“Jewish Music”: 10 Competing Notions

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 discussion can be found in this (and last) week’s reading, but 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. […] 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 attempt to highlight 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. The Invention of Jewish music as Musica Haebreorum

The notion of a “music of the Hebrews [aka, the Jews]” really begins with Christian Humanists (who wrote most of their works in Latin, hence, musica haebreorum)  and their heirs. These scholars studied how Jews made music inside synagogues and described (at times including musical examples) what they heard with their own ears. In doing so, they were often confronted with the inherent diasporic variety of Jewish synagogue music.

An example I particularly like (because it has been eminently understudied, so far, and also because it refers to the wide variety of Jewish musical traditions at one time found in the Italian peninsula) is drawn from Ercole Bottrigari, Il trimerone de’ fondamenti armonici, ouero lo essercitio musicale, giornata terza, 1599 (“The Three-Day-Long-Dialogue of the Fundaments of Harmony, or The Musical Practice;” source: Bologna, Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, MS B44, 1-23, see also a description here).

Bottrigari specifically addressed the specificities of 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. After discussing details pertaining to Hebrew letters, and the rules for chanting Biblical texts, Bottrigari states the following:

After discussing details pertaining to Hebrew letters, and the rules for chanting Biblical texts, Bottrigari states the following:

Il Canto degli Hebrej nelle Sinagoghe loro esser come ‘l Canto fermo, ò piano nelle nostre Chiese

or

The Song of the Jews in their Synagogues is like the cantus firmus [a monophonic melody], or plain, of our Churches

And, furthermore:

Soggiungerouj anco poi, che mouimenti tai nel Canto sono molto differenti [24. in marg.] nelle Sinagoghe de’ Giudei secondo le Nationj loro ò Francesi, ò Spagnuole, ò Tedesche, od Italiane, ò Leuantine, od altre. E questo non ui dico io solamente per quello; che ne scriuono essi Reuchino e Vallense: Ma per quello che io stesso ne intesi già da qualcuno hebreo in Ferrara; Doue, sicome in Mantoa sono hebrej di tutte queste Nationj dimandatine da me: et anco ne pigliaj in iscritto da un principal Rabì della Sinagoga Spagnuola tutta l’ aere del Salmo 51.

or

I would add that the melodic character is extremely diverse in the synagogues of the Jews according to their origins, either French, or Spanish, or German, or Italian, or Levantine, or others. And I am not only arguing this in accordance with [what others have published] but on the basis of I have myself heard from a Jew in Ferrara, where, since in Mantua there are Jews belonging to each of these denominations, I asked myself, and transcribed the complete melody of Psalm 51 from a Rabbi in the Spanish synagogue.

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

(Image source)

2. The Ongoing Quest for Jewish (musical) Antiquity

“Jewish music” is by default associated with antiquity. But whose antiquity really is it? Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello, and many more in his footsteps, searched for “Jewish musical antiquity.” (You can read more about this topic here).

This quest has often lead to essentializing Jewish musical practice in the name of a higher call (the expectation that Jewish cultural manifestations are by default vestiges of an ancient past). It continues into the present.

See a contemporary incarnation of the belief in Jewish musical antiquity as presented by Jordi Savall-Hespèrion XXI, Lavava y suspirava (romance) (Anónimo Sefardí), in which the rather modern Sephardic Jewish past is presented as Medieval:

3. The Re-invention of “Jewish Music” by Jewish Scholars

An interesting byproduct of 19th-century Jewish scholarship (also known, in German, as Wissenschaft des Judentums, or the Science of Judaism) was 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 (ca. 1570-1630), ‘al naharot bavel (Psalm 137), by The Prophets of the Perfect Fifth (I profeti della quinta). While Salamone Rossi, who was active in Mantua and published the first collection of Hebrew polyphonic music in Venice in 1622-23, did indeed write “art music,” it is hard to prove that his Hebrew compositions were performed inside a synagogue (if they were ever performed at all), or directed to a Jewish audience. And yet, such music has been presented in the guise of “Jewish Art Music.”

4. The “Music of the Jewish People”

The idea that Jewish music can be defined as the music of the Jewish people (with the related notions of Nationalism & Identity) as a cohesive cultural corpus is deeply connected with the activities of 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). Many other composers wrote music in the same vein.

5. “Judaism in Music” (an expression made quite popular by the composer Richard Wagner, 1813-1883) 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 contributions to the field.

An excellent (albeit not scholarly) 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). (Please note the moment when Larry David whistles the melody of Springtime for Hitler, from The Producers, a feature film written and directed by Mel Brooks in 1967).

6. Jewish music as “Degenerate Music” (Entartete Musik, in German) and the passion of making lists of “Jewish” composers, compositions, etc., so that music can be “purified” from their influence, were a staple of the Third Reich.

Note that not only Jews, but also people of color (and especially African Americans), were considered agents of degenerate musical activity.

Entartete musik poster.jpg

 

Well, these were/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 can be made accessible to interested students.

Interestingly enough, this passion for defining music according to the biological specification of the musicians who make it (regardles of cultural context), is still quite present in contemporary sensibilities…

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. I

n 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”).

Here’s an example by Argentinian-Israeli musician, Giora Feidman, presenting a fusion of Klezmer (aka, Jewish instrumental music originating in Eastern Europe) and Nuevo Tango Argentino (based on the compositions of Astor Piazzolla, 1921-1992):

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, blending Moroccan Jewish repertoires with Flamenco:


Disclaimer: A previous version of this entry is cross-posted here.

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Jewish Music | 10 Competing Notions

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 discussion can be found in this (and last) week’s reading, 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 attempt to highlight 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

“Jewish music” is by default associated with 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), in which the rather modern Sephardic Jewish past is presented as Medieval:

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 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 (albeit not scholarly) 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 can be made accessible to interested students.

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”).

Here’s 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:

Disclaimer: A previous version of this entry is cross-posted here.

Week 5 | Listening Guide

This week we continue to explore the world of “Jewish music” (keeping in mind that this expression is a construct, rather than a definite cultural entity). We will continue to listen to the anthology introduced last week, and also focus specifically on the sounds of Jewish liturgy.

As discussed last week, liturgical sounds introduce us into one of the most intimate aspects of Jewish culture, in which text and music, material and spiritual cultures, tradition and innovation, seamlessly coexist.

Jewish liturgy takes place every day, and thus expresses the experience of every day life, just like the many objects of material culture that we have examined in the weeks past. And at the same time, it voices the most complex aspects of religious life, thus addressing an intricate texture of literary traditions (first and foremost, the Hebrew Bible), of spiritual yearning, and of cultural creativity and aesthetic expressions. Finally, liturgy is a performance, in which music is central. In its performative aspects, liturgy and its music reflect a variety of social dynamics, ranging from inter-generational conflicts to gender relations, to politics and, as we will see in focusing onnocturnal rituals, inter-cultural exchanges.

Titgadal wetitqadash betokh Yerushalaim | Jerusalem in Hebrew Prayer and Song (available on bCourses)

Building up from last week’s listening experience, this compilation, which is based on a concert program presented in Berlin, Germany, in 1995, focuses entirely on liturgical and para-liturgical songs (refer to Grove, “Jewish Music” III:1 to fully assess the importance of these terms) of various Jewish musical traditions as they are presented by traditional culture bearers (rather than re-created by artists). Make sure to also refer to the CD notes to learn about each track and the ideas that informed the concert program (curated by Edwin Seroussi, and also available via bCourses).

While listening, focus on two aspects:

  • Diversity of sound: as in last week’s listening materials, very diverse worlds of sounds are brought together as part of one culture (“Jewish (musical) culture);
  • Unity of (theological) message: each selection expresses the two ­thousand year longing for Jerusalem and the return to the land of Israel, as represented in Jewish liturgical texts.

Are  these  two aspects  reconciled  in  the concert  program documented  in  this CD? Probably not in terms of sounds: the traditions represented in the concert are indeed very different from one another). Yet, perhaps,  such a  relation can be only understood within the comprehensive notion of “Jewish music” summarized in the assigned sections of the Grove article on this topic: a host of diverse cultures with distinctively similar (textual, material social, political) practices across the span of a diasporic landscape.

In listening to this week’s compilation, make sure to focus on the following tracks:

1. Shofar blowing: the only Biblical musical instrument that remains in Jewish liturgy

5. Lekha dodi: liturgical poem for the Sabbath liturgy, text by kabbalist scholar Sh. Alkabetz (melody from the Turkish tradition)

12. Arim al shefayim koli: a Moroccan kinah (dirge), part of the vast repertoire of liturgical poems sung on the 9th of Av (the liturgical commemoration of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, first by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, and later by the Romans in the 1st century CE)

13. Yerushalaim ir mehulalah – Hohil yom yom eshtahe: Moroccan song medley praising Jerusalem and the city of Tiberias

15. Mimekomkha malkenu tofi’a: Ashkenazi prayer for the return of God’s rule over Zion and Jerusalem (a line from this prayer gives  the Hebrew  title  to  the CD:  titgadal wetitqadash bethokh yerushalayim, or “May You be exalted and sanctified within Jerusalem”)

19.  Im nin‘alu:  a poem by Sh.  Shabazi   from  the Yemenite  tradition of  sacred poetry  (Diwan),  which was popularized as a “dance hit” in the 1980s by Yemenite Israeli singer Ofra Haza (you may want to listen to her subsequent versions, easily found on YouTube). 

Ben Zion Shenker: Midnight Selichot, Live (1963)

The selichot service, built around a string of penitential piyyutim (called selichot, or petitions), is one of the great Sephardic/Ashkenazi liturgical divides. While Sephardic Jews recite them, before dawn, during the forty days that precede the New Year, Ashkenazi Jews begin reciting them the Saturday night (typically at midnight) before the New Year (and then continue in the early mornings during the following days).

What is with this ’round midnight custom? To be continued, but first…

Let’s begin with a “Wordle” (or three)

These typographical layouts usually help me frame what I am writing/thinking, so here you go:

Jewish Nightlife Wordle 01

Jewish Nightlife Wordle 02

Jewish Nightlife Wordle 03

The content is the same (and it is based on the introduction to Jewish Nightlife as written in the course syllabus). But the layout changes highlight different aspects of the thinking behind the syllabus. It’s good to visualize things now, and then, eventually go back to them later in the semester to see if what has been developed is in line with its premises.