Jablonski, Marek (Michael)


The study of Jewish music



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2. The study of Jewish music.


Interest in the music of the Jews (or ‘Hebrews’ as they were commonly called) formed part of scholarly inquiries into the music of the ‘peoples of antiquity’ (next to the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans) by early music historiographers (e.g. Padre G.B. Martini, Charles Burney, J.N. Forkel). The subject most frequently addressed was the speculation about the music of the Temple in Jerusalem, an interest that survived well into the 19th century. Another focus of attention was the Jewish cantillation of the Bible, a subject discussed by Renaissance Hebraists such as Johannes Reuchlin and music theorists such as Zarlino since the early 16th century (see Harrán, 1988).

Contemporary Jews and their music are rarely mentioned in music historiography before the mid-19th century (e.g. ‘Hebrew Music of the Present Day’ in Carl Engel's The Music of the Most Ancient Nations, London, 1864/R). The few early references to Jewish music usually originate in travellers’ accounts or in anti-Semitic literature. They generally refer to the ‘unpleasant’ sound of synagogue services, to the exotic features of Jewish musical performance and to the relationship between the music of the Jews and that of the surrounding cultures.

The modern, systematic study of music in Jewish communities is intimately linked to the emergence of Wissenschaft des Judenthums in Germany in the early 19th century. This school of Jewish scholars sought to study Judaism and its sacred texts with the critical tools of scientific inquiry, such as philology and comparative literature. The most illustrious representative of this school in the field of music was Eduard Birnbaum (1855–1920). He systematically collected written sources on Jewish music available in his time (manuscript and printed scores as well as literary evidence), toured communities in Europe seeking materials in libraries and private estates, and published many essays on different aspects, periods and traditions of Jewish music (see Seroussi, 1982).

Precedents of Birnbaum's research can be found in introductions to printed collections of Jewish liturgical music and in bulletins of the synagogue cantors’ associations, which began to proliferate in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after 1840 (e.g. Die jüdische Kantor, Bromberg, 1879–98). Another example of this type of early study is the detailed essay on the music of the Sephardi liturgy by Reverend David Aharon de Sola, cantor of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in London, printed in The Ancient Melodies of the Liturgy of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (London, 1857); ex.1 – a traditional Sephardi melody – shows the early style of notation, with keyboard accompaniment, used in this work. Two other important landmarks of late 19th-century Jewish music scholarship are Joseph Singer's study of the musical modes (Yiddish shteyger) of the Ashkenazi liturgy (1886) and Abraham Baer's comprehensive collection of Ashkenazi liturgical music (1887/R).

The philological approach of Birnbaum and his contemporaries in Germany, with its focus on written documents, did not address the problems arising from the essentially oral nature of Jewish music. Moreover, the musical traditions of the ‘other’ Jews (i.e. the non-Europeans) were still terra incognita. This vacuum was filled by A.Z. Idelsohn, who embarked on the study of the ‘missing links’ of Jewish music history. After he moved to Palestine in 1907, he discovered the wealth of Sephardi and Oriental Jewish traditions and engaged in their recording, transcription, analysis and comparative study (e.g. his pioneering study of the Arabic maqāmāt in the Sephardi liturgy) with the support of the Phonograph Archiv in Vienna. Idelsohn published the results of his field inquiries in Palestine in the first five volumes of his Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz (1914–32/R; henceforth referred to as HoM); the remaining five volumes, documenting the Ashkenazi traditions, were compiled after Idelsohn left Palestine for the USA in 1921. In his numerous other publications, Idelsohn treated a vast array of subjects, inspiring many modern research trends in this field (Schleifer, 1986).

Idelsohn was by no means the only scholar addressing Jewish oral traditions. Robert Lachmann (1892–1939), a leader of the Berlin school of comparative musicology, contributed a paradigmatic study with his monograph on the music of the Jews of the Island of Djerba, Tunisia (1940; repr. in the original Ger. with musical transcriptions, 1978). This was the first encompassing musical ethnography of a single Jewish community. After his emigration to Palestine in 1935, Lachmann founded the Archive of Oriental Jewish Music at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he continued to document Jewish traditions. The comparativist school continued in Palestine with the work of Lachmann's disciple and assistant, Edith Gerson-Kiwi (1908–92).

Other major projects of documentation and publication of oral traditions were carried out in Russia and later in the Soviet Union. The Jewish Folk Music Society was active in several cities between 1908 and 1918 under the leadership of Joel Engel (1868–1927), and the Jewish Historical-Ethnographical Society, established in 1908 and directed by the folklorist S. An-Ski (1863–1920), carried out extensive research into folk music, in addition to the promotion of a national school of art music based on Jewish musical themes (see below, §IV, 2(iii) (b)). The ‘ethnographic expeditions’ directed by An-Ski between 1911 and 1914 were particularly remarkable. After the final dissolution of the Jewish Historical-Ethnographical Society in 1929, its collection of recorded cylinders, as well as those of Engel and Sussman Kisselhof from Leningrad, were incorporated into the Cabinet of Music Ethnography of the Ethnographic Section of the Institute for Jewish Culture in Kiev (functioned 1928–49). The founder and director of the Cabinet, Moisey Beregovsky (1892–1961) pursued a particular ideological and methodological agenda (Slobin, 1982). Working within the Stalinist Soviet Union, Beregovsky applied a Marxist approach to the study of Ashkenazi folk music, thus rejecting Idelsohn's national ideology. The important collections of the Cabinet, considered lost after World War II, were rediscovered in the mid-1990s at the Vernadsky Central Scientific Library in Kiev (see Adler, ‘A la recherche de chants perdus’, 1995).

Other important projects of collection and study of oral sources were carried out by individual musicologists. The interest in the Judeo-Spanish folksong among non-Jewish Spanish scholars, particularly Ramón Menéndez Pidal, promoted the fieldwork project of Manuel Manrique de Lara on behalf of the Centro de Estudios Históricos in Madrid (1912; 1915). Further studies by the Spaniards Manuel Ortega and Arcadio de Larrea Palacín laid the foundations for scholarship in this field in Spain. The Turkish-born Jewish composer and ethnographer Alberto Hemsi (1892–1975) also recorded an impressive collection of Judeo-Spanish folksongs in the eastern Mediterranean (see Seroussi and others, 1995).

Another major ethnographic work was undertaken in Italy by Leo Levi (1912–82) on behalf of the Centro Nazionale di Studi di Musica Populare in Rome. Levi's collection, now located at the Discoteca di Stato and at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, as well as at the National Sound Archives in Jerusalem, is crucial for the study of many Italian Jewish musical traditions that have since disappeared.

The growing interest in Jewish oral traditions did not hinder historical studies based on written documentation. Eric Werner (1901–88) produced philological studies of writings on music in medieval Judeo-Arabic sources, and comparative studies of the Jewish and early Christian liturgy (1959–84), and of the Ashkenazi tradition (A Voice Still Heard, 1976). Israel Adler rediscovered and studied the Hebrew compositions of European art music from the 17th and 18th centuries, challenging established views concerning the nature of Jewish musical creativity and absorption of Western art music prior to the Emancipation (Adler, 1966). A synthesis between the study of oral traditions and of written sources is found in several groundbreaking studies by Hanoch Avenary (1908–94). Bathja Bayer (1928–95) developed the new field of Jewish archaeomusicology and iconography, shedding new light on the music of ancient Israel.

Since the 1970s the study of Jewish music from modern ethnomusicological perspectives has flourished in Israel, the USA and more recently in western Europe. The Jewish Music Research Centre (founded by Adler in 1965) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem provides the institutional framework for such study in Israel. In the USA, research is carried out in major universities by individual researchers, as well as in Jewish institutions of higher learning, such as the Hebrew Union College (HUC), the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), Yeshiva University and the Yidisher visenshaftlikher institut (YIVO).

Jewish music, §I: Introduction



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