“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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Worlds of Jewish Music: Listening Guide

Last week, we discussed objects of material culture, and we even learned how to handle them in a museum context, thanks to Julie Franklin, MA, Registrar of The Magnes Collection at UC Berkeley.

I took some video (including slow-mo) of students learning how pick up a (perhaps rare and precious) book…

…and how to carry it across a room:

This week and the next (Weeks 4 & 5 in our Syllabus), we will be working on musical (and sound) objects, and listen to two audio anthologies representing Jewish musical traditions in the global diaspora.

Please note that all tracks are available on UC Berkeley’s bCourses website. Some are also available online at the link below. (My recommendation is to use bCourses).

1) Musical Traditions in Israel: Treasures of the National Sound Archives (available on bCourses and online)

This is a compilation of ethnomusicological field recordings highlighting the collection of the National Sound Archives (NSA), an institution established in 1964 at the National Library of Israel (then known as the Jewish National and University Library; read more here).

The NSA house hundreds of thousands of recorded items, documenting a host of Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other musical traditions represented in modern Israel, as well as Jewish musical traditions across the global diaspora.

This compilation (originally issued on audio cassette, then on CD, and now also available online) constitutes a veritable “audio tour” of both Jewish and Israeli sounds, presenting an intensely diverse traditional musical landscape through the performances of original culture bearers (also referred to as informants in the context of “ethnomusicology,” i.e., the study of music performance in its cultural and traditional context).

Most of the recordings (not all) featured in the compilation were collected in Israel. Some were collected by Israeli researchers who conducted their fieldwork abroad.

The CD booklet (available on bCourses) gives specific details about the following traits of each individual recording, so please focus on them:

Title or incipit (beginning words of a song) of the piece recorded
Typology and occasion of the performance (i.e., vocal, instrumental, for the liturgy, for weddings, etc.)
Informants’ names and other biographical information
• Name of the researcher/s who conducted the fieldwork, date and place of recording
• NSA Call number

a) Tracks 4, 5 and 6 highlight the role of music in the transmission of traditional lore in Judaism (the confluence of texts and sounds, or the sounding of texts): from father to son, from teacher to pupils, as well as in individual study.

b) Tracks 2, 3, 8, 15, 16, 17, 20, 21 and 22 offer the diverse sounds of liturgical music from the synagogue traditions of Europe, Asia and Africa. They represent Ashkenazi (originally from central and eastern Europe), and Sephardic (originally from the Iberian peninsula) musical traditions, along with those of the Jews from the Islamic world (at times called mizrachi, or “oriental” Jews, in Israeli Hebrew).

c) Tracks 1, 7 and 23 are Jewish wedding tunes (from Morocco, Yemen and Eastern Europe), which represent a variety of “para-liturgical” traditions (the term is described in this week’s reading assignment)

d) The remaining tracks (9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 19) represent some of the most important non-Jewish musical traditions that are rooted in Israel (Bedouin, Greek-Orthodox, Palestinian-Arab, and Samaritan).

While listening to these tracks (choose at least one from groups a, b, and c), you may want to focus on different aspects:

1. Soundscape: what kind of musical world (European, Asian, African, etc.) and environment (indoor, outdoor, communal, or private spaces, for example) does the music represent?
2. Performance style: solo or group singing, instrumental accompaniment, etc.
3. Language: Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, a Jewish language (Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, etc.), other languages, or combinations thereof (one song may contain more than one language, of course).
4. Context: What occasion is the music destined to? Who is/was the audience? Why was it recorded? (Try to answer such questions).

It may well be that the only common characteristic to all these musical examples is that they are all transmitted by oral tradition.

In terms of sound, they indeed are extremely diverse…

Who would want to define this mosaic of diverse sounds as “Jewish Music”?

(Ideas about these issues are found in this week’s readings: Grove Dictionary of Music Online, “Jewish Music”).

 

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

As we will discuss in class, 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, Jewish and non-Jewish dimensions, seamlessly coexist.

Jewish liturgy takes place every day, and thus expresses the experience of everyday life, just like the many objects of material culture that we have examined in the weeks past.

And at the same time, Jewish liturgy also 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 on nocturnal rituals, intercultural exchange.

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 available via bCourses).

While listening, focus on two aspects:

  • Diversity of sound: once again, very diverse worlds of sounds are brought together as part of one culture (aka, “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.

Would you say that these two aspects were actually reconciled in the concert program documented in the compilation? Probably not in terms of sounds: the traditions represented in the concert are indeed very different from one another.

And 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: thus, as a host of diverse cultures with distinctively similar  practices (in textual, material social, and political terms) across the span of a diasporic landscape.

In listening to this compilation, please make sure to focus on the following tracks:

1. Shofar blowing: this is the sound of the only Biblical musical instrument that remains in Jewish liturgy

5. Lekha dodi: a 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 (Hebrew for 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 Hebrew 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 as follows (you may want to listen to her other subsequent versions of this song, easily found on YouTube):

Planning Research: A Summer of Student Paper Proposals

Almost all abstracts/proposals for this semester’s research papers are in (as planned according to the course syllabus). As it is often the case when empowering students to select research topics according to their interests and strengths, the variety of the subjects that will be researched by the class is stunning.

From the aesthetics of 18th-century Kabbalistic musical rituals to the development of synagogue music in South India, from the cultural origins of Israeli secular shirah be-tzibur (communal singing) in nocturnal liturgies to the roles of women in the synagogue, from comparative fieldwork in UC Berkeley Jewish and Catholic student religious gatherings to the study of (religious) nightlife in Israel, Korea, and Las Vegas, our semester seems to be producing a lot of original thinking.

In the midst of this diversity, however, are some core and consistent disciplinary approaches. As outlined since the beginning of the semester, the study of (Jewish) nightlife is necessarily a multi-disciplinary endeavor, and the approaches adopted by the students in the class seems to confirm just that. (Phew!).

Below is a graph the summarizes the disciplinary trends expressed in the abstracts submitted this week:

Jewish Nightlife 2014 Research Paper Topics

There are seven groups of papers, listed in order of magnitude:

  1. Religious studies and ethnomusicology (liturgy and piyyut)
  2. Area studies (Jewish communities in the global diaspora)
  3. Musicology (Jews and popular music in America and beyond)
  4. Musicology (Jews and art music in the synagogue, 18th-20th centuries)
  5. Comparative studies (ritual and nightlife in Jewish and non-Jewish communities)
  6. Gender studies (women in Jewish ritual)
  7. Intellectual history

Now, I guess we will have to wait for the papers to flow in to see the results of this semester’s work. Looking forward…