Once upon a time Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in harmony, sharing learning and art, despite their different takes on the one God. But that was long ago in places like Southern Spain, the Ottoman Empire and Baghdad. Because things have not improved since, there is all the more reason to be reminded of these more peaceful and tolerant times. In a tour de force that taught even us jaded critics something new about music history, The King’s Singers and Sarband teamed up to perform a musical and liturgical cross-fertilization among the three religions across Sacred Bridges.

The King’s Singers, that veteran group from King’s College Cambridge whose smooth, elegant style enriches everything from Gregorian chant to pop, joined with Turkish members of Sarband to present a program of Jewish, Christian and Muslim psalm settings. Directed by Vladimir Ivanoff, Sarband “endeavors to show all possible connections between European music, Islamic and Jewish music-culture. Both sensitively and intensely Sarband celebrates the symbiotic relationship between the Orient and the Occident.” For this performance, the common spiritual thread was that all three religions value and set to music the body of 150 psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. But the story behind Sacred Bridges is far more complex and fascinating.

Concentrating on the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the two groups put together a program of psalm settings by the Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi Ebreo (ca. 1570 – ca 1630), French Protestant Claude Goudimel (ca. 1510-1572), Dutch Catholic Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck (1562-l621) and Polish/Turkish Muslim Ali Ufki (1610-1675). All four musicians were religious outsiders in the countries in which they lived. All were adapting the musical styles of their own religion to that of the their host countries. The 72-minute performance was a completely seamless blend of the music of these four religious and national cultures, focused around the music of these four central figures.

To write about the performance cannot do justice to the spell it cast, but the way in which the histories and the music combine has a fascination quite apart from the experience.

Salamone Rossi was a member of the court of Mantua at the turn of the 17th century and a colleague of Claudio Monteverdi. During this period, the Gonzaga court was one of the most culturally brilliant in Europe, and Rossi wanted to adapt the style of the polyphonic motet to the Jewish liturgy. His settings of the psalms and prayers represented a Christianizing of the Jewish liturgy analogous to the music of the assimilation movement in 19th century Germany, although Rossi’s music met with less acceptance.

A few decades earlier, Jean Calvin published The Geneva Psalter, French translations of the psalms set to simple tunes for home worship. Subsequently, Calvinist composers wrote additional and more elaborate musical settings of The Geneva Psalter, one of the most prominent of them being Goudimel in France and Sweelinck in Holland. Since French poetry did not have accented verse, but rather quantitative verse (long and short syllables), the original psalm tunes have a somewhat syncopated sound to English ears accustomed to accented meters. The prosody however, fits Turkish quite well. And here’s where the magic of Sacred Bridges went into gear.

Apparently during the 16th century, Protestant missionaries were active in Istanbul, where the Turks welcomed them, if for no other reason than that they were anti-Catholic and therefore against the Catholic Hapsburg Empire in neighboring Vienna. Since the Ottomans believed that the Bible should be translated into all vernacular languages, they set about translating it into Turkish.

Meanwhile, in the mid 17th century a young Polish church musician, Wojciech Bobowski, was captured by Tartars in the Crimea and sold as a slave to the court of Sultan Mehmet IV, where he received a fine education and converted to Islam. He changed his name to Ali Ufki, became a musician at the sultan’s court and translated religious texts including the Anglican catechism. He also assembled two large manuscripts of Ottoman music. In a small diary, however, he also translated and notated psalms from the Geneva Psalter into Turkish, adapting the tunes according to the Turkish modal system. Because Turkish was then written in Arabic script, Ali Ufki notated the music in Western notation from right to left to fit the Turkish texts!

Sacred Bridges effected yet a new transformation, in which time and place were suspended, with only the psalms and the music remaining. the King’s Singers sang a selection of psalm settings by one or more of the Western composers, which Sarband then sang in Turkish, improvising on the original psalm melody. While the Western pieces were sung a cappella, the Turkish versions were accompanied by kanun (a zither), kemençe (a small bowed instrument with three melodic strings and three drones), or nei (a type of recorder), and a drum. To highlight the sense of theater, two whirling dervishes, dressed in flowing white, spun gracefully during two of the Turkish versions.

While the particulars of this collaboration by The King’s Singers and Sarband never actually took place in history, Rossi, Goudimel, Sweelinck and Ali Ufki were all men with the vision to see beyond the confines of the religious and cultural traditions of their communities. Sacred Bridges aptly fulfilled the vision of a spiritual world without borders.

The CD Sacred Bridges, containing the music of the full program, is available on the World Village label.