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The Literary Sources of Jewish Music

Victor Tunkel, acquisitions officer of the Jewish Music Institute Library and a lifelong collector has contributed the information below on the basic materials for a representative collection of Literary Sources of Jewish Music. The library has already and is in the process of acquiring many of these items.

Ranging over four millennia and much of the globe, and with an innately musical culture, the Jewish people have absorbed elements of the music of many peoples and periods, adding this to their own intrinsically Jewish music. The field is therefore vast and multi-faceted. As with other music collections, the first broad classification is into music and musicology, but these very often are merged in the books. Many leading earlier works are in German, and many more recent ones in Hebrew. But English now predominates and almost all listed here are in English. I have to omit biographies and periodical articles, and encyclopaedia entries, though of course these contain important contributions to the subject.


Bibliographies: There is no up-to-date comprehensive bibliography. Sendrey's Bibliography of Jewish Music (Columbia UP 1951) listed over 10,000 items down to 1950 with their locations, but it was far from complete even to that time. Since then there have been further compilations: Heskes's Resource Book of Jewish Music (Westport CN 1985) and her Passport to Jewish Music (Westport 1994) are useful but confined to English-language materials. Israel Adler's The Study of Jewish Music (Jerusalem, 1995) is a general guide by categories. On the manuscript sources we have the excellent catalogue in the RISM series compiled also by Israel Adler (Munich 1989) which includes with incipits and analytical tables every known MS down to 1840. What is now needed is a union catalogue conflating the major collections such as those of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York, and the few other substantial public and private collections.

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General Surveys: There are various general studies, starting with that of the pioneer, A.Z. Idelsohn's Jewish Music based on his field work in the 1920s. A new edition appeared from Dover Publications (NY 1992). More recent general works by Peter Gradenwitz: The Music of Israel (Portland OR,1996), Judith Eisenstein: Heritage of Music (NY 1972), and Marsha Edelman: Discovering Jewish Music (Philadelphia 2003) sketch aspects of the subject; while Eric Werner: A Song Still Heard (University Park PA, 1976), Alfred Sendrey: The Music of the Jews in the Diaspora (NY 1970), Amnon Shiloah: Jewish Musical Traditions (Wayne State UP, 1992) and others, have focussed more scholarship on specific areas.

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Cantillation of the Bible, using perhaps the world's oldest notation system, has recently been treated amply by Joshua Jacobson's Chanting the Hebrew Bible (Philadelphia 2002), while the different notation of the poetic books of the Bible, especially the Psalms, is explored by Flender's Hebrew Psalmody (Hebrew University 1992). Hazzanut, the art of the synagogue cantor, may be studied in Kalib's Musical Tradition of the East European Synagogue (Syracuse UP, 2002: two volumes with more to follow); The Golden Age of Cantors (Pasternak, Tara Publications, 1991); and the six-volume Cantorial Anthology by Ephros (NY 1957-).

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Prayer-modes: These and other works also examine and exemplify the nus'cha'ot, the very characteristic prayer modes and seasonal leitmotifs, on which there are numerous monographs and volumes by individual synagogue composers. Levine's Synagogue Song in America (Indiana,1989) is useful. The works of the outstanding 19th century synagogue composers (Sulzer, Lewandowski, Naumbourg, etc,) have been collected in the Out-of-Print Classics Series by the Sacred Music Press, NY, from 1954.

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Sephardic: There are many studies of the music of the Sephardim, the Jews originally from Spain and Portugal, who following their expulsion and in their wanderings preserved the music and language (as 'Ladino') of medieval Spain. Their folk music has recently been analysed and sampled in Cancionero Sefardi (Alberto Hemsi, Jerusalem 1995). Tara Publications (formerly NY, now Baltimore) have published several monographs of their sacred songs.

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Yiddish: Corresponding to the Ladino language and culture of the Sephardim is the huge repertory in Yiddish, the vernacular of the Jews of Northern and Eastern Europe. There are many studies and collections of the love songs, lullabies, songs of toil and suffering. An excellent series now being published by the Hebrew University groups these under types, and under composers where known: Anthology of Yiddish Folksongs (1989 and continuing).

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Zemirot, the much-loved home table-songs for sabbaths and festivals, are presented with history and commentary in Levin's The Zemirot Anthology (Tara 1981), and the Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook edited by Gold (Boston 1992).

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Hasidic music: For the characteristic music of the Hasidic sect, there is the Anthology of Hasidic Music by Vinaver (Jerusalem 1985), and the two volumes of Songs of the Chassidim (Pasternak, NY 1968-71), as well as many volumes devoted to individual groups within the sect.

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Oriental music: This includes music of the Jews of, e.g., Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Iraq, Central Asia, India, and even China. The ten-volume Thesaurus of Hebrew-Oriental Melodies by Idelsohn (1914-1933, reprinted Ktav, NJ 1973) is the core-collection drawn on by every musicologist of the subject, as well as composers looking for raw material. More recent individual studies include Eliyahu, Music of the Mountain Jews (Jerusalem 1999); Adaki and Sharvit: Treasury of Jewish Yemenite Chants (Jerusalem 1981); Shiloah: Musical Tradition of the Iraqi Jews (Or-Yehuda 1983); Kay Shelemay on the Syrian Jews' music: Let Jasmine Rain Down (Chicago 1998), and on the music of the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia, now mostly ingathered into Israel, in Music, Ritual and Falasha History (East Lansing, MI 1989).

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Music for the Concert Platform and Stage: Salamone Rossi (Mantua around 1600) is the first Jewish composer of art music and now has an excellent biography by Don Harran, (OUP 1999). Apart from Rossi, Jews came late to art music, and when they did, Mendelssohn, Johann Strauss, Mahler, Meyerbeer, Offenbach and others produced nothing with any Jewish association. The same is true of those who have dominated the modern theatre scene: Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers, Frederick Loewe, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Lionel Bart, etc, but there have been various studies of this remarkable outpouring of talent, seen as a Jewish phenomenon. More recent Jewish composers including Bloch, Kurt Weill, Milhaud, Schoenberg, and Leonard Bernstein have to varying extents written music with specifically Jewish content. Some of this appears in Synagogue Music by Contemporary Composers (Schirmer, NY1957).

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The music of modern Israel is notable for the way in which so many elements, European and oriental, have come to inter-relate. There have been various studies: Contemporary Israeli Music by Keren, (Bar Ilan UP,1980), Twenty Israeli Composers by Fleisher (Wayne State UP,1997). Moreover there are Israeli popular songs recording almost every event in the nation's history, capturing the contemporary atmosphere and attitudes over a turbulent half-century. For this there are many songbooks. These songs, collected, will provide an important source for future social historians. This, unhappily, is also true of the music created and sung in the ghettoes and concentration camps and among Jewish partisan fighters in WWII: Music in Terezin by Karas (NY,1985); Yes, We Sang! by Kalisch (NY,1985); and Singing for Survival by Flam (Univ of Illinois,1992), are examples of the genre.

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Klezmer: This instrumental folk music, originating in local wandering bands of entertainers in Eastern Europe, is now enjoying wide popularity and being re-created, especially in USA. Its origins, styles and typical examples are set out in a series of publications by Tara; in Slobin: Jewish Instrumental Folk Music (Syracuse UP, 2001); Sapoznik: The Compleat Klezmer (NY 1987); and Mazor: The Klezmer Tradition in the Land of Israel (Jerusalem 2000).

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Origins: There are several studies of the origins or earliest evidences of Jewish music: Sendrey: Music in Ancient Israel (London 1969) and more recently Braun: Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine (Grand Rapids MI, 2002).

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Periodicals: Articles on the subject appear in many music journals and languages. There are three journals devoted to Jewish music and in English, all published in New York: Musica Judaica (1975-); Journal of Synagogue Music (1968-); and Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy ( 1976 - ) The first is the most general of the three.

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last modified: 20 April 2004

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The Jewish Music Institute is an independent Arts organisation based at SOAS, University of London. It is an international focus bringing the ancient yet contemporary musical culture of the Jews to the mainstream British cultural, academic and social life. Its programmes of education, performance and information highlight many aspects of Jewish music throughout the ages and across the globe for people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures.