Coplas Sefardies

The Coplas Sefardies by Alberto Hemsi

The first CD recording of forgotten Ladino masterworks
A cooperation between the EZJM and Cantor Assaf Levitin

“I was standing at the threshold of a marvelous cave, like Ali Baba’s, that offered me the opportunity of discovering everything I could find there... I did not only focus on the music and the poetry, for a people’s folklore is an entire world, and I was determined to learn everything about my people“.
Alberto Hemsi, Coplas Sefardies, 1973

For half a millennium, the Sephardi Jews lived in the Ottoman Empire, the Balkans and the Mediterranean area, where the unique musical culture, sung in the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) language evolved. Countless folk songs, telling stories of love, Jewish festivals, folk tales and the events of everyday life were passed on from generation to generation. This culture with its unique traditions had endured on an uninterrupted course until World War One, but was quickly forgotten after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, the young Jewish composer Alberto Hemsi finished his composition studies in Milan. Hemsi, a prolific composer, dedicated himself to the documentation of Sephardic musical culture while incorporating its ancient melodies in his own works. The Coplas Sefardies, a collection of 60 traditional songs with an extraordinarily virtuoso piano accompaniment, can be considered his Magnum Opus.

To this day, there is no complete recording of the Coplas Sefardies. The singer and cantor of the Liberal Jewish community in Hannover, Assaf Levitin, devoted his MA to a discussion and analysis of Hemsi’s work. Shortly thereafter, he was driven to produce a comprehensive recording of Hemsi’s works, having published the first CD of the project at the 120th anniversary of Alberto Hemsi’s birth in 2018, as a cooperation with the European Centre of Jewish Music.

With the third CD (2019) the complete world premiere recording of the Coplas Sefardies and the piano songs is brought to a conclusion.

The artists:

ASSAF LEVITIN, cantor and vocalist

Since 1 December, 2016, Assaf Levitin has been the cantor at the Liberal Jewish Community of Hannover K. d. ö. R. Born in Israel, the baritone works as a concert and opera singer as well as a composer, arranger, conductor, teacher and cantor. After finishing his diploma at the HMT Saarbrücken he was employed in Zürich, Basel, Bonn, the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, Mannheim and Dortmund (ensemble member in 2002 - 2005) in opera roles such as Mozart’s Figaro, Colline, Gremin and Masetto.

In 2016, he finished his cantorial training at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg of Potsdam University. His master’s thesis, focusing on Alberto Hemsi’s liturgical music, will be published by the Weimar University Press. Over the course of his studies, he arranged different concerts and liturgies – as a singer as well as a cantor – in Berlin, Paris, Warsaw, Wroclaw, Kiev, Basel, Schwerin, Rostock and in many other communities. Since 2014, he has been performing with his Ensemble Die Drei Kantoren (The Three Cantors), which has recently published its second CD, for the cultural program of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.

His recording of the Mainzer Nussach (Mainz, 2004) is regarded by specialists as a recommended recording of the southern German nusach and frequently cited in expert groups. Other CD recordings showcase works by Jewish and Israeli composers such as Arnold Schönberg and Noa Blass as well as various classical and modern works. In 2016, he toured old synagogues in Germany and Poland for the project “Mekomot“ (places), presenting five premiere performances of works among classical chazzanut.


The pianist Naaman Wagner was born in Israel in 1984. Since 1998, he has performed as a solo pianist as well performing with various chamber music ensembles in Europe and Israel. He was a soloist with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and worked as an improviser with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He has been performing at the annual Kfar Blum Festival since 2000. He also has performed with the Israel Festival in 2005 and the Abu Gosh Festival in 2005 and 2008.He attended master classes at the Goslar Festival in Germany (2006 and 2007), in Perugia (Italy), where he played with the Perugia Symphony Orchestra, as well as in Tel Hai (Israel), where he studied with Dimitri Bashkirov.In 2006, he graduated from the Jerusalem Music Academy, where he studied conducting with Prof. Evgeny Zirlin, additionally finishing his Bachelor of Music in piano with Prof. Eitan Globerson. Over the course of his studies he won a number of awards for his performances as a soloist and chamber musician. He continued his studies in Germany, finishing his Diploma with Prof. Arie Vardi at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Hannover in June 2011.From 2001 to 2008, Naaman Wagner received a yearly scholarship from the Israel American Culture Foundation for his work as a composer and pianist. He currently lives in Berlin, performing as a member of the Calaf Trio and as a soloist and chamber musician in Israel, where he played with the Israel Contemporary Players under the leadership of Zsolt Nagy.

(Text: Assaf Levitin)

Project work of HMTMH students

The following texts about Alberto Hemsi’s Coplas Sefardies originated over the course of a project seminar at the HMTMH:

„Musical Science and the Communication of Music: Project Seminar with practical Exercises“
(winter semester 2017/18).
Lead by: Prof. Dr. Sarah M. Ross, Prof. Dr. Stefan Weiss.

Contributors to the texts: En-Jou Chen, Paloma León-Villagrá, Joschka Merhof, Michael Stach, Marie Stiller, Chang Wang, Laura Willenbrock, Siri Yu, Ruishi Zheng.

About the Coplas Sefardies: Introduction

In today’s world, the recording of musical works can be practically effortless. Most people are able to access a massive amount of different music genres thanks to digital streaming providers. The composer and ethnomusicologist Alberto Hemsi was faced with much graver problems in this respect. All kinds of media were less accessible at the time: Paper, records and the like were only available in a limited range and at a higher cost than today.

However, Hemsi was not discouraged by this state of affairs and proceeded to document and reconstruct the scarce musical treasure that Assaf Levitin and Naaman Wagner have dedicated themselves to in their series of CDs. However, what motivated him? What was the value that Hemsi ascribed to his work? To comprehend his incentive, it is necessary to observe the notion of tradition.

Remembrance keeps tradition alive and enables us to better understand the past’s importance for the present as well as the future. Traditions shape cultures and – in being passed on from generation to generation – not only remind us of past events, but are also representative of our belonging to a locally and chronologically independent community. Their loss is all the more painful when the memories fade and the understanding of the culture is gradually lost.

The preservation of recorded knowledge, of the sense of life constituting a culture, is strongly expressed in music.

The Coplas Sefardies, collected by the ethnomusicologist, passionate collector, cantor and composer Alberto Hemsi and first published in 1932, allow a formidable insight into the folk songs of the Sephardic Jews.

Hemsi did not see the notion of folk music only as a treasury of songs to be passed on, but rather as an expression of common features that connected people beyond geographical or linguistic borders: Music is a vehicle of one’s home, one’s native culture. It enables the sharing and exchanging of memories, traditions and stories.

Originally, the Sephardi Jews lived on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal). They are distinct from the Ashkenazi Jews that are moreover located in the northern, middle and eastern European region, and the Mizrahi Jews, who are from the Middle East (Yemen, Syria etc.). The distinction is not a matter of religious belonging but of the development of different traditions rooted in the Jewish history of the diaspora from the end of antiquity (Bossong, p. 8). The roots of Sephardi tradition are in Spain, where Jews took up residence from the first century (AD). The denomination “Sepharad“ was made in the Middle Ages as the haphazard connection of a biblical name with Andalusia and, later on, the entire Iberic Peninsula (Ray, p. 439).

The denomination of “Sephardi“ is not only territorial, but one that contains a cultural richness that connects the capacities of secular and religious knowledge in a special manner.

Massive waves of Sephardi Jewish migration were caused by the expulsions issued by Spain and Portugal, which at the time were governed by christians. Many Sephardim settled in southern France as well as the southern and eastern Mediterranean area. Later, over the course of the 16th century, they also moved to America, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Balkans and Anatolia. From the middle of the 17th century, there were also Sephardi Jews establishing themselves in England.

Over the course of the 16th and 17th century, the Sephardi Jews gradually established a collective culture which was individually influenced by their respective neighboring local cultures (of already settled Jews and of Christians and Muslims) (Ray 2014, p. 439-447).

Alberto Hemsi

Alberto Hemsi (6/27/1898 in Kasaba – 10/08/1975 in Aubervilliers) was a Sephardi Jewish ethnomusicologist, cantor and composer.

As a teenager (supposedly around 1908) he was taught to play the flute, clarinet, trombone and piano by his uncle Izmir. At 16 (1), his passion for the piano lead him to the Giuseppe Verdi Academy in Milan where he began his music studies. Among others, he studied with the venerated professor Giusto Zampieri, whose lectures focused on a historical overview of various music traditions. When he taught the Jewish music tradition following a suggestion by Hemsi, he concluded that it was not possible for him to play Jewish melodies for the course, as they had been forgotten and simply did not exist anymore. It was “(...) a profound disappointment! Profound!“ (Seroussi 1995, p. 24), as Hemsi puts it.

Among other influences, an encounter with his grandmother was decisive for Hemsi’s verve:
“When I came back [from Milan] after seven years I visited my grandmother from my mother’s side, in order to express her joy about our reunion, she sang two ancient romances we knew from home for me.
Both songs moved me and inspired my curiosity to get to know more of them, even at the price of becoming a wanderer without a home, such was my fervor to discover a world I had barely perceived before my leave...a world whose history, poetic richness and variety of melodies made it such a mesmerizing literal and musical phenomenon.” (Kremer 2016, p. 199)

These impulses awoke Hemsi’s desire to record the melodies that were prone to be forgotten. “Today more than ever there is consensus about the obligatory and categorically vital need to collect and publish hundreds of religious songs“ (Seroussi 1995, p. 24), Hemsi put it.

In 1917, Hemsi was struck by a blow of fate: He suffered war injuries to his arm, forcing him to end his career as a pianist. Although his prospects of being a professional musician were gone he was able to successfully finish his studies in composition, harmony, counterpoint and piano (Levitin 2016, p. 12 f.).

The profound experiences he made in professor Zampieri’s lectures lead him to do field studies in Turkey before beginning a systematic approach in Rhodos in 1923.

In Rhodos, Hemsi taught piano, harmony and composition, additionally working as an interpreter for the Italian consulate. During his stay in 1930, he pursued the project of recording and modernizing Sephardi music by arranging the melodies for solo voice, choir and instruments. He always transcribed them with pen and music paper, amusing many of his contact persons who were unacquainted with the western tradition of music notation (Levitin 2016, p. 14 f.).

Hemsi made a name for himself through his excellent piano teaching and numerous publications. In 1930, he married Myriam Cappelluto.

The newlyweds moved to Alexandria, where there was a musical debate between reformed and traditional musicians around 1930. Hemsi played an important part in Egypt’s musical life at the time. In 1932, he participated in a coference about arabian music in Cairo, having been invited alongside with important composers such as Paul Hindemith and Béla Bartók and persons such as Erich von Hornbostel, one of the founding fathers of comparative musicology (today: ethnomusicology).

Hemsi himself, being part of the reformed tendency, harmonized liturgical melodies and published numerous essays and articles, for example in the journal “Reform and L’aurore“. He was also appointed as a professor for music theory and choral conducting at the Conservatory of Alexandria. Since 1932 he visited numerous countries with the aspiration to find traces of Sephardi musical culture. Over the course of five years, he collected 347 songs and poems with 66 different melodies. Ultimately, he established the music publishing house “Edition orientale de musique“, building good rapports eith Israeli composers such as Paul Ben Haim (Levitin 2016, p. 15f.)

In the aftermath of the tough years following the war from 1941 to 1945 as well as Egypt’s political unrest, Hemsi’s family moved to Paris. This necessity was another hard blow after the high regard Hemsi had been held in back in Egypt. Nevertheless he started over and was quickly able to get the position of musical director of the two Sephardi synagogues “Brith Shalom“ and “Don Isaac Abarvanel“.

Hemsi’s diabetes, which had been diagnosed in the time of war, made it increasingly difficult for him to travel in the last years of his life. In 1973 he published his tenth and last issue of the coplas. In 1975 the doctors discovered that Hemsi had contracted lung cancer. Regardless of his declining physical health, he continued to work on his compositions and conducting his choir. He died on October 8th, 1975, in Aubervilliers (Levitin 2016, p. 16 ff.).

The collection Coplas Sefardies (1932-1973) consists of ten issues containing, in total, 60 pieces for voice and piano based on Sephardi songs collected by Hemsi on his ethnomusicological expeditions to Turkey (Anatolia, Smyrna and Istanbul), on the island of Rhodes and in Thessaloniki. In his collection, he processed the traditional material in a very original way.

What are Coplas Sefardies?

Coplas in Sephardic tradition constitute a musical-literary corpus from the folk repertoire of the Sephardi jews and their descendants. Historically, thematically and in terms of their function, the coplas, stanzaic songs with rhyming prose texts, are different from other Sephardi song forms such as the romances, cantigas and oraciones. The classification of the variety of songs in the Sephardic folk repertoire was published by the Israeli ethnomusicologist Edwin Seroussi in the “Cancionero Sefardi“.

The romance, a form of epic poetry, usually is based on the adventures of Spanish nobility. It tells heroic stories of love, jealousy or infidelity. In contrast, cantigas describe life cycle events - such as births, weddings, or deaths. Oraciones are religious songs that are traditionally performed by men.

The genre of the coplas ist tightly intertwined with Jewish history. A copla was often performed at festivities or as a biblical narration (Roda 2007, p. 48 - 52).

The copla, a traditionally strophic form, which is often used in folk songs, is originally rooted in Spain. Its name is derived from the Latin word “copula“ (=“unity“) and it is usually composed of four verses with eight syllables in every line. Between the second and fourth verse, there is an assonant rhyme, exhibiting the same vowel or kind of sound at a certain part of the verse.

The origins of the copla are not entirely known: it is likely that it emerged from medieval poetry and chants. The copla was first recorded in its known form in the 18th century.

From the Middle Ages, Jewish authors contributed their own Hebrew texts to Spanish poetry that could possibly be seen as the copla’s predecessors. Nevertheless, the first written form of coplas emerged in the 1700s (for example the Cantiga nueva de Purím in 1782 - Bürki 2014, p. 116 and Romero 2014, p. 345). It is, however, suspected that new Sephardi coplas emerged from the 17th century and, possibly, before, and that its oral tradition had been present continually from 1492 until the first recordings (Lehmann 2018, p. 265).

The themes of the coplas are frequently traditions, stories, and sometimes historical events. Being designed either dramatically or comically, they are a vital part of the popular song treasury of Sephardi Jewish culture as well as South America and Spain, developing a very individual style based on the different musical and textual tendencies and customs.

Not least, their popularity and diversity is due to their simple, informal and partly even comical or ambiguous language. While Sephardi coplas were often passed on in written form (Romero 1995, p. 343) and individually developed and evolved, there were also many of them which only existed orally until the point of Hemsi’s recording.

In 1492, the year of the expulsion of Sephardi Jews from Spain (and until 1497 in Portugal), they brought a part of their tradition and culture with them in the form of the Coplas, not least because of the narration of the Sephardi liturgy and customs comprised in their educational ballad form. Depending on the respective culture of the country the displaced Sephardi Jews settled in, the themes, stories and musical elements were continually further developed.

Early on, the Coplas evolved out of their Spanish roots into an individual, rich art form, representing the Sephardi culture and driving inspiration from their own living environment (Romero 1995, p. 344).

They were performed in Ladino – the language of Sephardi Jews, composed, among others, of Old Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Armenian and French elements. Because of the scarcity of Ladino, Alberto Hemsi decided to write the text in phonetic transcription as a help for their performance. In this way, even musicians who do not speak the Romance language can convincingly present the texts.

Hemsi’s recording of the Coplas Sefardies was of great importance because, up until that point, it was not known how strongly and richly developed the old poetic forms of Spanish origin had been maintained. Even in present day, Sephardi coplas are written and performed, among them Zionist coplas (Zionidas) and coplas commemorating the Holocaust (Schwarzwald 2002, p. 587) – this proves their crucial position in Sephardi musical culture that has persisted until today and attests the importance of a genre whose history is likely to include more than five centuries of uninterrupted musical practice.

Other remarks

(1) Alberto Hemsi had to be 18 years old in order to enroll at the music academy. Apparently he stated a wrong date of birth, which explains the different information about his age.


Kremer, Jonas: „Alberto Hemsi und die sephardische Folklore“, in: Klokova, Antonina und Nemtsov, Jascha (Hrsg.), Einbahnstraße oder „die heilige Brücke“? Jüdische Musik und europäische Musikkultur. Wiesbaden , Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016, p. 199.

Lehmann, Matthias: „Linguistic Transformations. Ladino (judeo-spanish)“, in: Karp, Jonathan and Sutcliffe, Adam (Hrsg.), The Cambridge History of Judaism. Volume VII: The early modern World, 1500 – 1815. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018. P. 257–273.

Levitin, Assaf: „Alberto Hemsi’s liturgical music – Analysis of a musical documentation of sephardi nussach“. Paderborn, 2016.

Ray, Jonathan: „Sepharad“, in: Diner, Dan (Hrsg.), Enzyklopädie jüdischer Geschichte und Kultur. Stuttgart, J. B. Metzler, Band 5, 2014, p. 439–447.

Roda, Jessica: „Alberto Hemsi et les Coplas Sefardies. Analyse musicologique d’une oeuvre inspirée de la musique judéo-espagnole“, master theses, Université Paris-Sorbonne (unpublished), 2007.

Romero, Elena: „Las coplas sefardíes novísimas de Purim: temas y tópicos“, in: Bürki, Yvette and Romero, Elena (Hrsg.), La lengua sefardí. Aspectos lingüísticos, literarios y culturales. Berlin, Frank und Timme, 2014, p. 151–194.

Romero, Elena: „Coplas: Introduction by Elena Romero“, in: Seroussi, Edwin (Hrsg.), Alberto Hemsi. Cancionero sefardí. Jerusalem, The Jewish Music Research Centre, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1995, S. 343–348.

Seroussi, Edwin: „The history and conception of Hemsi’s Cancionero Sefardi and Sepharad“, in: Seroussi, Edwin (ed.), Cancionero sefardí. Jerusalem, Kesset Publications, 1995, p. 23-38.

Schippers, Huib: „Sound futures – Exploring the ecology of music sustainability“, in: Schippers, Huib & Grant, Catherine (ed.), Sustainable futures for music cultures. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 1–17.

Schwarzwarld, Ora Rodrigue: „Judaeo-Spanish Studies“, in: Goodman, Martin (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 572–599.


Person to contact

Prof. Dr. Sarah M. Ross
Director of the EZJM
T. +49-(0)511-3100-7120
E-Mail: Prof. Dr. Sarah M. Ross

Release Information Vol. 1

Alberto Hemsi:
Coplas Sefardies Vol. 1
Chansons judéo-espagnoles

Assaf Levitin, baritone
Naaman Wagner, piano

Booklet notes: German, English
Total time: 73:37

CD number: CD ROP6155
Rondeau Production 2018

Available worldwide

Release Information Vol. 2

Alberto Hemsi:
Coplas Sefardies Vol. 2
Complete Piano Songs

Assaf Levitin, baritone
Naaman Wagner, piano

Booklet notes: German, English
Total time: 74:56

CD number: CD ROP6156
Rondeau Production 2018

Available worldwide

Release Information Vol. 3

Alberto Hemsi:
Coplas Sefardies Vol. 3
Complete Piano Songs

Assaf Levitin, baritone
Naaman Wagner, piano

Booklet: German, English
Gesamtspielzeit: 71:34

CD number: CD ROP6157
Rondeau Production 2019

Abailable worldwide


The CDs can be ordered at the price of €15 from the EZJM:

Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien Hannover
Europäisches Zentrum für Jüdische Musik
Villa Seligmann
Hohenzollernstraße 39
30161 Hannover
T. +49-(0)511-3100-7121
E-Mail: EZJM

More information on Alberto Hemsi

The Institut Européen des Musiques Juives, Paris, presents more information on Alberto Hemsi on its website.

Alberto Hemsi: The Sephardic Coplas

Last modified: 2022-03-29

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