Canto de los Marranos
Song of the Crypto Jews
Choose a track to play
00:00 / 00:00
No Work Selected
The so-called golden age of Spanish—or Iberian—Jewry, which flourished for significant periods since the 8th century in Moslem-controlled areas of the Iberian Peninsula, had come to a gradual end by the 14th century, with the ultimate establishment of Christian hegemony in what is Spain today. Although the expansion of Christian rule was punctuated by periods of tolerance and even Jewish prosperity, the overall position of the Jews in Christian Spain deteriorated throughout the era, during which Moslem rule simultaneously shrank. By the 14th century, Jewry was subjected to fierce persecution from which it never recovered. The culminating massacres in 1391, in which an estimated 70,000 Jews were murdered and entire communities extinguished (except in Moslem-ruled Granada and in Portugal, owing to royal protection), resulted in significant numbers of Jews surrendering to baptism and conversion. Continued persecution led to a second wave of conversions in the early 15th century. Some, though not all, of these “new Christians,” or conversos, continued to practice Jewish customs and ceremonies in secret—as “crypto-Jews,” or marranos (“swine,” the derogatory epithet originally attached to them). But as nominal Christians now subject to the authority of the Inquisition—the Congregation of the Holy Office—their recidivism, covert or otherwise, would constitute heresy that could be punished legally (or “purified”) by death. Over the course of the 15th century, the road led rapidly to the outright expulsion from Spain in 1492 of all who had declined conversion.
Reflecting on the work, Levy articulated his evocative programmatic and extramusical purpose:
Canto de los Marranos seeks to evoke the tragic memory of the hunted conversos, their initially nominal Christianity together with their stubborn devotion to their ancient faith—increasingly forgotton with succeeding generations, but to which some managed to cling as long as even the faintest remembrance lingered. The work makes reference to mixtures of Roman Catholic and Hebrew liturgies—the latter in the original Hebrew at some moments, and at others in Ladino.
The work opens with a quotation from the actual 1492 expulsion decree, in English translation. The succeeding juxtapositions of Roman Catholic liturgy in Latin and original Hebrew liturgical quotations—or Ladino or Spanish translations of them—create the impression of the singer seeking to remind herself of her Jewish identity, professing outwardly what is required for public perception, as well as survival, but almost as if nullifying it with the Judaic interpolations. At the same time, those Judaic quotations might be understood as representing the inner thoughts of the conversos while they reluctantly uttered the liturgy of the official faith to which they had been forced to convert.
Ladino is a mixture of 15th-century Castilian Spanish and Hebrew, which developed as a mostly secular vernacular language of those Jews who left the Iberian Peninsula and resettled in eastern Mediterranean lands. The actual song, Benedicho su nombre, also almost certainly postdates the Spanish expulsion as a Ladino song. Levy draws upon these elements liberally here, with a degree of artistic license for powerful dramatic and poetic effect rather than for historical accuracy.
In its original version, Canto de los Marranos was a commission from the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the lay arm of the American Reform movement, and it received its premiere in 1977 by soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson and the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Phillipe Entremont. Despite glowing reviews and much critical acclaim, Levy subsequently withdrew it. This new version, created for the Milken Archive recording, is essentially a complete rewriting based on the original one.