Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

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(d) The Romancero

An important genre of Sephardi secular poetry and music is the Judeo-Spanish Romancero. This tradition represents an early stage in the development of the Spanish ballad, not only in its 15th-century Castilian lexical and phonological features, but also in its retention of numerous ballad themes that were current in medieval Spanish balladry. Also included in the Sephardi ballad repertory are themes from medieval French sources, events from Spanish history, subject matter derived from the Bible and classical antiquity, and a variety of adventures that blend lyric and narrative elements. The Judeo-Spanish branch also shares numerous themes with the pan-Hispanic (Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan) Romancero.

In its typical form, the romance embodies a 16-syllable verse divided by a medial pause into two octosyllabic hemistichs, the former without rhyme, the latter rhyming in assonance. The romancillo comprises two hexasyllabic hemistichs. Both are sung to strophic tunes with the quatrain strophe predominating.

Sephardi ballad scholarship begins with the Catálogo del romancero judío-español (1906) by R. Menéndez Pidal (1869–1968), which listed over 140 ballad themes current among the Sephardim in their diasporic communities. Since then, numerous scholars have been actively collecting and studying Judeo-Spanish ballads, among whom M. Alvar, P. Bénichou, R. Benmayor, D. Catalán and A. Librowicz have sought out collaborators to provide musical transcriptions for their publications. Since 1959, through the collaboration of S.G. Armistead, J.H. Silverman and I.J. Katz there has been more systematic fieldwork involving the collecting and editing of texts and tunes with the aid of recording equipment in the USA, Israel and North Africa. Menéndez Pidal's Catálogo has been superseded by Armistead's Catálogo-índice (1978).

A detailed survey of musicological research focussing on the Judeo-Spanish Romancero from about 1900 to the early 1960s was published by Katz in 1972, and subsequent musicological fieldwork has been undertaken by E.N. Alberti-Kleinbort, J.R. Cohen, E. Gerson-Kiwi, A. Petrović and S. Weich-Shahak. Among composers and musicians, A. Hemsi, L. Algazi and I. Levy collected and incorporated ballad tunes in their musical anthologies. M. Manrique de Lara, a close associate of Menéndez Pidal, conducted earlier fieldwork in the Balkans and Middle East (1911–12), and in northern Morocco (1915–16), during which time he gathered almost 2000 ballad texts and transcribed over 450 tunes directly from oral tradition. Decades later, A. de Larrea Palacín (1952) collected 270 texts and 285 tunes from the ballad tradition of Tétouan, Morocco. Interestingly, the earliest notations we possess for Judeo-Spanish ballad tunes were made by L. Kuba, in Sarajevo, 13 years prior to Menéndez Pidal's Catálogo (Weich-Shahak, 1979–80).

Well over a century after the Expulsion there was still active communication between the exiled Sephardim and the Iberian Peninsula. During this period, the most popular ballads from Spain continued to circulate throughout the greater Mediterranean region. By the late 1600s, however, contact with Spain became increasingly sporadic, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean region where relations among the varied Sephardi communities were slowly disintegrating, thus marking the beginning of the ballad's decline. Numerous Castilian ballad books and broadsides made their way to the Moroccan Sephardi communities, and from these sources and from the headnotes in the Hebrew hymnals published in Amsterdam, Venice, Istanbul, Salonika and Safed (c1525–1819) those ballads that were current at that time have been inventoried and categorized. Their headnotes cited the initial verses (incipits) of ballads and other songs (in Spanish, Arabic and Turkish) whose tunes were widely known and which served as tune indicators for the hymns to which they were sung. This practice (contrafactum), already known in Spain among the Hebrew poets (paytanim) who created liturgical hymns (piyyutim) during the Golden Age of Hispano-Hebraic poetry, had its ancient origin in the Book of Psalms. Here follows an example (Ex.42) of the ballad tune for La vuelta del marido, which served as a tune contrafact for the popular liturgical hymn Adon ‘olam.

To whatever degree each community strove to maintain the tunes associated with ballad incipits, their replacement by tunes from the new surroundings must have begun a century after the Expulsion. Essential stylistic differences in the individual ballad repertories of the Eastern Mediterranean and Moroccan Sephardi communities began to appear on textual levels, while even greater divergences emerged in the music.

While research to date has not yet traced extant ballad tunes back to 15th- or 16th-century Peninsular sources in cancionero and vihuela collections, romanticized notions have continued to characterize the diaspora tunes accompanying known Iberian ballad texts as ‘traditional Hispanic melodies’. A novel, but unconvincing, attempt to link ballad tunes from the extant tradition with the aforementioned collections has been undertaken by J. Etzion and S. Weich-Shahak (1988). Furthermore, the stylistic differences between the ballads of the Eastern and Western tradition, and the possibility of identifying tune families have been discussed by Katz (1968; 1988) and Etzion and Weich-Shahak (1988; 1993).

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