Archives for posts with tag: jewish music

Let’s scan through ten (at times competing) notions of “Jewish Music” that have emerged during the last, well, 500 years.

Background information for this is in the articles by Philip Bohlman and Edwin Seroussi listed here, and in the Syllabus (they were last week’s assignments, so I’m absolutely positive that everyone has already read them carefully). These studies are also reflected in this week’s reading, and especially the “Jewish Music” entry in Oxford Music Online, which opens with the following statements.

‘Jewish music’ as a concept emerged among Jewish scholars and musicians only in the mid-19th century with the rise of modern national consciousness among European Jews, and since then all attempts to define it have faced many difficulties. The term ‘Jewish music’ in its nation-oriented sense was first coined by German or German-trained Jewish scholars, among whom the most influential in this respect was A.Z. Idelsohn (1882–1938), whose book Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929) was a landmark in its field that is still widely consulted today . Idelsohn was the first scholar to incorporate the Jewish ‘Orient’ into his research, and thus his work presents the first ecumenical, though still fragmentary, description of the variety of surviving Jewish musical cultures set within a single historical narrative. In his work Idelsohn pursued a particular ideological agenda: he adopted the idea of the underlying cultural unity of the Jewish people despite their millenary dispersion among the nations, and promoted the view that the music of the various Jewish communities in the present expresses aspects of that unity. Moreover, Idelsohn’s work implied a unilinear history of Jewish music dating back to the Temple in biblical Jerusalem. This approach was perpetuated in later attempts to write a comprehensive overview of Jewish music from a historical perspective (e.g. Avenary, 1971–2). Despite its problematic nature, the concept of ‘Jewish music’ in its Idelsohnian sense is a figure of speech widely employed today, being used in many different contexts of musical activity: recorded popular music, art music composition, printed anthologies, scholarly research and so on. The use of this term to refer both to the traditional music of all Jewish communities, past and present, and to new contemporary music created by Jews with ethnic or national agendas is thus convenient, as long as its historical background and ideological connotations are borne in mind.

Below, I’m scanning through some of the connections that “Jewish music” elicits. I’m not pretending to be exhaustive, and I’m also having some fun in choosing related visual and musical examples to make my points.

1. Jewish music as “Musica Haebreorum”: the notion of a “music of the Hebrews (the Jews)” really begins with Christian Humanists and their heirs.

An example I particularly like (also because it has been eminently understudied, so far), and that one can read online, is from Ercole Bottrigari, Il trimerone de’ fondamenti armonici, ouero lo essercitio musicale, giornata terza, 1599 (Source: Bologna, Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, MS B44, 1-23): Bottrigari specifically addresses “il Canto degli Hebrej” (the song of the Jews) and the musical rendition of the “masoretic accents” that govern the singing of the Hebrew Bible in synagogue liturgy. (Image source).

Il Canto degli Hebrej in E. Bottrigari, Trimerone (1599)

2. Jewish (musical) antiquity. But whose antiquity really is it?
Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello, and many many more after him, searched for “Jewish musical antiquity.” (You can read more about this topic here).
See a contemporary incarnation of the belief in Jewish musical antiquity by Jordi Savall-Hespèrion XXI, Lavava y suspirava (romance) (Anónimo Sefardí):

3. The Wissenschaft des Judentums (19th cent.) and the invention of “Jewish Music” as a Jewish notion

An interesting byproduct of 19th-century Jewish scholarship was been the construction of the “Italian Jewish Renaissance” as a golden age of musical production, and of Jewish music as “art music.” Listen below to Salamone Rossi, ‘al naharot bavel (Psalm 137), by The Prophets of the Perfect Fifth (I profeti della quinta)

4. Jewish music as “Music of the Jewish People” (with the related notions of Nationalism & Identity), as found in the “St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music” and in related Zionist musical agendas.
Lazare Saminsky (Odessa 1882- NY 1959), composed Conte Hebräique (Hebrew Fairy Tale) in Palestine in 1919, en route from Russia to America (via the UK).

5. Jewish music as “Judaism in Music” (an expression made quite popular by Richard Wagner) brings with it a certain passion for singling out “the Jewish elements” in the music of eminent composers of Jewish descent. This is a trademark of many 20th-century scholarly contribution to the field.
An excellent summary on the relationship between Wagner and modern Jewish sensibilities can be found in the form of a satire in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 2, Episode 3: Trick or Treat (October 7, 2001) (note when Larry David whistles “Springtime from Hitler” from the Producers). Link courtesy of my friend Kathleen Wiens (UCLA).

6. Jewish music as “Degenerated Music” and the passion of making lists of “Jewish” composers, compositions, etc., so that music can be purified from their influence.
Well, these are the Nazis… See them enjoying their right to free speech in John Landis, The Blues Brothers (USA 1980):

A book published in Nazi Germany, listing Jewish music professionals, is included in the music holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, and will be accessible to interested students as soon as these holdings are transferred to our new facility.

7. Jewish music as lost (or suppressed) music: in the view of post-Holocaust cultural agendas, any sample of Jewish culture is worthy of attention, and the enormity of the historical legacy of the Holocaust trumps any aesthetic consideration.
Watch, for example, this news report on Francesco Lotoro’s KZ Musik project, conducted with the support of the European Union:

8. Jewish music as revival. In her essay, Sounds of Sensibility (1998), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett outlines several implications related to the (American) revival of “Klezmer” music.
In his fascinating eulogy of Adrienne Cooper (1946-2011), one of the protagonists of the American revival of Ashkenazi culture, Canadian writer, Michael Wex, thus articulated the special relationship that late 20th-century Jewish revivalists had with tradition:

[Adrienne Cooper] had a talent for subversion along with an innate sense of decorum that let her reverse a tradition, turn it inside out, before any of its guardians had actually noticed.

The New-York band, Klezmatics, turned the socialist song, Ale brider into an anthem for Queer rights. Here, they sing it together with Israeli folk music (and protest song) icon, Chava Alberstein, in Berlin, Germany:

9. Jewish music as “soul” and “fusion” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “masses”).
An example by Argentinian-Israeli musician, Giora Feidman:

10. Jewish music as “world music” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “elites”)
An example by Moroccan-Israeli cantor and singer, Emil Zrihan:


Here’s the link:

Israel Ministry of Toursim:Free Israel Music DVD*

I am really interested in knowing what the musical selection is in this promotional DVD. Here’s the introductory text:

When you visit Israel, you’ll never be the same! Now you can request a complimentary Israel DVD and receive an unforgettable music video of the Holy Land – absolutely free! Just fill out the information below to request your free Israel Music DVD. Thank you for your time and input!

What this is about (outreach to Christian Churches by the Israel Ministry of Tourism) is clarified in the pull-down menus in the order form:

  • Personal titles include, beyond the usual “Mr., Miss, Mrs., Ms. and Dr.,” also “Rev.,” “Pastor,” and “Bishop”
  • The additional information optionally requested asks to specify one’s role “in my church or organization”

Beyond the obvious curiosity about content, this online ad is interesting for at least two major reasons.

Number one: a concrete example of how music may serve political, and economic, goals. (In this case: outreach and PR, as well as promotion of tourist facilities, etc.).

Number two: the specific marketing target of this publication addresses a fundamental ambiguity. Is outreach from the State of Israel (via one of its Ministries) towards Christianity a matter of “international” or “interfaith” relations? Both? And what can music add to it? (A lot, I believe, if one considers the centuries-old interest on the part of Christian scholars towards the sources of Jewish music).

At any rate, I just filled out the order form. We’ll see if I receive a copy.

Stay tuned.

* The spelling of “toursim” is from the website (I left it here because it sounds a bit like taqsim…).

My own personal version of paradise (a very musical one) is located in Jerusalem. It’s called National Sound Archives (NSA). These were founded in 1964 by Israel Adler (Berlin 1925-Jerusalem 2009), my beloved teacher and a veritable powerhouse. Israel Adler, who was also the founding director of The Jewish Music Research Center of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was into synergies, and thought that scholars and archivists should work hand-in-hand. The result is a fantabulous collection of hundreds of thousands of recordings, documenting music in Israel (including traditional music of many religious groups as well as the sound archives of the State of Israel), and Jewish music from around the world.

A peculiarity of the NSA is that many of the researchers who have conducted their work there have left their notes to accompany the field recordings they either made or studied. The result is that (if one knows how to ask), scholars working in this institutions not only have access to amazing musical treasures from around the world. They also have access to the scholarship of those who preceded them. Talk about collaborative projects. And talk about standing on the shoulders of giants

The current director of the NSA is dr. Gila Flam. She has spearheaded a massive process of digitization, which is now coming to fruition via the recently opened Music Center of the recently renamed National Library of Israel (it used to be called The Jewish National and University Library, or JNUL). Here she addresses the scope of her project (the style of the video is a bit too formal for my own taste, and not entirely in line with my own experience with the reality of this institution over the last several decades as a vibrant and somewhat unconventional place). We also get to see the Givat Ram (or Safra) Campus of The Hebrew University, its Library, and snippets of the amazing music performances organized under dr. Flam’s guidance. All good stuff.


This week, we will use a compilation of recordings from the NSA as a way to explore the diversity of traditional sounds found, collected and preserved in Israel by its leading sound archive. The compilation, Musical Traditions in Israel: Treasures of the National Sound Archives, has recently become available online, and you can listen to 24 different sound examples here. Unfortunately, most of the metadata for this playlist is in Hebrew, BUT you can find a copy of the booklet that accompanied the original CD release right here (read it carefully!).

In order to guide you in your listening work, and in preparing your first weekly written response, please refer to this week’s handout (and to the syllabus for my guidelines in completing this assignment):

View this document on Scribd

We got through week one, and it looks like as of next week we will have a complete roster, and full access to UC Berkeley’s bSpace. Not bad.

Also, The Magnes is opening this weekend. Images of our classroom are going around, too. See some here:

In the meantime, a couple of (hopefully) useful reminders.

First: until bSpace is available to all (some of you should already be in by now), use this blog as your main source of information about the class. This includes the syllabus, and this week’s reading assignments.

Second: If you have not done so already, do make time to read this week’s materials (they will come useful throughout the course).

Third: use the weekend to become familiar with next week’s assignments. I’ll be posting more on this blog, but for now refer to the syllabus and to the weekly handout, which you can also find here.

Last: enjoy the weekend!

This weeks assignments are “warm-up” readings. Until bSpace is figured out, you can find them here:

Definitely read the opening pages of Amos Oz’s autobiography. His view of cultural and family life in Jerusalem in the 1940’s is not to be missed. Then choose one of the two music essays. Personally, I’d prefer if you all read Edwin Seroussi’s global overview of the study of Jewish music, but I’m ok with you reading Philip Bohlman’s insightful study of the origins of the notion of “Jewish music” in 19th-century German Jewish culture. HOWEVER, if you are a music major, do tackle Seroussi’s essay first.

P.S. No responses are required this week or the next. The sheet I gave out was to show you what things will look like in the course of the semester. Just use this time to orient yourselves and get up to speed.

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