Sephardic Songs

You start playing Sarband’s 1994 Sephardic Songs. A woman’s voice, unaccompanied, strikes up a lament. But then, the kettle drums come in, and you enter a different world. A wonderful call-and-response begins, and you get four straight minutes of sheer exuberance. But they suddenly cut out and conclude with a melancholy choral work, as if awakening from a wondrous dream into cold hard reality. And all three are part the first track!

The story of Sephardi Jewry, also known as the Jewish community of Spanish and Portuguese heritage, is full of such contrasts. From the great expulsion of 1492 of which the opening Ea Judios cries, to the startling modernity and openness shown by the central depiction of of a woman having an affair, concluding with the church-influenced yet pastoral melancholy of Juan del Encina the “New Christian” priest. The Jews of Spain experienced both the highest of privileges and the lowest of persecutions during their thousand-year history, and their art shows this.

Yet there’s another side to Sephardi tradition. Unlike the enforced separations of the ghettoes of Italy or the Russian Pale of Settlement, the Jews of Spain were part of a great multiethnic culture of Christians, Jews and Muslims living together and (more or less) harmoniously. And no band is better suited to show this than Sarband, a medieval music ensemble featuring Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike performing music together.

We can see an example of this side of Sephardi culture on this album as well. A simple tune, less than a dozen notes long and a fourth in range, was adopted by Muslims, Christians, and Jews to their own words. From an Arabic folksong Qalbi bi-qalbi qalbi Arabi (Arabic for “my heart, oh my heart is the heart of an Arab”) the Jews of Spain wrote a Ladino song Rey don Alonso (honoring King Alfonso VI of León, who conquered Toledo and gave the Jews new privileges), as well as a Hebrew homophonic translation as Kol libi, kol libi, kol libi l’Avi (Hebrew for “All my heart, all my heart, all my heart is for my Father”) for secret “conversos” to hold on to their heritage under cover.

This fusion of cultures continues throughout this album, including classical Arabic poetry set to Spanish folk music, strange and possibly satirical fusions of Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew words set in a classic motet form, solo lute music from little-known Italian composers, and an extended (over eleven minutes!) folk ballad called “Porke yorash” that seems to be impossible to find in recording online.

In the US, we often think of Judaism as an Eastern European thing, associated with Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews of the Woody Allen type. Ashkenormativity is so accepted it has its own TVTropes page. It’s so standard Mel Brooks’ “Spanish Inquisition” song from History of the World, part I has Jewish characters IN SPAIN talking like stereotypical alter kockers. We need to face that. And an album like this, with is mishmash of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions in a classically Spanish way, achieves this goal. Sephardic Songs is altogether a great album for expanding your perspective on what is Jewish and what is global, and I recommend it.

Piccolos on the Shoulders of Contrabasses

One of my favorite stories about any composer goes like this. According to Carl Czerny, the pupil of the great Ludwig van Beethoven, a young composer named Anton Halm once brought a sonata he had written to Beethoven. Beethoven pointed out Halm’s sonata had a few violations of standard music theory rules in the Classical era. Halm retorted that Beethoven had violated those rules himself. To which Beethoven answered, “I may do it, but not you.”

Why do I love this story so much? I once had the same argument with my own father. While working on a chorale harmonization (as so many music students are forced to do over and over again), my father spotted some parallel fifths. I pointed out that composers from Handel to Tchaikovsky used parallel fifths for effect. He responded that “you have to know the rules before you can break them.”

Throughout the history of music, it seems the greatest groundbreakers in every case familiarized themselves with earlier work before creating something new. One of the founders of the Classical era, with its emphasis on simplicity and elegance, was Johann Christian Bach, the son of the greatest and most complex composer of the Baroque period. He studied with his father, mastering the Baroque form before solidifying the style galant that would lead to the Classical era. His sonatas were elegant and approachable enough that it is no wonder he was a great influence on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Ludwig van Beethoven studied under the Classical master Joseph Haydn, and the music of his early period is still in a very symmetrical Classical styleIt wasn’t until people already considered him the undisputed heir to Haydn and Mozart that he began experimenting. His Symphony no. 3 “Eroica” vastly increased the size of the development and coda for the first movement and using a mournful funeral march form for the second. Upon beginning its composition, Beethoven said to a friend, “From this day on I shall forge a new path.” After mastering the old classical form, his new path led to such groundbreaking late-period works as his Piano Sonata no. 32, abandoning sonata form altogether, and the almost post-tonal Große Fuge.

Arnold Schoenberg began as a late Romantic composer, studying under the famed Gustav Mahler, said to be the heir of Brahms’ legacy. But Schoenberg wasn’t satisfied with the Romantic era tonality, and began expanding his tonal system into what he called “pantonality” – ignoring the old restrictions of seven-tone keys and extending his music into dodecaphonic, or “twelve-tone,” territory. But for all the rules he broke, Schoenberg insisted that his music was not abandoning, but merely expanding the realm of tonality, describing himself as “a natural continuer of properly-understood good old tradition!”

Although the previous examples were from the “Western art music” tradition, we can find similarities in all genres. Today we think of the Beatles as technically and musically groundbreaking, and laugh at quotes like “Groups of guitars are on the way out” from Decca Records executives in 1962. But in the early 1960s, many critics saw them as another bland example of rock and roll, music they considered to be “a bottomless chasm of vacuity” and “nothing more than noise.” And for the first few Beatles albums, many of their songs were covers, from successful (like “Twist and Shout“) to not so much (like “Mr. Moonlight”). They didn’t start stretching the bounds of popular music until 1965, around when they began recording Revolver. They had to master the popular music of the late 50s and early 60s before they broke new ground and created the psychedelic sound of Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road.

The physicist Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is just as applicable in music as it is in physics. Without Bach to stand on the Classical era wouldn’t have formed, upon which Beethoven stood. Schoenberg stood on Mahler, who himself stood on the shoulders of the entire Late Romantic era. The Beatles stood on the shoulders of 50s pop. Piccolos on the shoulders of contrabasses may look small, but their sound goes far.