What is Jewish Music?

(excerpted from the Jewish Music Institute in London)


Jewish Music: Table of Contents | Overview | Collection of Works


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Jewish music stems from ancient prayer chants of the Levant some 3000 years ago. The musical notation that developed and that we find in the bible today is one of the most ancient forms of notated music, and yet it is still in current practice all over the world today. Jewish music has been constantly adapting to new conditions and yet retaining its identity in many widely differing ethnic, social and religious environments.

Through its daughter religions, the music of Judaism is one of the fundamental elements in the understanding of the sacred and secular traditions of Europe and the Near East, first having influenced, and then having been influenced by, the music of Christian and Islamic cultures. The study of Jewish music encompasses many genres of religious, semi religious and folk music used in the synagogue and in the Jewish home and also art music using Jewish texts or themes. The study of Jewish music combines distinctively, the essential elements of musicology, ethnomusicology and interculturalism. Jewish music today encompasses a wide diversity of musical traditions and Jewish songs are sung in many different languages.

Ashkenazi Music (Klezmer)

Ashkenazi refers to the Jews who settled in the Rhineland of South West Germany and Northern France from about the third century CE. They developed a distinct culture and spread out eastwards through Central Europe into Slavic lands. Ashkenazi cantorial song reached a very high level of sophistication and ornamentation. The vernacular language was Yiddish, based on medieval German with Slavic and Hebrew words and written in Hebrew script. Yiddish language influenced their popular music. Yiddish language and music travelled with Ashkenazi Jews as they moved to the new world. A musician was called a klezmer.

The term Klezmer comes from the Hebrew words klei meaning “vessel” and zemer meaning “song” - literally meaning “instrument of song.” This was the Yiddish word by which the musicians themselves were known in Eastern Europe. The term “Klezmer Music” was first used in the 1970s to describe the traditional instrumental music of the Yiddish-speaking people of Eastern Europe whose origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages.

Klezmer is enjoying huge popularity world wide and giving pleasure to thousands of listeners and performers. This toe-tapping Eastern European party music imbued with Jewish tonalities and spirituality resonates with people young and old from a wide variety of backgrounds.

For a selection of Ashkenazi/Klezmer music - CLICK HERE

Sephardi Music

Sephardi refers to the Jews who lived and flourished in the Iberian peninsula for many centuries, until they were expelled along with the Muslims, in 1492. Sephardi Jews took their language and musical traditions with them in to exile and absorbed other traditions from North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and countries in the Middle East where they settled. Many of the standard hymns in the Hebrew liturgy were composed by great Sephardic poets during the “Golden Age” in medieval Spain. The lingua franca of Sephardi Jews was Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish) which was based on mediaeval Castilian and written in Hebrew script. The Ladino ballad repertoire was a very important song tradition transmitted through the female line.

For a selection of Sephardi music - CLICK HERE

Israeli Music

While many Israeli performers are internationally recognized, the vast repertoire of music for concert and stage by Israeli composers is still unfamiliar in the UK and beyond. Unique to Israeli music is the particular symbiosis of East and West and the assimilation of elements from diverse traditions, the strands of Jewish traditions, Arab and Middle Eastern musics, with Western approaches.

For a selection of Israeli music - CLICK HERE

Synagogue Music

The aims of synagogue music are to preserve, maintain and ensure the heritage of synagogue music traditions in all its facets; to promote the use of choral and cantorial music in practice and in concert, to encourage children’s choirs in schools, synagogues and communities; to engage with religious music and choral communities outside of the Jewish community; to promote appreciation and understanding of the music of the synagogue to the wider public; and, to provide the opportunity for the enrichment of Jewish spiritual life through the training of individuals and choirs to the highest standards.

For a selection of Synagogue music - CLICK HERE

Suppressed Music

How might the musical language of in Western Europe have evolved in the twentieth century if so many young composers had not been stopped from working, forced into exile or killed by the Nazis? This is a subject that is now being addressed with increasing intensity world-wide. The aim is to re-examine the work of composers whose careers were affected: to recover music suppressed by totalitarian regimes and later neglected, to restore, publish, perform and record the music. There is also an effort to collect an archive of interviews with surviving composers, musicians, their families and friends as well as manuscripts, scores and other documents showing how composers and musicians tackled both their musical and their political challenges.

Western Classical Music

Jewish art music may be said to have begun with court composer Salamoni de Rossi of Mantua in the early seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, Jewish composers emerged in Amsterdam, Southern France and Italy, but the main flowering of the Jewish contribution to western art music began with the emancipation of the Jews following the French Revolution. Jewish composers born during the nineteenth century tended to write in accordance with classical mainstream and not to exhibit Jewish characteristics in their music. However, in the twentieth century, Jewish composers had the confidence to express Jewish features in their music, through the use of traditional sacred and secular material as well as evoking Jewish subjects in their works. There is also an interest in music on Jewish themes by non-Jewish composers and how music has been the medium of cultural, religious and philosophical dialogue since the Enlightenment.


Source: Jewish Music Institute

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