Jewish music in France

By Hervé Roten

This article which is written after Hervé Roten’s research presents the Jewish musical practices in France

A history of over 20 centuries
The origins of the Jewish community of France is quite old. It is in the year 6 A.D. that Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judea, banned by the Roman Emperor Augustus, settled down in the city of Vienne (Isère), a commune in southeastern France. Under the Merovingian dynasty, Jewish families settled their homes in Frank territories. During the following centuries, these groups, that were often small, developed or disappeared.

At the dawn of the French revolution, the Jewish community counted about 40,000 people, mainly established in Alsace-Lorraine, in the Comtat Venaissin and in the South West of France. With the emancipation, French Judaism absobed during the 19th century elements from Central Europe, especially from Germany. In 1880, the pogroms that took place in Russia provoked the emigration of Polish, Romanian and Russian Jews into France. From 1908, Jewish people from Ottoman countries (in particular from Thessaloniki, Constantinople and Smyrna) passed through France and sometimes settled down. Between the two wars, several successive waves brought over 100,000 Jews from Italy, Central and Eastern Europe (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lituania...), to which we can add Sefardi Jews from Greece and Turkey.

After the second world war, the Jewish community of France strongly weakened. The rabbinate was wiped as well as the religious practices. One would have to wait the arrival of 200,000 Jews from North Africa, between 1956 and 1967, in order for French Judaism to begin a religious and cultural rebirth.
Today, French Judaism is strongly composite. Estimated to around 600,000 people, it is composed of a mosaic of communities and traditions with various origins.

Jewish music or music of the Jewish ?
Since the end of the 19th century, Richard Wagner, famous antisemite, declared that there isn’t one Jewish music but music of Jews. The musicological studies indeed brought to light the absence of any musical characteristic which would be specifically and only Jewish. In 1957, the musicologist Curt Sachs defined Jewish music in these terms «Music made by Jews, for Jews, as Jews» [1]. Yet there are nowadays excellent klezmer bands, such as The Goyim, whose name suggests that this kind of music – considered by everyone as Jewish music - can be perfectly assumed by non-Jews, for non-Jews, and in a non-Jewish realm.

So there is no Jewish work by nature, but works played in a Jewish context, be it religious or secular. The many adaptations of mainstream melodies (from little songs to classical masterworks) in the synagogal liturgy testify that a music isn’t born Jewish, but becomes Jewish.

Let’s go further and say that music of Jews doesn’t exist – and never was - just a Jewish fact. But it feeds from sources of ethnicity, it takes its inspiration from a Jewish way of life… that may no longer exist. The sociologist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett brings to light a distinction between a music of tradition and a music of heritage : « I use the words « music of heritage » in order to establish a disctinction between a music that is an integral element of a way of life and a music that was chosen to be preserved, protected, esteemed and rediscovered, to be short, a « music of heritage » [2].

That is how many professional musicians perform, for a curious audience, or in search of identity, music which seems to be more folkloric than lived experience, more of heritage than tradition. These artists are in fact not necessarily specialized in a unique tradition. They don’t hesitate to reappropriate repertoire which are easily changable, playing for example Yiddish songs followed by Judeo-Spanish music.

Nowadays, music stores propose many discs, where the best stands beside the worst ; but all these recordings testify of a recovered vitality. There are many shows and concerts dedicated to Jewish music. But since when ?

The Jewish music practices in France : a historical overview
Of all times, there was Jewish music in France – be it liturgical chants, lullabies, circumcision, work or wedding songs - but the small number of people in the communities (sometimes just a few families), the persecutions and expulsions had the effect of rejecting this music of oral tradition into oblivion. One would have to wait the 18th century, and especially the 19th century for Jewish music to be written down for the first time [3].

However, since the beginning of the 17th century, a reformed current, aiming to offer an art music to Judaism, wander in various communities of Western Europe : in Venice, Salomone Rossi published his Salomon’s canticles ; in Amsterdam, the cantatas by Giusepe Lidarti or Abraham Caceres illustrate the splendour of a community at the peak of its glory. In France, the emancipation of 1791 and the consistorial reform of 1808 encouraged the Jews from the Comtat Venaissin, the Portuguese from southeastern France, and the Ashkenazi mainly settled in Alsace-Lorraine to write down their traditional tunes and to adopt a polyphonic music modelled on Western music.

Just like the German reformed cult preached by Moses Mendelssohn, the French consistorial temples set up a policed cult where the cantor, accompanied by a choir of men and children, sang solemnly the prayer. The accompaniment of services with the organ would eventually be officiliazed in 1844 by the great rabbi Salomon Ullman, and the choirs would become mixed starting in the 1920’s. In Paris, consistorial schools mainly provided the children choirs, especially the students from the school Lucien de Hirsch who sang for a long time in the choir of the synagogue in the rue Buffault.

It was still in the synagogue that composers such as Fromental Halévy (1799-1862), Charles Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) and Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) received their first musical initiation. But with the emancipation, the core of their works was expressed outside the synagogue. Having not been able to hold its most talented musicians, the synagogue saw its young talents leave one after the other.

The migration flows in the beginning of the 20th century brought considerable changes in the Jewish musical practices in France. Jews from Poland, Romania, Russia, Italy, Germany, etc., to which we can add Sefardi Jews from Greece and Turkey, settled in France and brought their culture from where they came from. Among them are many musicians, such as Joseph Kosma or Francis Lemarque, very active in the renewal of French song in which they injected elements of Jewish music from Eastern Europe. At the same time, Darius Milhaud, proud of his Comtadine roots, wrote several works of synagogal music (Sacred Service, Ani maamin). In search of new musical expression, non-Jewish composers – such as Max Bruch or Maurice Ravel - composed works, like Kol Nidrei, Kaddisch, from Jewish traditional melodies that they transcend to give them a universal dimension.

In the 1920’s, people talked and sang in Yiddish in the textile shops of the Jewish Parisian district, the Sentier. Then, after the second world war, and the arrival of 200,000 North African Jews, between 1956 and 1967, Judeo-Arabic songs took the place of Yiddish. From 1968, North African Jews rejected the consistorial musical aesthetics and prefered a more orthodox Judaism ; the accompaniment with the organ was abandoned during services, and mixed choirs were progressively removed.

With the disaffection of worshippers for the cult and assimilation, the Jewish musical practices have been on the decline. But in what shapes do we find these musical practices nowadays ?

Today’s practices
The Jewish musical practices in France reflect the multicultural dimension of Judaism. From the synagogal chanting to the Yiddish folklore, from Oriental dances to Eastern Europe klezmer music, a non prepared listener would be a bit destabilised by the heterogeneity of these musical practices. The latter divide nevertheless into two genres: religious music for an intern usage, and secular music that feeds from ethnicity.

1) Religious music
Liturgical music represents the essential of the practice of Jewish music. The singing, omnipresent in the synagogue or at home, punctuates the life of the worshipper. Every religious Jew goes to the synagogue two times each day to recite the tunes that he learned from his fathers according to the oral tradition. The Jewish holidays give an occasion for a musical fulfillment, more or less marked depending on their significance and importance in the Jewish calendar.

In the big communities, the cantors, along with the rabbis, sing during the services. The worshippers answer by singing different parts of the prayers. Among these worshippers, let’s notice the importance of the Ba’ale massore [4]. This learned man, who knows the tradition by memory, is the keeper of a good observance of the rites and of the sang tunes in the synagogue. Let’s notice that these traditions, mainly monodic and from oral origin, go since the 19th century along with a polyphonic repertoire for choir, sometimes accompanied on the organ, despite the prohibition of music instruments in the synagogue since the destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.) [5]

Each synagogue has its own musical rite, which depends on the practice of secular traditions and on the origin of the majority of the worshippers. Thus in a homogenic community, composed exclusively of Tunisian Jews, the prayers are sang according to the Tunisian rite. In the Parisian synagogue of the rue de la Victoire, the Ashkenazi rite, which comes from a consistorial period, differs of a Polish or Lituanian Ashkenazi rite for example. Some communities - especially in towns where the Jewish population is small - gather worshippers from various origins, and appears a mix of tunes and traditions according to the impact and strength of the various groups.

2) Secular music
Apart from the cult, there is a communautary musical secular practice. The music is lived like a marker of identity, which testifies of a flourishing culture that is today disappearing. Thus the Ashkenazi Jews make relive the haunting chants of the Yiddish folklore ; the Chassidim dance express their joy on klezmer music, evoking the former East European orchestras ; and the old Judeo-Spanish romances and lullabies retrace the history of Salomon’s kingdom.

These artistic practices generally take place in communautary centers, reception halls, concert halls... The singing is the predomining element, but the dance, which perpetuates the Chassidic or Israeli folklore, holds an important role. To accompany the singers and dancers, the instruments such as the violin, the clarinet, the accordeon, the guitar and various types of percussions are frequently used. The performers, coming often from the second or third generation of immigrants, aren’t always specialized in a unique tradition. They do not hesitate to reappropriate repertoires which are easily changable, playing Yiddish songs followed by Judeo-Spanish music. They draw from a vast musical reservoir, built by the tribulations of the Jewish people, to create a kind of mythical folklore.

Finally, a last factor of novelty : since a few decades, popular Israeli songs and dances [6] are generally performed in youth movements or during big family celebrations, such as weddings, (Bar mitsvahs), or circumcisions.

This overview brings to light the liveliness and diversity of Jewish musical practices in France. In contact with the surrounding civilizations, Jewish music absorbed many exogenous stylistic elements : thus the old biblical cantilations are found along side with medieval Andalusian poetry, East-European tunes and lyrical compositions from the 19th century. For this reason, Jewish music is like earth with fossils, composed of musical layers from various times and places, a living musical memory of humanity that is urgent to collect, study, promote, and to always recreate if we don’t want it to disappear.

[1Definition given by Curt SACHS at the World Congress of Jewish Music (Sorbonne, 1957). Cf. BAYER Bathja , Encyclopaedia Judaïca, vol. 12, p. 555.

[2Cf. KIRSHENBLATT-GIMBLETT Barbara, « La renaissance du klezmer : réflexions sur un chronotope musical », Cahiers de Littérature Orale, n°44, 1998, pp. 232-233

[3Cf. ROTEN Hervé, Musiques liturgiques juives : parcours et escales, Coll. Musiques du monde, Cité de la Musique / Actes Sud, 1998, 167 p. et 1 CD

[4Literally : possessor of the tradition.

[5Only notable exception, the shofar is a ram horn that is blown into mainly during the celebrations of the new year (Rosh Hashanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

[6Such as for example the Hora which is a dance that comes from Romania.

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