Below is the original text of my notes for tonight’s concert, Pomegranate and Figs, at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California. I am grateful to a new friend, Kaila Flexer, for including me in the program. (The published version of the concert notes can be downloaded here)
I always felt that the “Italian link” in understanding the history of the notion of “Jewish music” deserves better attention, and here I tried to plug it into a general overview of the subject.
Today, the thorny question of what makes music “Jewish” is often avoided (and feared) by scholars, musicologists and cultural historians alike, but it does occasionally spark heated discussions on e-mail lists, and gathers the attention of bloggers worldwide. It is indeed a question with a thousand possible answers, and one that generates additional questions, which in turn end up blending and overlapping with one another… Invariably, the answers fail to consider the world of sounds, and instead raise issues concerning the many Jewish identities and cultures that surround us.
However, it was not so in the past, when European scholars – Christian and Jewish – shaped the modern notion of Jewish music, and in a way almost invented it. The first interest in the musical world of the Jews – and especially in what Jews sang in their place of worship, the synagogue – arose since the 16th century among Christian humanists, to whom we owe the very notion of musica hebræorum (in Latin, “music of the Hebrews”). These scholars, who immediately understood that the music of the Jews had long been transmitted by way of oral tradition, hoped to find within Jewish liturgy the traces of Hebraic antiquity, and thus the roots of Christianity itself. Instead, what they found was a universe of diverse sounds (a ”world music” of sort) generated by the fact that Jews had lived in Diaspora for many centuries. In the fourth volume of his Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica (Rome, 1693), Father Giulio Bartolocci listed three different ways in which the Jews of his times chanted the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), and provided musical transcriptions according to the “German,” “Spanish” and “Italian” traditions, de facto stating the cultural differences between Jews who originated from ancient Palestine and those who lived in Central Europe (also known as Ashkenazi Jews) or that descended from the Iberian Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal after 1492 (Sephardic Jews). Other Christian researchers followed in this path and by the 19th century, when Jewish scholars also became interested in the topic, it was very clear that there was no such thing as one “Jewish music” that characterized all Jews living across the four corners of the earth, and that Jews sang and played a host of musical traditions, almost all transmitted orally, which shared their traits more with the host non-Jewish cultures than among themselves. This diversity preoccupied Jewish intellectuals, whom in the midst of the Romantic and nationalistic fervors of 19th-century Europe were instead trying to prove, once and for all, the unity and distinctiveness (and thus the intrinsic value) of Judaism. The study of Jewish music by Jews themselves was therefore initially aimed at creating a place for Jewish musical culture, and not just for its supposedly ancient Hebraic construct, within the canons Western cultural history. This preoccupation, and especially the rise of Zionism, led to a progressive focus on the diversity of the oral tradition and on the importance of non-European Jewish cultures. In 1907, when Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882-1938), the founder of modern Jewish musicological research, moved to Palestine, he was confronted with an overwhelming variety of Jewish oral traditions, which included liturgical music, folk songs and instrumental practice by Jews originating from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe, the Balkans, North Africa, the Middle East, the Arabian peninsula and Central Asia. Already then, the Eurocentric dicotomy between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish musical worlds was proving insufficient: Arab music, its modes (or maqamat) and aesthetic sensibilities were equally essential to Jewish musical history and required a whole new consideration. Throughout the 20th century, Idelsohn’s quest for the unifying traits in this panoply of sounds has morphed into a research field that combines musicology, ethnography and anthropology, and that examines the variables of musical production in the context of the cultures of the Jews in the Global Diaspora.