CANTODE LOS MARRANOS
(Songof the Crypto Jews)
Theso-called golden age of Spanish--or Iberian-- Jewry, which flourished forsignificant periods since the 8th century in Moslem-controlled areas of theIberian Peninsula, had come to a gradual end by the 14th century, with theultimate establishment of Christian hegemony in what is Spain today. Althoughthe expansion of Christian rule was punctuated by periods of tolerance and evenJewish prosperity, the overall position of the Jews in Christian Spaindeteriorated throughout the era during which Moslem rule simultaneously shrank.
By the 14th century, Jewry was subjected to fierce persecution from which itnever recovered. The culminating massacres in 1391, in which an estimated70,000 Jews were murdered and entire communities extinguished (except inMoslem- ruled Granada and in Portugal, owing to royal protection), resulted insignificant numbers of Jews surrendering to baptism and conversion. Continuedpersecution led to a second wave of conversions in the early 15th century.
Some, though not all, of these \new Christians," or conversos, continuedto practice Jewish customs and ceremonies in secret--as "crypto Jews," or marranos
("swine," the derogatory epithet originally attached to them). But as nominalChristians now subject to the authority of the Inquisition--the Congregation ofthe Holy Office--their recidivism, covert or otherwise, would constitute heresythat could be punished legally (or "purified") by death. Over the course of the15th century, the road led rapidly to the outright expulsion from Spain in 1492of all who had declined conversion.
Reflectingon the work, Levy articulated his evocative programmatic and extramusicalpurpose:
Cantode los Marranos seeks to evoke thetragic memory of the hunted conversos, their initially nominalChristianity together with their stubborn devotion to their ancientfaith--increasingly forgotten with succeeding generations, but to which somemanaged to cling as long as even the faintest remembrance lingered. The workmakes reference to mixtures of Roman Catholic and Hebrew liturgies--the latterin the original Hebrew at some moments, and at others in Ladino, orJudeo-Espagnol.
Thework opens with a quotation from the actual 1492 expulsion decree, in Englishtranslation. The succeeding juxtapositions of Roman Catholic liturgy in Latinand original Hebrew liturgical quotations--or Ladino or Spanish translations ofthem--create the impression of the singer seeking to remind herself of herJewish identity, professing outwardly what is required for public perception,as well as survival, but almost as if nullifying it with the Judaicinterpolations At the same time, those Judaic quotations might be understood asrepresenting the inner thoughts of the conversos while they reluctantlyuttered the liturgy of the official faith to which they had been forced toconvert.
Ladinois a mixture of 15th-century Castilian Spanish and Hebrew, which developed as amostly secular vernacular language of those Jews who left the Iberian Peninsulaand resettled in eastern Mediterranean lands. The actual song, Benedicho sunombre, also almost certainly postdates the Spanish expulsion as a Ladinosong. Levy draws upon these elements liberally here, with a degree of artisticlicense for powerful dramatic and poetic effect rather than for historicalaccuracy.
Inits original version, Canto de los Marranos was a commission from theUnion of American Hebrew Congregations, the lay arm of the American Reformmovement, and it received its premiere in 1977 by soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julsonand the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Phillipe Entremont. Despiteglowing reviews and much critical acclaim, Levy subsequently withdrew it. Thisnew version, created for the Milken Archive recording, is essentially acomplete rewriting based on the original one.
SHIRSHEL MOSHE (Song of Moses)
ShirShel Moshe is Levy's setting of kabbalatshabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) and Sabbath eve liturgies as a musicallycomplete, unified service. It was commissioned by Cantor David Putterman andthe Park Avenue Synagogue in New York in 1964. In 1943, Putterman had initiated a programin which he commissioned new works for the Hebrew liturgy from both firmlyestablished and promising young composers--non-Jews as well as Jews. The fruitsof those commissions received their premieres at the synagogue's annual Fridayevening Sabbath eve service of new music, which became one of the mostimportant Jewish cultural events nationally, as well as a significant andeagerly anticipated event on New York's annual cultural calendar. The programlasted more than thirty years and attracted contributions by some of the mostprominent and soon-to-be prominent American composers.
Originallythose annual new music services comprised settings of individual prayers orliturgical texts by several composers. But beginning in 1950, with MarioCastelnuovo-Tedesco's Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve (op. 122),Cantor Putterman commissioned full services by single composers on an annualbasis. By 1964, when Putterman invited Levy to compose this service, Levy wasalready beginning to come to public attention because of the commission for hisopera Mourning Becomes Electra. In fact, he initially declined the Park Avenuecommission because his attention was already focused on that work, buttypically, Putterman persisted and eventually persuaded him to accept, so thatultimately Levy worked on both at the same time. Perhaps for that reason helater described Shir Shel Moshe as "very simple... I didn't have time togo into something more complex." But the composer's own characterization mightbe a bit deceptive, if not overly humble, since the very simplicity of which hespeaks lends the work an engaging quality, free of pretension.
Inhis review of the work after its premiere, Erwin Jospe, an experienced composerof synagogue music and at that time dean of the School of Fine Arts andprofessor of Jewish music at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, noted:
Itspeaks well for Mr. Levy's honesty that he writes in the style in which heought to, his own. He is not pretending to be somebody other than himself whenhe writes for the synagogue. There is nothing assumed, nothingpseudo-Jewish.... He simply approaches his task as a composer who uses musicalideas--and he has many--to build musical structures. It is cause for rejoicingthat this brilliant young American composer has written an impressive work oflasting value for the contemporary synagogue.
Oneof the most interesting and inventive movements is the concluding hymn, adonolam, where a quickly memorable but original tune is repeated for eachstrophe in a different key over a samba-type rhythm on the organ, almost givingthe piece a Latin American flavor.
Inthe popular imagination of the 20th and 21st centuries, the very name Masada hasbecome a dramatic, unorthodox, or even ironic symbol for Jewish nationaldefiance in the face of overwhelming enemy military superiority and eveninevitable defeat. The most commonly accepted narrative account of the nationalas well as human tragedy believed to have occurred there in 73 C.E.--whetherembellished narrative, accumulated myth, faithful chronicle, or a bit ofeach--has also come to serv