Musical pioneers

28 March 2014

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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.

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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.

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