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"Inexpressible riches...a marvelous recording" - Répertoire


The Sacred Bridge

Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe
La passerelle sacrée : Juifs et Chretiens dans l'Europe médiévale

(recorded as Erato CD 2292-45513-2)

program notes by Joel Cohen

Much of the music you are about to hear was produced in the saddest and most shamefully cruel corners of old Europe - its ghettos. Yet the Jews and Christians, though forced to live apart, were in many ways, both large and small, dependent on each other. Our program will attempt to trace some of those ways through the music and poetry of pre-Enlightenment times.

In spite of the enforced segregation of the Jews, exchanges with the Gentile world were frequent, continuous, and bilateral. The synagogue gave to the Early Christian church some of its ancient melodies; the recitation formula of the psalm B'tset Yisrael ("When Israel went forth out of Egypt"), for example, survives in the Gregorian chant repertoire as the tonus peregrinus. It is thanks to a Christian that we have the oldest surviving example of written-down Jewish music, the beautiful Eulogy of Moses. It was composed by Giovanni, a monk, who, converting to Judaism, took the name Obadiah. Since he was a child of the Mediterranean world -- Sicily, then Egypt -- we have imagined accompaniments of near-Eastern kind to this sketchily notated melody.

Jewish minstrels were apparently not uncommon during the Middle Ages, though only a few have left traces of their activities. Two songs are attributed in French manuscripts to a mysterious "Matthew the Jew". The conventions of courtly love -- an adoring trouvère, and his distant, cruel Lady -- are deepened and darkened in Par grant franchise. Here, the poet's wounds are real, his parting envoi nearly a curse. Like Matthew, the minnesinger Sueskint suffered from his break with the Jewish community. In Wa Heb'uf, he vows to forsake courtly life and to return to the Jewish fold..

If the Jewish musicians felt themselves to be different, their ways of being were nonetheless infused and informed by the majority cultures in which they evolved. The Judaeo-Spanish melodies we perform were collected only a few years ago in Morocco and the Balkans; there, remnants of the Jewish comunity exiled from Spain in the fifteenth century clung tenaciously to their Spanish heritage. We have dared to juxtapose these songs and prayers with the Christian music of medieval Spain. The scale patterns, the melodic profiles, and the spiritual intensity of these two repertoires allow them to be heard together in neighborly good concord, just as Jews, Christians, and Moslems managed to exist together for many centuries in the Iberian peninsula. Though separate in many ways, the different peoples who created Spanish music were all contributing, consciously or not, to the making of some uniquely precious musical dialects. From diversity came harmony and wholeness, as they will come again someday on our troubled planet, when the nations finally cease so furiously to rage.

These program notes are (c) by Joel Cohen.

from "Compact" (Paris) November 1990

rating: REFERENCE (highest, exceptional category)

Once again, Joel Cohen and his team have authored a new recording of the highest possible interest, superbly demonstrating the interpretation of different poetic and musical cultures is the medieval world. The subject here is the often complex relationship between the Jewish ghetto tradition and the surrounding Christian communities, itself strongly marked by Arabic elements, by virtue of its proximity to the mediterranean world.

This anthology is grouped around several thematic sections: "Songs of Exile," "The Sacred Bridge," "Jewish Minstrels at Christian courts," "Jewish folklore of the Mediterranean Basin," "Songs of Mystic Spain." Several languages intermingle here: a Hebrew psalm finds its counterpart in a Latin, Christian psalm; a judaeo-Spanish melody with distant Hebrew roots bears a striking resemblance to a French folksong -- and the "bridges" are multiple, and unexpected.

Here, too, sacred and profane are inextricably interwoven. The Sephardic and judaeo-Spanish repertoires are represented in all their diversity: ritual songs of marriage and circumcision, quasi-courtly songs of unhappy love (especially "La Rosa enflorece," superbly sung by Anne Az{ma, track 13), strangely beautiful mystical songs ("Respondemos, Dio de Abraham," delivered a capella with great inward passion by John Fleagle, track 14). There is even a "Song of the Sybil" in Galician (track 16) and an instrumental "Kaddish" (prayer for the dead in a judaeo-Maroccan version).

From the trouv}res and minnesaenger we discover songs of Mathieu le Juif and Suesskind von Trimberg (tracks 5 and 6). From the judaeo-Provencal community of the Comtat Venaissin near Avignon we are given an excerpt from the "Tragediou de la Reine Esther" (track 7).

Without Joel Cohen's enormous talent, this kind of project could quickly become a heavy-going academic reconstruction. Here, thanks to the singers and players, everything glows with life, naturalness, and passion. Besides the marvelous singers previously mentioned, Anne Azéma and John Fleagle, we salute the contributions of Joel Cohen himself (baritone, various lutes, and percussions), Michael Collver (counter-tenor), Ellen Hargis, Lynn Torgove (sopranos), Jesse Lepkoff (recorders and flutes), Carol Lewis (vielle, treble viol).

Conclusion: a fascinating approach to the medieval Jewish-Christian repertoire, thanks to a perfect team which, let us hope, will bring many music lovers to these works. Finally, a wonderful example of musical coexistence among different cultures! Jacques Di Vanni

from "Repertoire" (Paris)

Joel Cohen is once again to be thanked for his immense curiosity, which permits us to discover today a completely unknown repertoire, reaching back to an obscure part of old Europe's medieval history, when the Jews were already forced to live apart from the Christians in sombre ghettos.

Strongly influenced by social and musical environments foreign to their original culture, they learned how skillfully to integrate the delicacy of courtly lyric, the nobility of Iberian civilization, the mystic quality of liturgical drama into their own vocal and instrumental traditions: Hebraic chants, turco-arabic modes...And from this syncretism they made fascinating music, colored with archaisms. It is difficult to speak here of "authenticity," since the sources of this repertoire are often fragmentary, incomplete, and at times difficult to transcribe. But let us acknowledge that the Boston Camerata's work is fascinating, and that it would be pretentious to criticize it on the pretext that it lacks a historical grounding.

There is nothing anecdotal or quaint in the talent of Cohen and his ensemble. They create an extraordinary serenity and calm. Everything is perfect technically and vocally. The music, sad and poignant, becomes enticing, irresistibly nostalgic -- it seduces by its enchanting lyricism, its mystical fervor, seeming to express all the frustrations of a people condemned to seclusion.

Nonetheless, gaiety is not totally absent, notably in the marvelous instrumental passages -- Turkish lute, arabic oud, vielle, flute -- when the music brilliantly rediscovers the lost perfume of oriental dance (Cuando el Rey Nimrod). These instrumental passages are quite free from the rhythmic point of view, but they never destroy the coherence of the interpretation, the airy sensuality of these songs of exile, the passion verging on despair of these biblical recitations. We find again, as in the Tristan et Iseult, the same sense of airiness, a richly colored palette of sound, an obvious concern for transparency, and an astonishing clarity of expression. The Boston Camerata has chosen to appear at all times human and noble, preferring intimacy, discretion, and concision to the orientalizing ostentation of the 1970's.

This record will have to be listened to several times to discern its inexpressible riches, to travel over and to comprehend the "sacred bridge" at the crossroads of the languages, styles, and traditions of two communities that succeeded in preserving their differences while mutually enriching each other. A marvelous recording, without rival, deserving only our praise.

The Sacred Bridge
as performed in concert by The Boston Camerata

I. Songs of exile
Anonymous (Sephardic, Jerusalem) Boray ad ana/Criador hasta cuando Creator, why have you imprisoned your Dove? Why have you put her in chains? She is alone, without her children, crying Father, Father, Father...

Al naharot bavel (Psalm 137)
By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down, yea, we wept, When we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst thereof We hanged up our harps. For there they that led us captive asked of us words of song, And our tormentors asked of us mirth: 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.' How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?

II. The Sacred Bridge
Anonymous (Gregorian, Ashkenazic) In exitu Israel/ B'tset Yisrael
(Psalm 114, Latin and Hebrew versions)
When Israel came forth out of Egypt,The house of Jacob from a people of strange language;/Judah became his sanctuary, Israel his dominion...

Obadiah the Proselyte (12th century) Mi al har horeb (Eulogy of Moses)
Who other than Moses stood on Mt Horeb at sudy? Who other that Moses led my flock in the desert, bringing them forth water? To the heavens he came to God. Know, my people, 'That your light has come. The Glory has shone upon you.'

III. Jewish Minstrels in the Christian Middle Ages
Mathieu le Juif (13th century) Par grant franchise
I must sing to you, unfaithful lady who torments me. False lovers make true love perish; I have served you faithfully, yet you mock me. Why have you thus betrayed me? For your love I have forsaken my Law, my God. May God make your face so wrinkled and old that all will hate you, save me!

Sueskint von Trimberg (13th century) Wa heb'uf
(melody: Der Wilde Alexander, 13th c.)
What sorrow is now thrust upon me, now that my noble patron is gone. Now I must flee the court, let my hair and beard grow long. I shall live in the old Jewry, with a long coat and hat. Slow shall be my walk, and sad my song.

Isaac Gorni (13th century) A poet's life (translated from the Hebrew)

IV. Jewish folksongs of the Mediterranean
Anonymous (Morocco) En ciudad noble y encina (instrumental)

Yo hanino, tu hanina
I am Hanino, you are Hanina, these shall be our names, and the children born to us, Aman, will be like the moon and the sun, Derman, like the moon and the sun...

Morena me llaman
They call me the dark one, but I was born fair; I lost my color from travelling so much. Clad in green and scarlet, the betrothed girl speaks thus to her beloved. A ladder of gold and ivory was made for them to climb...The king's son calls me the dark one, and if he summons me, I shall go.

Anonymous (Balkans) La rosa enfloresce
The rose blooms in the month of May, and my heart saddens with the pains of love. The nightingale sings and sighs... Come quickly, O thou my soul, or else I shall die. Carpentras (18th century) Eftach sephatai berinah (Circumcision)
I open my lips with happiness. We shall sing tomorrow at dinner. I will praise God Highest on the tambourin and the violin... May the child being circumcised today become a wise man; may the exiles and the wanderers be returned; may the redeemer of Zion come!


V. Songs of Mystical Spain
Anonymous (Sephardic) Respondemos, Dio de Abraham
Answer us, O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in our hour of death.

attributed to Alfonso el Sabio (1221-1284) Virgen madre groriosa
King of Castille
Vigin Mary, full of Glory, Sainted wife and daughter of God, who can glorify you?

Anonymous (Sephardic) Kaddish (instrumental)
Alfonso el Sabio Madre de Dios, ora por nos
Mother of God, pray for us on this day of judgement, when the trumpets shall sound and the dead shall be raised.

Alfonso el Sabio Des oge mas quer eu trobar (instrumental)
Gran dereit (instrumental)

Anonymous (Sephardic, Balkans) Cuando el rey Nimrod
As King Nimrod raised his eyes to heaven, he saw the star above the Jewry, announcing the birth of Abraham, our much loved father.

attributed to Abraham, cantor of Gerona (12th c.?) Ahot ketana
The little sister [i.e. the Jewish people]prepares her prayers and intone her praises. O God heal her sickness, and may her misfortunes cease from now on.

Alfonso el Sabio Muit e benaventurado (instrumental)

Anonymous (Sephardic) El nora alila
O God, grant pardon to the people of Israel; raise your eyes to those who are yours; may Michael, Elijah and Gabriel proclaim the joyful news of redemption.

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keywords: Jewish music, musique juive, medieval music, musique médiévale