Alberto Hemsi: A Five-Hundred-Year Journey

In 2004, Miryam Capelutto Hemsi, widow of the composer Alberto Hemsi (1898–1975), donated his archive to the European Institute of Jewish Music in Paris. A few curious singers had performed his setting of Sephardic songs, the Coplas Sefardies, but almost nothing of his instrumental music had been played since the 1940s and 50s, as it had been in the composer’s archive. When the pandemic struck and musical life ground to a halt, I started to explore some of the repertoire I had accumulated over the years; and Hemsi’s works, which had been stored on a thumb drive for over 10 years, seemed particularly promising. When the ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory) assembled to read his works, my expectations were exceeded. His music is rooted in Sephardic song, but explored and developed with a particular sophistication and wit.

Early this year, the ARC Ensemble recorded a selection of his pieces at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall. The sessions were overseen from New York by the group’s longtime producer David Frost. We were all a little nervous about the potential technical complications of this long-distance arrangement, but the three recording days went off without a hitch.

The Arc Ensemble. Photo credit: Sam Gaetz.

Hemsi’s ancestors fled Spain in the late 15th century and settled in the free port of Livorno, Italy. Hemsi’s parents moved from Livorno to Turgutlu, a town east of Izmir in present-day Turkey, where Hemsi was born on June 27, 1898. There had been a Jewish presence in the region for over 2,000 years, the population expanding considerably with the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal. However, with Israel’s independence, and an upsurge in antisemitism, the population dwindled precipitously during the second half of the twentieth century. Aged 10, Hemsi was sent to live with his uncle in Izmir and admitted to Milan’s Verdi Conservatory six years later. It was here that his interest in Sephardic music was sparked. This became a lifetime passion and provided the inspiration for most of his own compositions. The Greco-Turkish war forced Hemsi to flee to Rhodes, and in 1928 he was appointed director of Alexandria’s huge and very beautiful Eliahou Hanabi Temple. As an Italian, his loyalty was questioned during WWII (Alexandria being a major British port). As a Jew he was forced to flee Egypt after the Sinai War and the Suez Crisis. The Hemsi family found sanctuary in Paris.

Alberto Hemsi, age 20. Photo credit: Institut Européen des Musiques Juives.

Hemsi appears to have been one of those extraordinary individuals who thrive wherever they are planted. During the last two decades of his life, he oversaw the music of two Sephardic synagogues, presented courses in musical liturgy at the Jewish Seminary of France, and promoted Judeo-Spanish folklore. The chronology of his life and the challenges Hemsi encountered differ from the familiar narrative of composers who fled Europe during the 1930s, those who found refuge, and then gradually settled (or not) into their adoptive country. The typical exile narrative of the 1930s tells of the flight from Central Europe to the U.S., U.K, or South America—anywhere in order to escape an imminent existential threat. The danger to Hemsi and his family was never as extreme, and when they finally settled in Paris in 1957 the political context was very different from that of Nazi Germany.

Alberto Hemsi, Philharmonique des Ecoles Communaut. Photo credit: Institut Européen des Musiques Juives.

The near-annihilation of European Jewry, together with many of its traditions and cultural institutions, has given Hemsi’s research and the preservation of a hugely significant Jewish cultural legacy a sense of providential timing (had he not collected the material in the 20s and 30s these songs, as well as his own arrangements of them, would have been lost together with the people who were murdered). The recovery of Hemsi’s own music represents the final chapter in this journey. 


The ARC Ensemble’s recording of his works (on Chandos) was released in October.  

Header image of Alberto Hemsi, Philharmonique des Ecoles Communaut. Photo credit: Institut Européen des Musiques Juives.

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