It can never be said The Goliards do things the easy way.
On Sept. 29, the group will present music from the Sephardic Jewish heritage, sung in the original Ladino language and accompanied on period instruments.
“La Sirena” will be a program of romances, lullabies and story-songs.
“We did a Sephardic program about seven years ago, and wow, was it popular!” says John Hillenbrand, the group’s founder and director. “We had a full house. It was the first time we’d had a sellout concert in Savannah, and enough time has lapsed to do it again.”
The songs have been collected from throughout the Mediterranean Basin. Many were written before the 1492 Edict of Expulsion, in which King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain decreed all Jews had to either convert to Christianity or leave the kingdom. Because of persecution, many Jews who were forced to convert left, too.
“There are a number of families living in Mexico and Central America who are descendants of Sephardic Jews who had converted, but the climate was very unhealthy,” Hillenbrand says.
“Their most precious possession was the key to their house in Spain. It was passed down through the centuries.
“They continued to be secret Jews,” he says. “If caught, the penalties would be pretty extensive and hideous.”
Some songs are more recent and were written in the lands and cities where Jewish exiles settled. All will be sung in Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language derived from Old Spanish that is spoken today only by Sephardic minorities, most of them now based in Israel.
“None of us are Ladino speakers,” Hillenbrand says. “We’re working from a pronunciation guide from a songbook written by Nico Castel.
“It actually works for people who are not native Spanish speakers,” Hillenbrand says. “But if native Ladino speakers happened to hear us, they’d probably find something to criticize.”
The songs come from around the world.
“When the Jews were kicked out of Spain, they scattered everywhere,” Hillenbrand says. “A lot of them came to the New World.
“The ones who settled in the Mediterranean Basin really spread all over the Ottoman Empire,” he says. “They took many songs from Spain that still continue to exist in their new countries.”
The melody of a song on the program called “Adio, querida” reflects the melodic line of Verdi’s aria, “Addio! del passato” from Act IV of the opera “La Traviata.” It is probable Verdi borrowed the melody for his own work.
“The ones with the melodies I like the most are the love songs,” Hillenbrand says. “Some are bitter, and most of the love songs in Ladino are pretty bitter.”
Some of the music sounds discordant, but he says it is in a “cool kind of way.”
“It’s very challenging for me, technically,” he says. “There are some story songs, one of which is sort of a dream interpretation song which closes with the story of Abraham.
“We have a happy wedding song which we know for a fact comes from Iberia before 1492,” Hillenbrand says. “It is still being performed there with Christian words but the same melody.”
Some songs are much older than others.
“When someone is trying to tell how old a song is, one’s first question is, ‘Does it exist in more places than one?’” he says. “That would indicate it came from Spain rather than being invented in Sarajevo, where there was a big Sephardic community.
“Is the melody still being performed in Spain? There are some in the Spanish folk tradition that have lost their Jewish lyrics.”
The program will feature three sopranos, Cuffy Sullivan, Melissa Flummerfelt and Mary Catherine Mousourakis, and bass baritone Christopher Kohut, who also will play lute, ‘ud (a pear-shaped stringed instrument also called an oud) and wooden flute. Anne Durant will play the harp and provide percussion, Anne Acker will play the organ sinfonye, or hurdygurdy, and Hillenbrand will play the vielle.
“We’re rich with voices in this particular program,” Hillenbrand says. “Melissa and Cuffy have been with us for some time.
“This is Mary Catherine’s first show with us. She has a beautiful voice and has sung with choirs and is a cantor at the Greek Orthodox church.
“The music in the program is all monophonic, so only two of the songs involve all voices,” he says. “The others are all solo works. We try to mix them up in terms of content and style.”
The concert has taken considerable work.
“We’ve been working on this for some time,” Hillenbrand says. “We started planning last spring and have been meeting every week through the summer.
“We’re having a lot of fun with it,” he says. “Sephardic music uses notes that are very exotic sounding.”
IF YOU GO
What: The Goliards present “La Sirena”
When: 3 p.m. Sept. 29
Where: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 1802 Abercorn St.
Info: 912-495-9081, www.savannahgoliards.org