Jordi Savall and Jerusalem

Some years ago a friend gave me a set of two CDs of music connected with the history of Jerusalem. Their range is vast, stretching from the remote Jewish past across the centuries when Jerusalem was a Christian city and a destination of medieval pilgrims, the Arab and Ottoman city from the thirteenth century, its modern status as a city of asylum and exile, and most recently the establishment of the state of Israel. While there are some instrumental interludes, in which shofars make noisy appearances and ouds more gentle ones, most of the music is sung, in the original Greek, Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Turkish, Armenian and Ladino; fortunately translations are provided! The original language of the beautifully illustrated text that accompanies the CDs seems to have been French, but it is translated in full into Castilian, English, Catalan, German, Italian, Arabic and Hebrew, forming a book of over 400 pages. While one suspects that some of these languages will find few readers, the implication of diversity and richness is welcome. Alluding  to a widely accepted etymology of the name of the city, the notes see Jerusalem as being a city of two kinds of peace, heavenly and earthly, and therefore locate three great religions and two kinds of peace in the one city.

The animator of this mighty project was Jordi Savall, a Spanish  (or should that be Catalan?) virtuoso of stringed instruments and scholar of early music. He enjoyed the services of a number of collaborators, chief among them his wife, the late Montserrat Figueras, a wondrous soprano. The texts that are sung are deftly deployed to give an incomparable sense of the continuities and recurrences  in the long history of the city; hence, the haunting words of psalm 137 that respond to the Babylonian Captivity (‘If ever I forget you, Jerusalem’) are applied to the situation of diaspora that Jews found themselves in after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Reflecting the perspectives of multiple religions expressed in numerous languages, the message of the music is decidedly ecumenical. Perhaps music offers a way in which the peoples of a troubled area can come together; I suspect that shared traditions of cookery, such as those exemplified in the work of Yotam Ottolengi and Sami Tamimi ( and perhaps, somewhat earlier, Claudia Roden) may offer another path.

Of course it can be hard to get things right over such a long period, and some of the ways in which things are put together are not persuasive. The characterization of Jerusalem as a Christian city from 326 till 1244 ignores the period of over four hundred years prior to the First Crusade, when the city was under Arab control, and the only piece of music from the period doesn’t really fit. While it is good to hear a Byzantine hymn to the Virgin attributed to the emperor Leo VI, and therefore from about 900, it does not illuminate the life of the city at that time.

I cannot imagine anyone not enjoying the music so stunningly performed and presented, not being challenged to widen their cultural horizons. But a man with the breadth of vision of Jordi Savall is not likely to have stopped there…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *