Sephardi and Near Eastern Inspiration

From the curator

As its title suggests, this volume explores how the legacy of Sephardi Jewish culture has influenced American composers, particularly since the 1950s and 60s. But it also covers Sephardi musical traditions, such as those included in Volume 1, as they have developed in America.

As that volume demonstrated, America’s first Jewish immigrants were observant Sephardi Jews who made great efforts to import and preserve their distinctive traditional liturgical music. Over time, subsequent waves of immigration brought Jews primarily from Central and Eastern Europe, and with them, many cultural traditions that thrived in a primarily secular environment. These circumstances conspired to change the character of American Jewish life to a predominantly Ashkenazi one.

As A Garden Eastward shows, however, Sephardi culture has been an important part of the American Jewish musical landscape, even for those with no Sephardi background. That this is the case is not too surprising, given the rich corpus of poetry, art, literature, and song that developed on the Iberian Peninsula in the centuries prior to the expulsion decree of 1492. Between the 8th and 11th centuries, Jews on the Iberian Peninsula for the most part thrived, so much so that the period is often referred to as the “golden age” of Spanish Jewry. As Neil W. Levin observes in his introduction to this volume:

Despite periodic strife and incidences of restrictions and suppression, the long-running Moslem era on the Iberian Peninsula proved to be a generally hospitable and fertile environment for religious autonomy and for the cultural as well as economic flourishing of the Jewish community as a whole.

As represented in this volume, the culture and history of the Sephardim has manifested itself in many forms.

Compositions and settings by Cantor Aaron Bensoussan bookend this collection, beginning with his trance-like setting of L’kha dodi and concluding with concert adaptations of three liturgical pieces that draw on popular dance musics of the Near East. Second in this volume is Bensoussan’s rendering of a weekday afternoon sacred service according to the musical styles and traditions of his native Morocco. It is followed by several selections from the repertoire of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, North America’s oldest continuously functioning congregation.

This volume takes its name from an orchestral song cycle by Hugo Weisgall, whose Love’s Wounded and Psalm of the Distant Dove also appear here. Other major orchestral works included here are a concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco featuring Jascha Heifetz, and Marvin David Levy’s cantata, Canto de los Marranos, a dramatic retelling of the expulsions, exterminations, and forced conversions that Jews endured during the Spanish Inquisition.

Works based on the poetry and song of the “golden age” constitute a significant portion of this volume. Those include Bruce Adolphe’s Songs of Love and Suffering, Leo Kraft’s choral suite on poems by Moses ibn Ezra, and song cycles by Bruce Roter, Simon Sargon, and Ofer Ben-Amots, as well as the aforementioned Weisgall compositions. Ben-Amots’s Kantigas Ulvidadas, one of the most recent additions to the Milken Archive, is an original work of striking beauty that was awarded Italy’s Smareglia Prize in 2015. (A special podcast that combines excerpts from the work with an interview with the composer is available on this website.)

The music herein is too vast and varied to interpret according to a single rubric, but it is possible to glean an interesting pattern of paradoxical juxtapositions, where old is made new and new is imbued with an aura of the past. Perhaps this is one way that music “works” to help connect distant times and faraway places to our experience of the present.

—Jeff Janeczko


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