Alberto Hemsi (1898 – 1975)

A master of Sephardi music...

Born on June 27th 1898 in Cassaba, a Turk village East of Izmir, from Italian parents, Alberto Hemsi studies at the school of the Universal Israelite Alliance. In 1913, he receives a scholarship and is sent to Milan by the Musical Israelite Society of Izmir. He enters the Royal Music Conservatory of Milan in 1914, and does solid studies with the famous teachers of the time: piano with Andréoli, harmony and composition with Bossi and Perinello...
Near the end of World War I, he is called to join the army, as an Italian subject. Wounded at the right arm, he obtains several civil and military decorations. He becomes captain at the end of the war, and leaves the army to dedicate himself only to piano and composition.
In 1919, he receives his diploma of instrumentation, and decides to go back to his homeland. His coming back is celebrated with very old melodies sang by his grandmother. Touched by the beauty of what he hears, Hemsi understands the need to save this heritage which is only of oral tradition.
Between 1920 and 1923, Alberto Hemsi teaches theory, piano and choral singing in Izmir. From 1924 to 1927, he settles down in Rhodes, gives courses and starts ethnographic and folkloric research, especially among old women and cantaderas, semi-professional singers, renowned for their beautiful voice, which families invite to sing during special events (weddings and other celebrations).
In 1928, the Israelite Community of Alexandria (Egypt) asks him to become musical director of Eliahou Hanabi Temple. Music teacher in the community’s schools, he creates and leads an orchestra built on wind instruments. He also gives harmony and composition classes in G. Verdi Conservatory of Alexandria till 1940, then to the Music Conservatory of Alexandria from 1952 to 1957. After the Sinai war, he settles down in Paris with his family in 1957.
During his Parisian career, Hemsi his in charge of the musical conducting of two Sephardi synagogues, Brith Shalom and Don Isaac Abravanel, as well as the courses of musical liturgy in the Israelite Seminary of France. Musicologist, hard worker dedicated to the Judeo-Spanish cause, he hosts several radio shows in Spanish language on a French radio station in order to make people know more about Judeo-Spanish folklore. Short before his death in 1975, he is chosen to be correspondent at the Royal Academy of Arts of San Fernando in Madrid in recognition of his work on Sephardi music.
Winner of many international prizes, renowned musician, Alberto Hemsi leaves behind him an important musical work (54 opus), often unpublished and of an exceptional quality: many pieces for piano and voice (Kal nidre, Yom guila, Biblical Visions, etc), for choral (Six chorals in Ladino, Four Hebraic pieces, etc), for one or two pianos (Three Egyptian dances, Three Biblical dances, etc), for fidl, viola or cello and piano (several Sephardi suites), and finally for various ensembles and symphonic orchestras (Biblical dances, Tableau symphonique, etc).
A great part of his work exist only as tracing papers or manuscripts, that are today kept at the European Institute for Jewish Music after the donation of his archives by his widow, Mme Myriam Capelutto Hemsi.

Consult the detailed inventory of the musical archives of Hemsi kept at the EIJM
Buy the CD Alberto Hemsi, Coplas sefardies, coll. Patrimoines Musicaux des Juifs de France, Edition de l’IEMJ, 2004.
Listen to excerpts of the CD Alberto Hemsi, Coplas sefardies.

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