It is quite impossible to dissertate on Klezmer, Jewish music and ethnomusicology in general without mentioning
Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, "The father of
Jewish musicology". He was a Hazan (cantor), a composer, a
musicologist, a indefatigable collector of traditional melodies and an invaluable investigator in the field
of comparative musicological research.
Born on first of July 1882 (the date varies according to the sources, this is due to
disparities between the Hebrew, Gregorian and Julian calendar), in Filzburg, a little town of the tsarist district
of Courland (present-day Latvia). His father who was a cantor introduced him to thesynagogal
modes (zmirot) and the Jewish folksongs. At home he received an
orthodox education and learned for five years in a Lithuanian Yeshiva. He trained to be a cantor with the Hazan
Mordechai Rabinowitz. Then he pursued his musical education in Berlin and Leipsig. Idelsohn was immersed in two
rich musical backgrounds, the Eastern cantorial tradition and the Western classical music. This duality will paved
the way of his journey from liturgy to ethnomusicology.
As a fervent supporter of Zionism, Idelsohn moved with his family to the Holy
Land. Arrived in Jerusalem he was overwhelmed by the diversity and riches of the Jewish
traditional communities and their musical tradition and he knew that he will devote his time researching this
musical and linguistic heritage. Armed with a phonograph (for recording on cylinders) and a notebook he started
what will become a phenomenal, monumental ten-volumeThesaurus of
He was a multi- disciplines researcher and opened new fields in musicology like the
influence of the languages and different dialects on music expression. He made over a thousands original field
recordings and countless transcriptions. It was the first integration of never heard ancient traditional oriental
melodies with Eastern European Jewish music.
The approach to the Yemenite community was particularly resourceful because this
community was geographically secluded for many centuries thus less prone to external cultural influence. Their
Hebrew pronunciation and their musical tradition had to be the closest to these of the Biblical epoch. This
particular study exposed Idelsohn to the fact that there were affinities between the microtonal and monodic
Yemenite songs with the Gregorian Chant. The conclusion was that the Roman Christianity adopted the music of the temple as his
ownliturgical music. A
step further in the argumentation led him to the deduction that all the Western music was founded on the ground of
Biblical temple music.
Idelsohn also studied the traditions of Persian, Syrian, Bukharian, Babylonian, Moroccan, Samaritan (Shomronim),
Oriental and Ladino Sephardi, German and Hassidic communities.
To really understand the core of Klezmer
andJewish music it is of the utmost
importance to master the Biblical cantillation (intoned recitation), so he recorded samples of the Haftara
(selection of Biblical text which is read and sung in the synagogue on Shabbat and festival days), Birkat
Hacohanim (Priestly Blessing) and various liturgical music and reading.
His devoted work was only interrupted by the WW1, He was enrolled in the Turkish army (Palestine was then part
of the Ottoman Empire).
This monumental work spread over twenty years; another milestone of his numerous publications is
"The Jewish Music Its Historical Development" (1929) which is a
book of reference to people involved in klezmer and Jewish
In 1922 he composed the "first Hebrew opera ever written", "Yphtah" performed in Jerusalem the same year (he used a
lot of musical material collected in the Thesaurus).
In 1924 he settled down in Cincinnati as a professor of Hebrew and liturgy. He published his Thesaurus in ten
volumes in English, German and Hebrew edition. (In the Hebrew edition he made the first attempt to write the score
from right to left according to the Hebrew writing. This initiative had no follow-up, musicians were reluctant to
learn a new way of music reading.)
Idelsohn died in 1938.
Idelsohn was an humanist, a multi-domains researcher, a man who's goal was to gather an almost lost heritage and
bequeath it to future generation, thanks to him an invaluable patrimony was preserved and transmitted to us. The
Klezmer revival proofed that the tradition is still alive and
prosperous thanks to pioneer like Abraham Zvi
the best known Israeli song and an international standard is the creation of Idelsohn. Learn more next page...
Traditional Jewish Yemenite music Achinoam
Traditional chants and Yemenite prayers sung accompanied by hand clapping and drums. Achinoam Nini (Noa) is a
world renowned Israeli singer who's family is originally from Yemen. She is a wonderful singer who integrates true
traditional Yemenite musical patrimony with contemporary folk music. In this clip you can appreciate her charm and