Medieval Sephardic Music | performance

Medieval Jewish music of  Spain.  Beautiful.

Exotic to our ears, ethereal and rhythmic.

Above is a long playlist of 26 pieces of Spanish Sephardic music.  The first performances are by “Ensemble Fontegara”.  They are period pieces featured at the beginning of the playlist.  I have not listened to the entire list, I love their work.  It inspired me to write this post.

 Music History

Sepharad refers to the descendants of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.  Sepharad is a Hebrew word meaning ‘Spain’.

Medieval Sephardi with period instruments in Spain.

Sephardic music has its roots in the musical traditions of the Jewish communities in medieval Spain.  Since then, it has picked up influences from Morocco, Argentina, Turkey, Greece, and the other places that Spanish Jews settled after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  Much of the original music has been lost.  Lyrics were preserved by communities formed by the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula.  These Sephardic communities share many of the same lyrics and poems, but the music itself varies considerably.

Medieval period instruments in Casa de Sefarad, Spain
Medieval period instruments in Casa de Sefarad, Spain

Sephardic music has evolved over centuries as it incorporated local instruments, sounds and rhythms into the genre.  What we find is a wide variation of musical styles united by common lyrics. Sephardic music, including pan-Sephardic music which may not necessarily be Judeo-Spanish, is primarily vocal. Instruments, when they are used, are played to accompany songs. Instrumental practice among Sephardim has generally reflected that of the host culture.

The tradition of Jewish liturgical chant dates back to Biblical era. But the profane Jewish singing acquired its breadth and diversity in the Diaspora, through the cultural and musical influence of the various cultures with which the Jewish communities were -willingly or by force- in contact. Just as poetry, Sephardic music remained the privileged witness of the strange adventure of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who successively underwent tolerance, success, persecution and deportation. In spite of dispersion and acculturation, Jews have preserved their language and specific cultural values.

sources – from:



Explore the Music Online

  • Sephardic Music: A Century of Recordings

“This website showcases over 100 years of recorded Sephardic music, from the 78 rpm era to the present. It first explores in detail the earliest Sephardic recordings, the artists that made them, and their repertory and performance practices. These early recordings tell a rich story of Sephardic musical life in the first half of the 20th century. The site next covers the second half-century of recorded Sephardic music, touching on the amazing outpouring of Sephardic recordings and the diverse performing styles used in these recordings.”  The history and various types of Sephardic music.

Desire to Share.  Online samples of a variety of regional Sephardic music (note, music starts playing when the page loads)

  • Sephardic Music Festival  This showcases the modern influences and evolution of Sephardic music.  They also have free downloads.

Historical Notes 

 I lost the original post and content in an epic site implosion.

At the time of Islamic rule over Spain (from 8th to mid 13th century), a large Jewish community lived there. Apart from short times of persecution and forced conversions, Jews participated – together with Muslims and Christians – to a real scientific and cultural symbiosis, from which emanated great names like Maimonides, Averroes or Alfonso the Wise. The 12th century is considered a “golden age”, as Jewish communities depended only on the king and had a large administrative and judicial autonomy. Each center of the Spanish Judaism, particularly in Andalusia (Cordoba, Granada, Malaga, Sevilla, Toledo, etc.) had its own poetic style and its specific musical tradition. from –

Edict of 1492 expelling the Jews from Spain.
Edict of 1492 expelling the Jews from Spain.

In the mid-14th century, the charge of spreading the plague and the political disorders overcame this tolerance. The reconquest of Spain by the Catholics and the obligation for Jews to convert ended seven centuries of harmonious coexistence of the three religions.  On March 30, 1492, less than three months after the surrender of the Moors, the Catholic monarchs Ferdinando and Isabella promulgated an edict, leaving only four months for unconverted Jews to leave the kingdom without taking any property. Most of them took refuge in the Ottoman Empire (Salonica, Smyrna, Rhodes, Constantinople, Adrianople, Bosnia, Serbia, Romania and Macedonia), but also in North Africa (Tetouan, Tangiers), in southern Italy, France (Marseilles, Bordeaux) and in northern Europe (Amsterdam).

(Latinized) Moses Maimonides was a preeminent medieval Arabized Spanish, Sephardic Jewish philosopher, astronomer and one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages.

Averroës ( April 14, 1126 – December 10, 1198) is the Latinized form of Ibn Rushd a mediæval Andalusian Muslim polymath. He wrote on logic, Aristotelian and Islamic philosophy, theology, the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, psychology, political and Andalusian classical music theory, geography, mathematics, and the mediæval sciences of medicine, astronomy, physics, and celestial mechanics.

edit: Alfonso X (November 1221 – 4 April 1284), called the Wise, was the King of Castile, León and Galicia from 30 May 1252 until his death.
Alfonso X of Castile, also known as Alfonso the Learned, ruled from 1252 until 1284.

He established Castilian as a language of higher learning. He “turned to the vernacular for the kind of intellectual commitments that formerly were inconceivable outside Latin.”[7]  He is credited with initiating the extensive written use of the Castilian language instead of Latin as the language used in courts, churches, and in books and official documents.  He surrounded himself with mostly Jewish translators who rendered Arabic scientific texts into Castilian.  From the beginning of his reign, Alfonso employed Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars at his court, primarily for the purpose of translating books from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin and Castilian.

One of Alfonso’s goals for his kingdom was to lift Spain out of the Dark Ages by producing a united, educated, artistic, and religious population. His desire to bring Spain into the mainstream of high civilization led to a boom of cultural activity, including the production and translation of a great deal of literature. The literature produced during his reign was intended to aid him in achieving his goal by giving the common people of Spain access to great intellectual works.


Small sample – different images and layout?  Gallery of various Jewish quarters/centers, Islamic public and private buildings in Spain.

Religious Art

Uneasy Communion: Jews, Christians, and the Altarpieces of Medieval Spain

book and exhibit – find more images of retablos

edit: The exhibit provides a fascinating study of the iconography of altarpieces and the artistic collaboration between Jews and Christians. In the multi-cultural society of late medieval Spain, Jewish and Christian artists worked together to produce retablos (large multi-paneled altarpieces) as well as Latin and Hebrew religious manuscripts.

The book discusses the last two centuries of medieval Spanish history  from the vantage point of religious art, and demonstrates the documented cooperative relationship that existed between Christians and Jews who worked either independently or together to create art both for the Church and the Jewish community. Religious art was not created solely by members of the faith community it was intended to serve. Jewish and Christian artists worked together in ateliers producing both retablos as well as Latin and Hebrew manuscripts. Jews and conversos (Jews who had converted to Christianity) were painters and framers of retablos, while Christians illuminated the pages of Hebrew manuscripts.


Christian Altarpiece: Christ is shown here among the ‘doctors,’ Jewish men seated in a contemporary Spanish synagogue, not the Jerusalem Temple.
Christian Altarpiece: Christ is shown here among the ‘doctors,’ Jewish men seated in a contemporary Spanish synagogue, not the Jerusalem Temple.

Uneasy Communion demonstrates, through church art, the evolving attitudes of Christians toward Jews from the mid 1300s until 1492, as Spanish views of Jews hardened into certainties and stereotypes to be transmitted through generations.  The exhibition tells not only the story of a fascinating moment of artistic collaboration, between Jews and Christians, it also provides a glimpse into the lives of these communities which lived side by side. Images in some retablos reflect the hardships of Jewish life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries: conversions, forced sermons, disputations, the Inquisition, and charges of host desecration and blood libel. Other extraordinary paintings project a messianic view of a future in which Jews would join with Christians in one faith.


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