At Grandfather's Knee
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Although Simon Sargon’s father was a Sephardi Jew, descended directly from Jews who had lived on the Iberian Peninsula prior to the late-15th-century expulsions, his family had resettled in India in the 18th century and lost its contact with Ladino language and culture. Thus, although Sargon had become acquainted in America with a few of the best-known folksongs in Judéo-Espagnol, he was unaware until his personal discovery in 1992 of the vastness and diversity of the composite Ladino musical tradition. That year—the five-hundredth anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain—while preparing a series of lectures on Sephardi music and researching its vocal literature, he was astonished to learn of the sheer volume of extant Ladino poems, songs, and ballads. “I was bowled over when I discovered the great number of them,” he later wrote,
“their range of mood and subject, and their beauty . . . . As I uncovered one gem of a song after another, I felt that this repertoire deserved to be more widely known. I decided to make settings of some of the melodies that most appealed to me, so as to allow them to be experienced by a wide concert-going public.”
Having titled his earlier cycle of Yiddish folksong arrangements At Grandmother’s Knee, in reference to his mother’s eastern European Ashkenazi heritage, he titled the present Ladino cycle At Grandfather’s Knee. Of the five songs he selected from Alberto Hemsi’s anthology, Cancionero sefardi, four are dancelike in spirit. But the centerpiece is a beautiful lament, to which Sargon has added piano arpeggios that represent the tears of the trees. Throughout the cycle his aim was to exploit some of the prosperities he views as common to the Ladino folk repertoire and Spanish music: free and expressive melismatic lines and often elaborate melodic ornamentation. At Grandfather’s Knee was completed in 1995 and premiered that same month in Houston.