About S&P music

The music of the Spanish and Portuguese community of London is to my mind exceptionally beautiful. Distinctly Sephardi yet also distinctly Western - even English - it is frankly easier on many modern ears than its North African and Eastern Sephardi counterparts.

Some sources (such as de Sola) suggest that some of the music may be very old indeed, even going back to Temple times. Other parts of the repertoire, like the Bevis Marks synagogue interior itself (left), have clearly been subject to a strong Baroque influence somewhere along the line.

Modern musicologists tell us that historically it is unlikely that the Western S&P could actually have brought an ancient tradition with them from Spain and Portugal, since they were mostly conversos who had been practicing as Roman Catholics for several generations. How then do we account for this remarkable and unique heritage? 

This is what a non-Jewish observer had to say in 1837:

It is a documented fact that they imported much of their tradition from Spanish émigré communities in Morocco. However, this does not preclude the tradition being firmly based in ancient Castille. It must be remembered that the musical repertoire in the Moroccan communities four- to five-hundred years ago would itself have been a lot more authentically "Castillian", and a lot less "Moroccan", than it is today - and quite possibly included certain components that went back very far indeed. The repertoire that was selectively "imported" from North Africa was then preserved in the Western S&P communities of Amsterdam, London and New York (and elsewhere), and developed under Western influences - including a strong Baroque influence - into the unique tradition we have today - while the "parent" tradition in Morocco developed on somewhat different lines (the strong modal influence of Arabic music). It therefore seems to me quite feasible that the S&P versions, faithfully preserved as ethnically different from the surrounding culture (yet subtly adapted to it) are at least as faithful to the originals - if not more so - than their modern Moroccan counterparts.


Much Ashkenazi synagogue music is written in the minor key even when the mood of the tune is a joyous one, suggesting introspection, and hinting, I always feel, at an underlying sorrow - due perhaps to the exile, or perhaps to the persecution they suffered at the hands of their host nations. S&P music on the other hand, is frequently written in the major key, even when the subject is ponderous - suggesting, and perhaps actually engendering, a more optimistic outlook and philosophy.


Some of the music for this tradition was published in the first half of the 19th century by the Haham David A. DeSola, and later by Rev. Moses Gaster in his edition of the S&P siddur. Similar traditions are found in Amsterdam (the Esnoga), Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Curacao, Barbados, New York (Shearith Israel), and Philadephia (Mikve Israel), but this site is devoted mostly to the London tradition.