What Was Life Like for Sephardic Jews in the 15th Century?

Sep 13, 2017 | blog | 1 comment

Sephardic JewsIn the early 15th century, Spain was a melting pot where Christians, Jews and Muslims all lived together in relative harmony. Muslims first came to the Spain in 700 AD, taking over much of the peninsula. By the time Jews began to arrive in about 1000 AD, Christians controlled the northern half of the peninsula and Muslims controlled the south, with Jews living alongside both cultures in various cities throughout the region.

For our first concert of the season, we are going back to this time just before the Spanish Inquisition. As we researched music for this program, we asked ourselves, what was life like for the Sephardic Jews who lived in Spain in the 1400s?

We are thrilled to welcome Nell Snaidas, an expert on Iberian and Latin American early music as guest curator for this program, which highlights the rich musical culture of Renaissance-era Sephardic Jewish communities. Sephardic Jews spoke and sang in Ladino, a Romance language with close ties to Old Spanish. The song texts also often include Hebrew.

For Snaidas, one of the most fascinating aspects of this music is that unlike the Renaissance music we know from manuscripts, Sephardic song is a truly oral tradition that was passed down and “primarily kept alive through the women sharing stories, cautionary tales and even recipes from mother to daughter, friend to friend,” Snaidas says.

During the delicate peace of the pre-Expulsion period, Sephardic Jews lived alongside the Muslims and Christians who held political control of Spain. This time of convivencia, Snaidas explains, created a kind of multiculturalism.

“Naturally, they began to share some sensibilities. They began to imitate each other, try each other’s foods, write poems in each other’s style, and of course, play each other’s instruments, while maintaining their different customs,” Snaidas says. “In other words, not unlike our own society, they began to selectively appropriate elements from each other’s cultures.”

During this period before the Inquisition, there was an exchange of poetry and music among the three different cultures, and the music chosen for this program places songs from the three faith traditions side by side, to show how people were influenced by and learned from each other.

The Consort will play several types of secular Spanish songs, including romances (ballads of love, loss and adventure), endechas (laments), and koplas (strophic festival songs), some of which even feature recipes within their texts.

Snaidas has also incorporated at least one religious song: the Jewish piyyut, a lyrical embellishment of a Hebrew prayer that praises Yahweh.

“The content of the text will feel familiar to anyone who is a regular synagogue attender, but the sound of the music won’t be what one might normally encounter on a Friday night,” Snaidas says. “The music will seem modal in a way that will feel more North African.”

The instruments played in the concert will also reflect the melding of cultures that happened in Renaissance Spain. We’ll be featuring typical European Renaissance instruments such as guitars, harps, shawms, recorders, bowed strings, percussion and vocals as well as the oud, a popular instrument in the Arab world that eventually made its way over to Europe in the form of the lute.

Snaidas hopes this program of Sephardic music resonates with audience members of all backgrounds and faiths.

“There can be a magic in reinvention, in being able to see yourself and your culture in the culture of another,” she says. “Someone from a Polish Ashkenazic background can look into the soul of the music of the Spanish Jews and recognize a cousin. This would be a wonderful mental and emotional muscle to strengthen for all people, since at the root of it all, we are a bunch of atoms and tissues, one and all.”

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