COMPOSER 1945–2013

Opus 95

A Sephardic Rhapsody (1992)

for Orchestra

Duration: 14 min.

Dedication: to Ilana and Adina

Recording: Albany TROY548

Premiere: 1994; JCC Orchestra of San Diego; D. Amos

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The Jewish population may be roughly divined into two ethnic components, the Ashkenazic people, found before the 1940s largely in eastern Europe, thriving now in Israel and the Americas, for whom Yiddish is the secular language; and the Sephardic people, expelled from Spain 500 years ago, and found throughout the middle east, and who speak many secular languages including Turkish, Arabic, and Ladino (Renaissance Judeo-Spanish). At one time I came to know many old Sephardic songs and was motivated to compose some new ones myself, but could not find any texts which had not yet been put to music many times. The energy to compose a set thereby split into two channels. One solution was a cycle of songs based on Renaissance Spanish poetry, which I called Besos sin cuento. Somewhat later, for Maestro David Amos, I was composer-in-residence for a three-year period with his orchestra, and I wrote A Sephardic Rhapsody as one of three works under that arrangement.

The rhapsodies of Liszt, Enescu, and others generally do not use actual folk songs, but manage to convey their ethnic flavor anyway, with careful usage of modes and rhythm. They also seem most naturally to fall into a two-part structure: one might say introduction and allegro, or song and dance. I have used this scheme, with the interpolation of a medium-speed fugato.

As for what makes the music Sephardic, I would be hard-pressed to defend the specificity of it. It is clearly folk-like, and suggestive of one middle-Eastern people or another, but so many cross-influences and close encounters exist between races and nations that some might claim it could just as well be titled for any of them. At any rate, I can describe some of the tools I used to give some characteristic flavor. Modes in most of the world give us a selection of pitches that is assumed to apply in one and all octaves. So if the C’s are natural in the bass, the mode would have them natural in the tenor and soprano ranges as well. However, some middle-eastern modes stretch for an octave and a half, so that the top and bottom thirds include the same letter names, yet they may be inflected differently, to remarkably expressive effect. I have used the scale B-C#-D-E-F-G#-A-B-C-D-Eb for some of the melodies of the piece.

The actual “main” or root is the E, the fourth of the 11 notes. The two inflections of C are different, and the most intense conflict occurs when the apparent tonic, E, is flattened in some of the tunes as they reach upper range.

Within the area of instrumentation, I have tried to obtain some regional color with the percussion, although that in itself also happens in A Millennium Overture with no particular ethno-geographic purpose. However, I have added a soprano saxophone to the standard orchestra, emulating the color of certain ethnic reed instruments, such as the Armenian dadouk.

In terms of rhythm, there are many fairly elastic moments in the first part. The contrapuntally complicated middle part is rhythmically the squarest, while I have attempted in the conclusion vivace something of an epiphany of 7/8 meter, which holds forth without interruption for some six minutes. (Notes by Arnold Rosner)