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Menachem Bensussan (1901–1970): Sephardic Songs, Trans. Ron Merhavi – Three Performances

Composer, pianist and director Dr. Menachem Bensussan (1901–1970) was born in Russe, Bulgaria.[1] After basic piano training in his hometown, his family moved to Sofia, where Bensussan, alongside his high school training, received a more thorough musical education at the capital’s Music Academy. He was accepted to the Viennese Academy of Music, as a student of the renowned pianist, Emile von Zauer. But fate put a barrier in the future of Bensussan as a pianist: While ice-skating in Bulgaria, he fell and broke one of his wrists. Although he graduated with honors from Prof. Von Zauer’s studio, Bensussan realized that pursuing a career as a concert pianist would be difficult to maintain due to pains in his wrist. Not discouraged, he turned to other avenues in musical creativity, taking conducting with Dr. Joseph Marks. At the same time, he began to study dentistry, a decision that would eventually assure him financial security throughout his life (not such a bad idea, to be considered by every musician…). After graduation in 1925 he turned to Berlin, continuing his dentistry studies, and at the same time serving as a rehearsal pianist and assistant conductor of the Magdeburg Opera. Soon new horizons were placed in front of Dr. Bensussan through favorable reviews in the Magdeburg press, in addition to the personal relationship between his conducting professor from Vienna and director/producer Max Rhinehardt. In 1931 the latter, serving as creative director of the Deutche Oper in Berlin, appointed Bensussan as musical director of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus and other works. The cooperation ended in 1933, when due to the political atmosphere in Germany Bensussan returned to Sofia with a wealth of musical experience, as well as a dental diploma. He established a piano trio, and later on composed for the stage, anonymously published popular songs, as well as completed symphonic works such as Bulgarian Suite, premiered by the Tzar’s Symphonic Orchestra. “Light music I compose as recreation, but classical music is my vocation” was how Bensussan presented his musical approach. In Sofia, Bensussan became the conductor of the Tsadikoff Choir. This choir is still active in Jaffa, Israel (a city with extensive Bulgarian Jewish community).

In 1940, with the arrival of Hitler to Bulgaria, Bensussan left Europe and emigrated to the U. S. In Hollywood, California, he had to decide whether to obtain a successful career in the popular and film music, or to remain true to his heart and continue with his classical realm. Bensussan left California, continued his studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dentistry, and graduated in 1944. He settled in New York City, and maintained a dental practice at 1 West 85th Street. Simultaneously, Bensussan composed and published piano and chamber music, and researched Sephardic music and folk songs. During 1967, Dr. Bensussan took a trip to Israel and considered spending the rest of his life there; unfortunately, soon afterwards he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

The three (out of seven) Sephardic songs are taken from a manuscript at the archive of the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem. Presumably a gift by the composer’s sister Margarita during her visit to Israel in lieu of a performance of Bensussan’s Bulgarian Suite in Israel in the mid 1970s, the tidy handwritten script was rediscovered by musicologist Edwin Seroussi and recorded on a 1997 CD with soprano Robin Weisel-Capsouto and pianist Miri Zamir-Capsouto, sung in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) dialect.

Bensussan’s Three Sephardic Songs arrangement demonstrates his high skills both as a pianist, using rich, technically demanding textures, and as a composer, utilizing imaginative reharmonizations of the different verses of each song.

Durme, Durme (Sleep, sleep)

Sleep, sleep, beautiful maiden

Without anxiety, without pain

Listen, my love, to the strains of my guitar

Listen to my gloomy singing

Say, will you love me?

If not— I shall die.

Enriva De La Tu Seja (Above your eyebrows)

Above your eyebrows I will build a sanctuary

To which I will sing my morning prayers.

Spill water on your threshold,

I will slip and fall so that your parents will come out and know me.

El Rey ke Muntscho Madruga (The King who arose early)

The king who arose early to the queen's quarters went. The queen's hair was loose as she gazed at the mirror; The king hugged her from behind. Let go, my love:, two of my sons are yours and two by the king… suddenly, she looked at the mirror and realized the King is next to her.

Forgive me, Sir — I must have been dreaming.

Esta Armada Ke Viene (Among the approaching group)

“Among the approaching group of beautiful girls,

My beloved is that one dressed in red.”

(Beloved): “Thirty liras he asked for, and I gave him thirty one.

A good profession he has, he’s a thief and a gambler.”

Ron Merhavi

October 2004

[1] Taken from Benyamin I. Arditti, Famous Hebrew Bulgarians, vol. III (Tel-Aviv: Achdut, 1971), pp. 74-83, translated by Margarita Bensussan Harvey. This source is probably a translation of a similar biography in Bulgarian by Marco Isakoff.

Menachem Bensussan (1901–1970): Four Sephardic Songs

Trans. Ron Merhavi

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Eyal Bat – Piano

Kama flour mill, Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim


Menachem Bensussan (1901–1970): Three Sephardic Songs

Trans. Ron Merhavi – Two Performances

World Premiere of Double Bass version

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Thomas Bandy – Piano

Ron Merhavi's Third Dissertation Recital: Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 27.10.2004

Menachem Bensussan (1901–1970): Three Sephardic Songs

Trans. Ron Merhavi

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Ariel Halevy – Piano

Youth at the Centre Series, broadcast live on the Voice of Music

Jerusalem Music Centre



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