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jewish music

What is Jewish music?

Jewish music can be studied from many diversified points of view. Among them the historical, liturgical and non-liturgical music of the Hebrews dating from pre-biblical times (pharaonic Egypt); religious music in Solomon’s first and second temples; musical activities immediately after the Exodus; the apparently impoverished religious musical activities during the High Middle Ages; the emergence of the concept of Jewish Music in the mid-nineteenth century; its nation-oriented sense as coined by the historical book Jewish music in its historical development (1929) by AZ Idelsohn (1882-1938) and finally as the popular art and music of Israel.

The first appearances of Jewish musical themes and of what might be called “the idea of ​​being Jewish” in European music can be seen for the first time in the works of Salamone Rossi (1570-1630). They then appear somewhat shaded in the works of the grandson of the well-known Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786): Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).

Opera by Fromental Halevy (1799-1862) The Jewish and his occasional use of some Jewish themes belies the lack of “something Jewish” in his near-contemporary composer colleague Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), who was actually Jewish and grew up in the purely Jewish tradition.

Interestingly, the St. Petersburg Jewish Music Society led by composer and critic Joel Engel (1868-1927) reports on how they discovered their Jewish roots. They were inspired by the nationalist movement in Russian music epitomized by Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui and others, and record how they exposed the Shtetls and meticulously recorded and transcribed thousands of popular Yiddish songs.

Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) skeleton for cello and orchestra and especially the sacred service for orchestra, choir and soloists are attempts to create a “Jewish Requiem”.

The Sephardic upbringing of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) and its influences on his music as they appear in his Second violin concerto and in many of his songs and choral works; cantatas Naomi and Ruth, queen of shiba and in the oratory the book of jonah among others are worth mentioning as well.

Many scholars did not miss the synagogue motifs and melodies borrowed by George Gershwin in his Porgy and Bess. Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski has claimed that the melody of “It’s not necessarily so“was taken from the blessing of the Haftarah and others have attributed it to the blessing of the Torah.

In Gershwin’s 800 or so songs, other observers have also detected allusions to Jewish music. A musicologist detected “an uncanny resemblance” between the popular tune “Havenu Shalom Aleichem“and the spiritual”It takes a long pull to get there“.

The most prominent contemporary Israeli composers are Chaya Czernowin, Betty Olivera, Tsippi Fleisher, Mark Kopytman, Yitzhak Yedid.

There are also very important works by non-Jewish composers in Jewish music. Maurice Ravel with his Kaddish for violin and piano based on a traditional liturgical melody and Max Bruch’s famous arrangement of the Yom Kippur prayer kol nidrei for cello and orchestra are among the best known.

by Sergei Prokofieff Overture to Jewish Themes for string quartet, piano and clarinet clearly shows his sources of inspiration in non-religious Jewish music. Melodic, modal, rhythmic materials and the use of the clarinet as the main melodic instrument is a very typical sound in popular and non-religious Jewish music.

Dmitri Shostakovich was also deeply influenced by Jewish music. This can be seen in many of his compositions, especially in the song cycle. From Jewish folk poetryand in the Second piano trio. But his most outstanding contribution to Jewish culture is undoubtedly his 13 Symphony “Babi Yar“.

How many Jewish songs?

The worldwide dispersion of the Jews after the Exodus and their three main communities create the basic kayout of world Jewish music. Those communities in their geographic dispersion covering all continents and their unique relationships with local communities have given birth to various types of music, as well as languages ​​and customs.

After the exile, according to geographic settlements, the Jews formed three main branches: Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi.

They are roughly located as follows: Ashkenazi in Eastern and Western Europe, the Balkans (to a lesser extent) in Turkey and Greece; Sephardim in Spain, Morocco, North Africa, and later in the Ottoman Empire (Turkey); Mizrahi in Lebanon, Syria, East Asia, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt.

The music of those communities naturally came into contact with local traditions and evolved accordingly.

Ashkenazi and the Klezmer

“Ashkenazi” refers to the Jews who in the 9th century began to settle on the banks of the Rhine.
Today the term “Ashkenazi” designates the majority of European and Western Jews.

In addition to Hebrew, Yiddish is commonly used in speech and song.

Traditional Ashkenazi music, originating in Eastern Europe, moved in all directions from there and created the main branch of Jewish music in North America. Includes the famous Klezmer music. Klezmer means “singing instruments”, from the Hebrew word klei zemer. The word comes to designate the musician himself and is somewhat analogous to the European troubadour.

Klezmer is a very popular genre that can be seen in Hasidic and Ashkenazi Judaism, however it is deeply connected to the Ashkenazi tradition.

Around the 15th century, musicians called kleyzmorim or kleyzmerim developed a tradition of secular Jewish music. They draw on devotional traditions dating back to biblical times, and their klezmer musical legacy continues to evolve today. The repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations. Due to the Ashkenazi lineage of this music, lyrics, terminology, and song titles are often in Yiddish.

Originally naming musicians themselves in the mid-20th century, the word began to identify a musical genre, sometimes also referred to as “Yiddish” music.


“Sephardic” literally means Spanish, and designates Jews mainly from Spain but also from North Africa, Greece and Egypt.

After the expulsion of all non-Christians, forced to convert to Christianity or exile in 1492, the rich, cultivated and fertile Jewish culture existing in Spain has emigrated en masse to the Ottoman Empire, forming the main branch of the Jews currently living in Turkey. .

Their language besides Hebrew is called Ladino. Ladino is a 15th century of Spanish. Much of his musical repertoire is in that language. Sephardic music mixes many elements of traditional Arabic, North African and Turkish languages.

In medieval Spain, the songs performed in the royal courts formed the basis of Sephardic music.

Spiritual, ceremonial and entertainment songs coexist in Sephardic music. The lyrics are generally Hebrew for religious songs and Ladino for others.

The genre in its expansion through North Africa, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Egypt assimilated many musical elements. Including the long, high-pitched howls of North Africa; Balkan rhythms, for example in 9/8 time; and Turkish maqam modes.

The female voice is often preferred, while instruments include the “oud” and “qanun”, which are not traditionally Jewish instruments.

Some Sephardic popular music has been released as commercial recordings in the early 20th century. Among the first popular singers of the genre were men and included the Turks Jack Mayesh, Haim Efendi and Yitzhak Algazi. Subsequently, a new generation of singers emerged, many of whom were not Sephardic. Gloria Levy, Pasharos Sephardim and Flory Jagoda.


“Mizrahi” means eastern and refers to the Jews of the eastern Mediterranean and further east.

The music also mixes local traditions. Actually a very “oriental flavored” musical tradition spanning Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and as far east as India.

Middle Eastern percussion instruments share an important role with the violin in typical Mizrahi songs. The music is usually high-pitched in general.

In Israel today Mizrahi music is very popular.

A “Muzika Mizrahit” movement emerged in the 1950s. Mostly with artists from Israel’s ethnic neighborhoods: the Yemenite “Kerem HaTemanim” neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Moroccan, Iranian and Iraqi immigrants, who played at weddings and other events .

The songs were performed in Hebrew but in a clear Arabic style on traditional Arabic instruments: the “Oud”, the “Kanun” and the “darbuka”.

Classical Hebrew literature, including liturgical texts and poems by medieval Hebrew poets, constituted the main source of lyrics.

Music in the Jewish liturgy

There is a vast body of writing, sometimes contradictory, on all aspects of the use of music in the Jewish liturgy. The most agreed facts are that the voice of women should be excluded from the religious ceremony and the use of musical instruments should be prohibited in the Synagogue service.

However, some rabbinic authorities soften these upright positions but not in terms of the exclusion of the female voice. At weddings, for example, the Talmudic statement “to gladden the bride and groom with music” can be seen as a way of allowing non-religious, instrumental music to be created at weddings, but this was probably done outside the synagogue.

The very influential writings of the Spanish rabbi, also a physician and philosopher, Maimonides (1135-1204) on the one hand strongly opposed any form of music that was not totally at the service of religious worship and on the other hand recommended instrumental music for its healing. . powers.

The healing powers and mysterious formula hidden within musical scores were commonly sought after in musical scores during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and pre-Baroque eras. Interestingly, in a recently published fictional novel “Imprimaturby musicologist Rita Monaldi and co-author Francesco Solti, the entire plot revolves around a composition by Salomone Rossi (1570-1630), an important Jewish composer.

Jewish mystical treatises, such as the Kabbalah, particularly from the 13th century often deal with the ethical, magical, and therapeutic powers of music. The enhancement of the religious experience with music, particularly with song, is expressed in many places.

Although there is no unified position on music in Jewish thought, a common core idea seems to emerge: that music is the authentic expression of human feelings in religious and secular life.


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