Like many other composers, I have often looked to what is called “folk music” for inspiration and musical ideas. I was therefore delighted when the Cavatina Duo commissioned me to write a substantial piece drawing on the music of the Sephardic Jews—i.e. the Jewish ethnic group which emerged as a distinct community in the Iberian peninsula around the start of the second millennium.
Though none of the melodies today known as "Sephardic" can be traced back to the Jews in Spain prior to their expulsion from that country in 1492, nonetheless over the subsequent centuries a beautiful repertoire of song has grown from the experience of the Sephardic Jews as they migrated and settled throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Balkans. As they did so, they adapted their Ladino (Judeo-Spanish language) song texts to the musical styles and melodies of their new cultures. Thus, what we call Sephardic music today is a rich mixture of musical styles found in Morocco, Turkey, the Balkans and many other countries. As with all folk music, the Sephardic repertoire was in a constant state of transformation, and indeed has only become relatively fixed since a number of important transcriptions were published in the 1950's and 60's and the melodies were taken up and recorded by early music groups and world music singers in recent decades.
My Trío Sefardí for flute, cello and guitar is in three movements, with each movement employing one melody from the Sephardic repertoire for its musical material. The first movement is based on the song "Ya viene el cativo" (“Here comes the slave”), the lyrics of which involve a slave girl’s lament in memory of her homeland. Apart from the emotional content of the lyrics, what particularly attracted me to this song was the symmetrical intervallic properties of the song’s opening melody, which consists of three chromatic notes surrounded by a minor third on both sides. I am fascinated by such symmetries in music, and by the possibilities they open up for development in different harmonic contexts and in permutations of the intervallic pattern (inverted, reversed, re-ordered, expanded/contracted etc.). While this movement might best be described as a set of linked and continuous variations, several main formal sections can be delineated: a slow and lyrical initial presentation and variation of the Sephardic melody leads to an energetic scherzo; the theme is then modified in a slow major key version and finally a fast fugue.
The second movement uses the melody "Yo m'enamori d'un aire d’una mujer", which might be best translated as “I fell in love with the scent of a woman”. The lyrics of the song speak of intoxicating emotions and the dangers of a moonlit encounter with a beautiful woman. Of course, the title immediately brought to mind the Al Pacino film “The Scent of a Woman” and the tango danced in that film. With this tango connection in mind, converting the melody from 3/4 time to 4/4 and setting it for the sultry voice of the alto flute seemed the ideal way to approach this beautiful Sephardic song.
The third movement is based on the melody "Una matica de ruda"—in English “A sprig of Rue” (“rue” being a type of herb native to the Balkan peninsula as well as the more common usage as a synonym for “regret”). In addition to being attracted to these multiple meanings, I was immediately drawn to the song’s lyrics, which take the form of a dialogue between a mother and daughter. The daughter tells her mother that a young man is in love with her and has given her a bouquet of rue. The mother warns the daughter not to sacrifice her virtue to young love, and that a bad husband is better than a new lover. It is the daughter’s perfect and poetic reply though that makes the song: “A bad husband, my mother? There is nothing worse. But a new lover, my mother? the apple and sweet lemon”.
In the Sephardic song repertoire, “Una matica de ruda” is known in two different versions—one playful and rhythmic, the other simple and lyrical—that together perfectly capture the dual emotional character of the song’s lyrics. In my third movement the two different versions serve as first and second themes in a quasi-sonata form.
Trío Sefardí was commissioned by Thomas Baron and Mark Cavalenes through grants to Cedille Chicago, NFP, and the work is gratefully dedicated to them as well as the Cavatina Duo—my dear friends Eugenia Moliner and Denis Azabagic.
"A tone of gravitas is immediately apparent in the Trio Sefardi by frequent Cavatina collaborator Alan Thomas, aided by the addition of cello to the duo. Each of the three movements is based on a Sephardic song. Thomas' music is compositionally sophisticated, but without any sacrifice of power or urgency. The longest movement is the first, free variations on a song of lamentation. The next two movements, while shorter and lighter in tone add to a work which is an important addition to the repertoire." [Al Kunze, Soundboard magazine]