WHEN a 14-year-old girl, Kohava, appeared on a TV talent show
and announced to its presenter, the venerable expert in Jewish folk
music Yitzhak Levy, that she was going to marry him, the older man
naturally protested: he was old enough to be her father. Today,
Kohava Levy and her daughter Yasmin are celebrated as pioneers in
the performance of Sephardic songs: they are carrying on the work
that husband and father started.
Over the past three weeks, Radio 3's Sunday Feature
strand has been given over to Norman Lebrecht's Music and the
Jews; and particularly impressive has been the prominence
given in his story to female musicians. If we believe the accounts
of his witnesses, the traditions of Jewish folk-singing have been
transmitted mother to daughter, just like Jewishness itself.
One has, however, to allow for the same sentimentality that
imbues the music itself: emotions milked for all they are worth,
and plenty of melodrama - that is what these songs meant to Lord
Grade, one of Lebrecht's guests.
The sentimentality takes on a contemporary chic in the hands of
Amy Winehouse, whom the music promoter Harvey Goldsmith identified
as being part of the same tradition that brought us Barbara
Streisand and Carole King. In Winehouse, we encounter the
archetypal Jewish lost soul, her voice and lyrics backlit with a
suppressed narrative of alienation and pain. "We love a drama,"
Lord Grade's grandmother used to say. And Amy Winehouse certainly
gave us that.
A female singer-songwriter of a different disposition was the
focus of The Essay (Radio 3) last Friday. Hildegard of
Bingen might, to some indulgent admirers, be regarded as the
proto-rock-chick, her extravagant melodies breaking through the
boundaries of medieval musical convention. But to the rest of us
she is the powerful and prolific abbess, politician, theologian,
poet, and herbalist.
Sara Mohr-Pietsch said that Hildegard's music demanded that the
listener "sit up and pay attention". This is an unusual take on a
repertoire that has been marketed as if it were music to light
scented candles to.
Any programme that engages with this music seriously is OK by
me, and Mohr-Pietsch is a serious devotee. I particularly enjoyed
the admission that our lack of knowledge about Hildegard's musical
authorship, and the status of the musical evidence we have, was
liberating. In most fields of intellectual and artistic endeavour,
ignorance might be seen as a hindrance; in the case of Hildegard,
it allows us to make of her what we will.
Prompted by recent events in the Crimea, Radio 4 broadcast, on
weekdays last week, a selective repeat of Martin Sixsmith's 2011
series Russia: The Wild East. Monday's instalment told the
story of Vladimir the Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus in the tenth
century, and the advent of Christianity. According to the -
admittedly biased - sources, Vladimir shopped around for an
appropriate religion to unify his disparate peoples, and hit upon
Orthodox Christianity because of the splendour of Byzantine
churches. Thus began a process of Westernisation which has always
been, and still proves to be, highly problematic for the Ukraine in
particular, and Russia in general.