Hebrew Melodies: a musical journey through the Jewish soul

A radio program from the European Institute for Jewish Music, hosted by Hervé Roten


In the second half of the 19th century appears an interest for popular and exotic music. With the emergence of the universal expositions, the extension of British and French colonial empires, the Orientalism is in fame. Debussy is the first to be inspired by this music of oral tradition to invent a music that breaks up with the classical Western language. He influences considerably the composers of the following generation (Bartók, Stravinsky, de Falla, etc.), who establish their own musical language based on the popular music of their regions.

We also know the attachment of Ravel to popular music from various cultures. Therefore in 1910, Ravel puts on music seven popular songs - in which one in Yiddish: Mejerke, main Suhn (Meyerke, my son) – for a contest organized by the Maison du Lied in Moscow.

Still in the 20th century, Russian Jewish musicians and researchers get interested In popular Jewish music. In 1900, Joël Engel (1868-1927) starts to put on sheet music and to give concerts folkloric Jewish songs. Encouraged by the composer Nikolaï Rimski-Korsakov, this movement attracts young Jewish musicians – such as Lazare Saminsky, Solomon Rosowsky, Aleksandr Krein, or Joseph Achron – and becomes in 1908 the “Popular Jewish Music Society” in St-Petersburg. Between 1911 and 1914, this society organizes various ethnographic expeditions under the direction of Sh. An-Ski (1863-1920). Engel takes actively part in this collect where 500 cylinders will be recorded with approximately 1000 songs. Having a lively and representative material of diversity of Jewish music, these young composers which to embody a 3000 year old dream: recreate a Jewish music. But for An-Ski, the most important is not the material which is used, but the way the bricks are disposed to build a church, a synagogue. In other words, for An-Ski, the (Jewish) content is more important than the (non-Jewish) format.

This idea will be taken by Ernest Bloch, often considered as the cantor of Jewish art music. Between 1912 and 1916, Bloch writes in particular Three Jewish Poems (1916), Three Psalms (1912-1914), one symphony Israël (1912-1916), Schelomo, Hebraic rhapsody for cello and orchestra (1916). Bloch do not considers himself as an archeologist of Jewish music. He writes a music nourished by Hebrew spirit and the love of the Bible.

Darius Milhaud, who defines himself as “French man born in Aix and of Jewish confession”, is also the author of an important Jewish work. In particular: Jewish Poems (1916), the opera Esther of Carpentras (1925-1927), his 6 popular Hebraic songs (1925), his Sacred Service for the morning of Shabbat (1947), the oratorio David composed for the third millennium of Jerusalem in 1955, and finally, his last work, the cantata Ani Maamin (1974) with words by Elie Wiesel, who tells the horrors of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Maidanek.

Linked to this period of the holocaust, we have to say the names of Viktor Ullman and Simon Laks. The Drei jiddische Lieder (3 yiddish melodies) by Voktor Ullman have been written in Terezin in 1944, a few months before his extermination in Auschwitz. These three beautiful works sound as a tribute to the Jewish culture at the time of its destruction. Simon Laks was also sent in Aushwitz in July 1942. As a musician, he survives more than two years, at the head of the concentration camp’s orchestra. In 1947, Laks writes 8 Popular Jewish Songs, then in 1961 a lament for Jewish villages, to the memory of the Eastern Europe Jews who were murdered.

In 1948, facing a growth of antisemitism in USSR, the Cristian composer Dimitri Chostakovitch writes a work called Of Popular Jewish Poetry (op. 79). The eleven songs of this cycle, which will be created in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, sound like a scream of rebellion against anti-Semitic hatred.

Also marked by nazi barbarism, Joaquin Nin-Culmell (1908-2004) writes in 1982 a cycle of Seis Canciones populares sefardies dedicated to the memory of all Jewish martyrs (« in memoriam omnium martyrum iudaeorum »). For this musical tribute, Nin-Culmell used six Judeo-Spanish melodies from the communities of Salonica, of the Balkans, from Bulgaria and Tetouan.

A brilliant program discussed with the pianist David Bismuth…

Listen to excerpts from the CD Hebrew Melodies for cello and piano
Buy the CD Hebrew Melodies for cello and piano

Listen to previous radio shows dedicated to classical Jewish music/

  • Charles-Valentin Alkan, from Jewish faith to modernity
  • Le rôle des musiciens juifs dans le Paris du XIXe : le cas d’Henri Herz (Vienne 1803- Paris 1888)
  • Baroque Jewish music
  • Fernand Halphen : un compositeur juif dans la Grande Guerre
  • L’oeuvre juive d’Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986)
  • Arnold Schönberg’s Jewish musical work
  • Norbert Glanzberg - Des chansons populaires aux musiques juives
  • Serge Kaufmann – un compositeur en quête de ses racines
    Mélodies hébraïques : un cheminement musical à travers l’âme juive - Hervé Roten (Judaïques FM 94.8)

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  • Mélodies hébraïques : un cheminement musical à travers l’âme juive - Hervé Roten (Judaïques FM 94.8)

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