05 March 2008

Seattle: Jewish medieval music, March 8-9

Medieval Jewish music is the focus of Seattle concerts this weekend. A relatively unknown repertoire offers a glimpse into the past with Sephardic romances, 14th-century composers, Hebrew psalms and more.

Seattle's large Sephardic community and others are in for a treat as the Seattle Medieval Women's Choir presents concerts on Saturday and Sunday, March 8 and 9, at Seattle's Temple Beth Am.

Although the 8pm Saturday concert is sold out, the 3pm Sunday concert had available tickets at this writing.

The program notes provide extensive information on this rare program.

Read about two manuscripts prepared by 12th-century cantor Obadiah, am Italian Christian convert to Judaism who moved to Egypt to live and work. Unfortunately, his works are too fragmented to perform.

Music of the time was transmitted orally, rarely written down. Some philosophers, including Maimonides, considered music sinful. In other communities, the cantor (hazzan, in the Sephardic terminology) was praised for his artistry, his own melodies.

According to the website, the Jewish and Islamic cultures in the Middle Ages chose not to write down their music, for a variety of reasons:

-Music was transmitted orally, from person to person, from teacher to student.

-There were moral and ethical questions about the role music should play in worship. Music was considered sinful by some famous medieval philosophers (such as Maimonides) and their followers, and therefore most certainly not deemed worthy to be recorded.

-In the communities that did not follow the banning of music from temple and home, the cantor's (hazzan) inventiveness was valued. It was a matter of artistry for each to compose his own melodies, or make his own arrangements of pre-existing ones, so that each community took pride in its unique song collections.

-There was the practical problem regarding the notation of Jewish medieval music: while Hebrew language reads right to left, musical notation reads left to right.

In Alfonso X's court members of all three religions worked together. Languages were Hebrew, Greek and Arabic, as Jewish philosophers and writers knew several tongues. The Jews were also poets and musicians, and there are records of Jewish musicians known for singing and playing of stringed instruments, hired for all sorts of events, and even for Christian religious services. Rare ancient music writings are preserved only in Arabic and Hebrew translations.

The program includes

-Cantillations of biblical texts, such as the Song of Songs.

-Piyyutim (liturgical poems, popular in the 11th-12th centuries).

-Nigunim (dance songs, instrumental and vocal, primarily Ashkenazi).

-Romanzas and Coplas in Judeo-Spanish or Ladino (Sephardic secular songs in the Iberian peninsula until the 1492 expulsion).

-Additionally, works by 17th century Italian Salamone (Shlomo) Rossi (1570-1630), who wrote music for 33 Hebrew psalms, hymns and temple songs while at the court in Mantua, where he was connected with that city's Jewish Theatre.

Performers include the choir's artistic director Margriet Tindemans, with singer/instrumentalist Shira Kammen and soloist Linda Strandberg.

This tip comes from Lyn Blyden, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State. Thanks, Lyn!

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