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Jewish Music

What is Jewish music?

Jewish music can be studied from many perspectives. Among them are the historical, liturgical and non-liturgical music of the Hebrews from pre-biblical times (Pharaonic Egypt); religious music in the First and Second Temples of Solomon; musical activities immediately after withdrawal; the apparently impoverished religious musical activities in the early Middle Ages; the appearance of the concept of Jewish music in the middle of the 19th century; nation-oriented meaning as created by the landmark book In the historical development of Jewish music (1929), AZ Idelsohn (1882-1938), and finally the art and popular music of Israel.

In the works of Salamone Rossi (1570-1630), we can see for the first time the early appearance of Jewish musical themes and the so-called “idea of ​​Jewishness” in European music. After that, they appear somewhat shaded in the works of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), the grandson of the well-known Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).

An opera by Fromental Halevy (1799-1862). La Juive and his occasional use of some Jewish themes contrasts with the lack of “anything Jewish” in his near-contemporary composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), who was actually Jewish and had been brought up in straight Jewish traditions.

Interestingly, the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Music, led by composer-critic Joel Engel (1868-1927), reports how they discovered their Jewish roots. Inspired by the nationalist movement in Russian music personified by Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui, and others, they record how they went to the Shtetlek and meticulously recorded and transcribed thousands of Yiddish folk songs.

Ernst Bloch (1880-1959) Schelomo for cello and orchestra and especially the Holy Service an attempt to create a “Jewish Requiem” for orchestra, chorus and soloists.

The Sephardic upbringing of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) and its influence on his music Second Violin Competition and in his many songs and choral works; cantatas Naomi and Ruth, Queen of Shiba and in the oratory The book of Jonah among others, it is worth mentioning.

Synagogue motifs and melodies borrowed by George Gershwin have not been overlooked by many scholars. Porgy and Bess. Gershwin’s biographer Edward Jablonski claimed that the tune was the “Not necessarily so” comes from the blessing of the Haftarah and has been attributed by others to the blessing of the Torah.

Other observers have found references to Jewish music in Gershwin’s approximately 800 songs. A musicologist has discovered an “extraordinary similarity” between folk tunes.Havenu Shalom Aleichem“and the spiritual”It’s a long haul to get there“.

The best-known contemporary Israeli composers are Chaya Czernowin, Betty Olivera, Tsippi Fleisher, Mark Kopytman, Yitzhak Yedid.

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

To Sergei Prokofiev Overture on Juives topics string quartet, piano and clarinet clearly shows its sources of inspiration in non-religious Jewish music. The use of melodic, modal, rhythmic materials and the clarinet as a leading melodic instrument is a very typical sound in folk and non-religious Jewish music.

Dmitri Shostakovich was also greatly influenced by Jewish music. This can be seen in many of his compositions, mostly in the song cycle From Jewish folk poetryand the Second piano trio. However, his most outstanding contribution to Jewish culture is without a doubt Symphony No. 13 “Babi Yar“.

How much Jewish music?

The worldwide dispersion of Jewry following the exodus and its three main communities create the fundamental kaout of worldwide Jewish music. Those communities in their geographical extent, covering every continent, and their unique relationships with local communities, have given rise to various musical forms, languages ​​and customs.

After the exile, according to the geographical 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) Turkey and Greece; Sephardi in Spain, Maroc, North Africa and later in the Ottoman Empire (Turkey); Mizrahi in Lebanon, Syria, East Asia, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt.

The music of these communities naturally came into contact with local traditions and developed accordingly.

Ashkenazi and Klezmer

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

Along with Hebrew, Yiddish is often used in speech and song.

Traditional Ashkenazi music, originating in Eastern Europe, migrated from there in all directions to form the main branch of Jewish music in North America. Includes famous Klezmer music. Klezmer comes from the Hebrew klei zemer and means singing instruments. This word denotes the musician himself and is somewhat similar to the European troubadour.

Klezmer is a very popular genre found in both Hasidic and Ashkenazi Judaism, however, it is deeply connected to the Ashkenazi tradition.

Around the 15th century, the tradition of secular Jewish music was developed by musicians called kleyzmorim or kleyzmerim. Drawing on devotional traditions dating back to biblical times, klezmer’s musical heritage continues to evolve today. The repertoire consists mostly of dance songs for weddings and other celebrations. Due to the Ashkenazi origins of the music, the lyrics, terminology and song titles are typically in Yiddish.

Originally named after the musicians themselves in the mid-20th century, the word came to identify a musical genre, sometimes called “Yiddish” music.


“Sephardi” literally means Spanish, and refers to Jews primarily from Spain, but also from North Africa, Greece, and Egypt.

After the expulsion of all non-Christians who converted to Christianity in 1492 or were forced into exile, the very rich, educated and fruitful Jewish culture that existed in Spain immigrated en masse to the Ottoman Empire and formed the main branch of the Jews currently living in Turkey. .

Their language, along with Hebrew, is called Ladino. Ladino is a 15th century Spanish. Most of their musical repertoire is in this language. Sephardic music mixes many elements from traditional Arabic, North African, Turkish idioms.

In medieval Spain, the “canciones” performed in the royal courts formed the basis of Sephardic music.

In Sephardic music, spiritual, ceremonial and entertainment songs all coexist. The lyrics are usually in Hebrew for religious songs, while for others they are in Ladino.

Spread in North Africa, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Egypt, the genre assimilated many musical elements. Including North African high-pitched, extended ululations; Balkan rhythms, such as in 9/8; and the Turkish maqam modes.

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

Some popular Sephardic music was released as commercial recordings in the early 20th century. Among the first popular singers of the genre were men, including Turks Jack Mayesh, Haim Efendi and Yitzhak Algazi. Later, a new generation of singers grew up, many of whom were not Sephardi themselves. Gloria Levy, Pasharos Sephardíes and Flory Jagoda.


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

The music also mixes local traditions. It is actually a very “oriental” musical tradition that spans Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and as far east as India.

In typical Mizrahi songs Middle Eastern percussion plays an important role with the violin. The music is usually high pitched.

Mizrahi music is very popular in Israel today.

The “Mizrahi Music” movement was formed in the 1950s. Mostly from the ethnic neighborhoods of Israel: from the Yemeni Kerem HaTemanim neighborhood of Tel Aviv, with Moroccan, Iranian and Iraqi immigrants – who played at weddings and other events.

The songs were performed in Hebrew, but in a pure 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, was the main source of song lyrics.

Music in the Jewish liturgy

There is a wide collection of sometimes contradictory writings on all aspects of the use of music in the Judaic liturgy. The most agreed upon facts are that the female voice should be excluded from religious ceremonies and the use of musical instruments in synagogue services should be prohibited.

However, some rabbinical authorities soften these straightforward positions, but not to the exclusion of the female voice. For example, at weddings, the Talmudic statement to “make the bridegroom and the bride happy with music” could be seen as permitting instrumental and non-religious music at weddings, but this probably had to be done outside the synagogue.

The highly influential writings of the Spanish rabbi, physician and philosopher Maimonides (1135-1204) were on the one hand strongly opposed to any form of music that is not entirely at the service of religious worship, and on the other hand he recommended instrumental music to heal it. powers.

The healing powers and mysterious formula hidden in sheet music were often sought in sheet music in the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Pre-Baroque eras. Interestingly, in a recently published fiction novel “ImprimaturCo-authored by musicologist Rita Monaldi and Francesco Solti, the entire plot is built around a composition by Salomone Rossi (1570-1630), an important Jewish composer.

Jewish mystical treatises such as the Kabbalah, especially since the 13th. In the 19th century, the ethical, magical and therapeutic power of music is often discussed. The enhancement of the religious experience with music, especially singing, is expressed in many places.

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

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