Spain and Portugal’s Jewish and Arabic Baroque Music

Santa Cruz Baroque Festival Showcases Music from a Multi-Religious Time Period in Iberian History

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Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic songs rang through the Music Center Recital hall during the Santa Cruz Baroque festival on April 29. Many of the pieces came from an 800-year period from the early eighth to the late fifteenth centuries of mixed Muslim and Christian rule in and around the Iberian Peninsula.

“Trading Gifts: Iberia and the Arab World,” the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival’s fourth concert of its 45th season, entertained an audience of about 120.

The concert explored the history, instruments and music of this facet of Medieval history, featuring instruments not commonly found at many Baroque concerts, including the many-stringed viola d’amore, the oud and the harpsichord, and playing both music from that time period and music composed later.  

(From left to right) Leslie Hirsch, Dror Sinai and Mark Bradley play Andalusian compositions in a quartet. Unlike stringed instruments such as the violin, cello or guitar, the oud instead has ‘rosette,’ or elaborately carved soundholes. The oud shown above (pictured on right) has one rosette, but some can have up to three. The oud, unlike the viola d’amore, does not have sympathetic strings, and instead creates resonance within the instrument by coupling strings both tuned to the same, or nearly the same, pitch. Photo by Justin Tahara.

Al Andalus

The festival celebrated cultural flourishing that emerged in the medieval Iberian Peninsula, now known as Spain and Portugal and then known as Al-Andalus. During this period, Arab, Christian and Jewish Iberians lived and interacted, sometimes in peace and sometimes in conflict.

“The first song that I played is sung in Arabic, in Hebrew, in Spanish. Like a Ladino,” said singer and percussionist Dror Sinai. Sinai referred to Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language spoken by some Sephardic Jewish communities that get their name from Sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain. “In our mind we have borders everywhere when we study this Arabic music. It’s true, [but] it’s not the whole truth.”

A quartet consisting of Mark Bradlyn on an oud, a middle eastern stringed instrument, violin player Leslie Hirsch and harpsichord player Linda Burman-Hall played Lamma Bada Yatathanna, “When She Begins to Sway,” with Sinai. The song comes from old Andalusian tradition.

Despite the cultural flourishing that occurred in medieval Iberian Peninsula, the era was no stranger to conflict and fractious religious divides.

“The risk is many people will totally romanticize [this era],” said assistant professor in the history department, Alma Heckman, who studies Sephardic Jews. “To say, ‘Ah, the convivencia, when everybody got along perfectly and there was poetry and there were fountains of wine,’ but that’s also not true. There were moments like that and there were also plenty of moments that were terrible, [when] the fountains were not full of wine, they were full of blood.”

Unlike stringed instruments such as the violin, cello or guitar, the oud instead has ‘rosettes,’ or elaborately carved soundholes. The oud pictured (on right) has one rosette, but some can have up to three. The oud, unlike the viola d’amore, does not have sympathetic strings, and instead creates resonance within the instrument by coupling strings both tuned to the same, or nearly the same, pitch. Photo by Justin Tahara.

Oud

The cultural exchange in medieval Iberia was the source of many musical influences that spread far beyond the region and into other parts of Europe.

The oud, first developed in ancient Persia, entered the Iberian Peninsula through Al-Andalus during the Muslim conquest. It stayed there for many centuries, eventually travelling to an area within the current borders of France and becoming l’oud. It travelled as far as England, where it was the ancestor of the lute, explained oud player Mark Bradlyn before the concert.

“There’s a lot of that transmission so it’s not at all surprising to me that there’s that story of the lute,” Heckman said. “A lot of intellectual life is exchanged between Muslim Spain, Christian Spain, travels across the Pyrenees, travels into France, travels into all of these areas.”

Bradlyn’s personal oud had 11 strings in total, with five sets of coupled strings tuned to nearly the same pitch and one bass string. Like Leslie Hirsch’s viola d’amore, the instrument used these strings to create resonance when played, though through different musical processes.

Among other pieces played in the same quartet as Sinai, Bradlyn played Aziza, a piece composed in the twentieth century. The complex piece of folk music in places traded the melody back and forth between Hirsch’s violin and Bradlyn’s oud, until the oud lapsed into a countermelody. Bradlyn’s oud and Hirsch’s various stringed instruments frequently played off of each other, providing a musically engaging interplay between the two distinct but related families of instruments.

Viola d’Amore

The concert featured other cousins of familiar instruments, including Leslie Hirsch’s seven-stringed viola d’amore. A flat-backed instrument Hirsch played in the same position and posture as a violin, the viola d’amore, or the viola of love, is a cousin of the well-known viola and violin.

Unlike violas and violins, which have four bowed strings, Hirsch’s viola d’amore had seven bowed strings and seven ‘sympathetic strings,’ which are not played and instead are nestled under the fingerboard where they can pick up resonances from the instrument. When tuned correctly, sympathetic strings ring in sympathy with bowed strings, letting chords ring with longer, more silvery sounds, according to Hirsch.

The viola d’amore is thicker than a violin and is in fact more like a viola in depth. Underneath the fingerboard are nestled seven sympathetic strings tuned to the same pitch as the seven played strings above the fingerboard, a structure which creates resonance within the instrument. Another way in which the viola d’amore differs from both the viola and the violin is the sound holes. As shown above, the viola d’amore has flame sound holes (pictured on either side of the fingerboard) instead of the f-holes violins and violas have. Photo by Justin Tahara.

‘Microtones’ from Arabic Music in Flamenco

While different religions, and cultural and ethnic groups within these religions, did not always necessarily live side by side, the cultural products from this era are still present today. In the second half of the concert, Carlitos de Santa Cruz sang Flamenco, another musical style influenced by this era.

One distinct influence Flamenco music took from Arab music is ‘microtones,’ or tones that fall between the keys of the piano, according to Bradlyn. These ‘microtones’ can be ‘half flats,’ or ‘quarter flats,’ and are quite expressive. Some of the oldest songs de Santa Cruz sang had these microtones.

Carlitos de Santa Cruz singing some of the oldest flamenco compositions known. Photo by Justin Tahara.

“Interestingly enough, what Mark [Bradlyn] was talking about, the half-tones, you will hear some of those in Flamenco,” de Santa Cruz said before the concert. “The things that are unaccompanied by guitar because those are actually likely the oldest, oldest songs in Flamenco, so many of them are derived from North African music and they use those quarter tones and half-tones.”

The microtones present in many older Flamenco compositions are just one way in which the medieval cultural influences in Iberia influence the present. The festival emphasized the ways in which musical knowledge was traded between Christian Iberia, Muslim Iberia and Jewish Iberia, highlighting the complex historical pathways culture develops.