By now, much of Savannah is aware of The Goliards, our city’s ancient music ensemble. The group, consisting of some of the most accomplished musicians in the area, come together to perform music of the Renaissance and Medieval eras on period-correct historic and replica instruments.
On Sun., April 28, the group will present La Sirena, a collection of songs of Sephardic heritage, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Founder John Hillenbrand expanded on the background of the music in an interview, explaining that much of it began when the Jews were run out of Spain in 1492.
“They had been living in Spain for centuries, and had developed a unique culture. Their music shared a lot of similarities with North African music,” he says.
“When the Jews left Spain, they went wherever they could. They were received in the Muslim world, but spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin and did keep their language - which was a variant of Castilian Spanish. They kept some of the musical heritage from Spain, but it did evolve. So we don’t really know the age of a lot of these songs.”
Many of the songs, which Hillenbrand says were likely around long before 1492, are quite similar in their present day form to the arrangements of their origin - at least that is assumed, given the fact that they also have existed in communities that were geographically distant from where they came.
“The songs themselves tend to fit into categories,” Hillenbrand says.
“There are a lot of bitter love songs, and I guess a bitter love song is probably more pleasant to listen to than a happy love song. There are lots of lullabies, and some story songs. The name of this program is a motif that crops up fairly often in the repertoire - [Sirena] is always tempting people to throw themselves into the sea, but in the last song in the program she actually prevents a young Spanish count from committing suicide.”
This performance will be the third Sephardic program they’ve done, but the first in about five years. Two newer group members will be involved this time around, including soprano Sheila Berg.
For those interested in learning more about the music that The Goliards perform, starting with this program would be the way to go.
“I think, metaphorically, if somebody were to stick their toe in the water to test the temperature, he or she is very likely to get hooked on it pretty quickly,” he says. “From there on out, I think things will develop naturally. People who are of Sephardic Jewish descent who may have an ancestor or family member who speaks Ladino, would probably be naturally inclined to be interested in this music.”