest in this older music,” Roberts said. “The last thing we’re playing in this concert is actually music by Mozart that he wrote while living in Fanny’s house.”

For Roberts, discovering the Itzig sisters’ story allowed her to learn about women whose influence transcended the traditional gender roles in this time period.

“These women were not composers, but in a very real way, without them, we would not be playing the music of Bach now,” Roberts said. “They have three things against them in terms of being well known as important figures: They are women, they are Jewish and they are musicians but not composers. Those three things tend to keep you a little bit out of the general narrative.”

She hopes the audience enjoys the concert — part of Tempesta di Mare’s 15th concert series — and also understands the importance of the Itzig sisters’ legacy.

“It’s because of the Itzig sisters that we think about Bach the way we do, it’s because they kept this alive for us and packed it along. They made the subsequent Bach revival in the 19th century happen, even if we don’t credit them for it,” she said.

“It’s an interesting moment in time when you have young women making a significant impact on culture and taste.”

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