Jewish Music

Jewish music can be studied from many diversified points of view. Among them historical, liturgical and non-liturgical music of the Hebrews dating from the pre-Biblical times (Pharaonic Egypt); religious music at the first and second Solomon’s Temples; musical activities immediately following the Exodus; the seemingly impoverished religious musical activities during the early middle ages; the emergence of the concept of Jewish Music in the mid-19th century; its nation-oriented sense as coined by the landmark book Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929) by A. Z. Idelsohn (1882-1938) and finally as the art and popular music of Israel.

Early emergences of Jewish musical themes and of what may be called “the idea of being Jew” in European music can be first seen in the works of Salamone Rossi (1570-1630). Following that they appear somewhat shaded in the works of the grandson of the well known Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn(1729-1786): Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Fromental Halevy’s (1799-1862) opera La Juive and its occasional use of some Jewish themes is opposed to the lack of “anything Jew” in his almost contemporary fellow composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) who was actually Jew and grew up in straight Jewish tradition.

Interestingly the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Music led by the composer-critic Joel Engel (1868-1927) reports on how they discovered their Jewish roots. They were inspired by the Nationalistic movement in the Russian Music personified by Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui and others, and records how set out to the Shtetls and meticulously recorded and transcribed thousands of Yiddish folksongs. Ernst Bloch’s (1880-1959) Schelomo for cello and orchestra and specially the Sacred Service for orchestra, choir and soloists are attempts to create a “Jewish Requiem”.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)’s Sephardic upbringings and their 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 oratorio The Book of Jonah among others are worth noting as well. Many scholars did not missed the Synagogue motives and melodies borrowed by George Gershwin in his Porgy and Bess. Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski has claimed that the melody to “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was taken from the Haftarah blessing and others have attributed it to the Torah blessing.