Category Archives: Jewish

Musical Exodus (Book Review)

Musical Exodus: Al-Andalus and Its Jewish Diasporas, edited by Ruth F. Davis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015. 220 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

If music is the “Jew” of Jewish studies, as musicologist Edwin Seroussi contends, then Sephardic Jewish music is the “Jew of the Jew” of Jewish studies. Not only is it a marginalized topic, as music generally is, but it also suffers from an Ashkenazi bias, which permeates all of Jewish studies. Ruth F. Davis’s edited anthology, Musical Exodus, strives to fill in the oft-neglected picture. It collects ten research papers on musical subjects related to “Al-Andalus and Its Jewish Diasporas,” the title of a 2008 colloquium of the International Council of Traditional Music held at Cambridge University, which forms the basis of the book.

Following an informative introduction by Davis, Dwight F. Reynolds outlines the complex and multifarious cultural, religious, and musical backgrounds that gave rise to Arabo-Andalusian music (music of medieval Muslim Spain, “al-Andalus” in Arabic). Vanessa Paloma Elbaz examines the subtle integration of “feminine” vernacular songs into male-dominated worship services in Tangier, Morocco. Daniel Jütte looks at the role of Jewish musicians and dance instructors as cultural intermediaries between Jews and Christians in Renaissance Italy. Piergabriele Mancuso describes the cultural makeup of the Sabbatini, a group of southeastern Italian Catholic farmers who claimed to be “children of Israel,” encountered Italian Jewry, formally converted to Judaism, and migrated to Israel en masse in 1950. Philip V. Bohlman describes how images of al-Andalus as a model of religious and cultural tolerance became symbolic for Enlightenment Jews in Europe. John Morgan O’Connell connects the exclusion of indigenous Jewish musicians in early Republican Turkey to the ousting of Eastern (Ottoman) aesthetics, and the assertion of Western culture. Jonathan H. Shannon explores the contradictory silence surrounding Jewish musicians in Syria, and the persistence of “Jewish fingers”—a hand gesture in Syrian musical practice developed by Yacoub Ghazala, a Jewish musician whose memory officials have worked to erased. Tony Langlois discusses Jewish commercial musicians in the port city of Oran, Algeria, who performed an eclectic style known as chanson Oranaise between the 1930s and 50s. Carmel Raz considers the secular revival of piyyutim (liturgical poetry with roots in al-Andalus) in modern-day Israel as a means of bridging secular and sacred and Mizrahi/Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Edwin Seroussi surveys Hebrew Andalusian poetry unique to Jews of Tripoli, Libya and Djerba, Tunisia. Stephen Blum’s afterword urges further investigation into cultural interactions among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in al-Andalus and elsewhere.

Each exploration is richly detailed and defies adequate illustration here. As with any edited volume, some chapters are better presented than others, some fit better within the overarching subject, and some are of more inherent interest to the reader. (These observations are, of course, subjective.) Nevertheless, the book’s expansive timeframe, dispersed geographies, and widely varied musical traditions paint a composite portrait—by way of case study—of a vibrant and multi-layered area of Jewish music, history, and culture.

From this sundry material emerges four recurring themes of special interest to this reviewer. First is the pervasive myth of Jewish life in al-Andalus as a “golden age.” As with any romanticized period, medieval Spain was not quite as glorious as the romanticists claim. Both Davis and Bohlman trace the myth to Enlightenment Jews in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, who saw al-Andalus as a paradigm of ideals they cherished: equality, religious tolerance, and cross-cultural interaction. Davis writes: “Pitting an idealized Islamic tradition of tolerance against the grim realities of European anti-Semitism, they constructed a ‘historical myth’ of an interfaith utopia under medieval Islamic rule, which they presented as a challenge to Christian Europe and as a strategy to improve their own position” (p. xv). The myth was later taken up by Arab academics and journalists, who blamed Zionism for turning Arabs against Jews. Jewish historians countered with earlier evidence of intolerance and persecution in Arab lands and the founding books of Islam. Mizrahi Jews who immigrated to Israel from Muslim countries used the “counter-myth” of persecution to align themselves with downtrodden Ashkenazi Jews, and “claim an equal share of the Zionist dream” (p. xvi). Naturally, each myth and counter-myth exhibits degrees of cherry-picking for political purposes.

A second theme is oral transmission. According to Reynolds, “Because musical notation was not in use in Muslim Spain, we possess a wide variety of historical sources about medieval Andalusian music but not the music itself….On the other hand, the large number of living musical traditions that claim some sort of descent from the music of medieval Muslim Spain does allow us—with great care and very judiciously—to navigate at times back and forth between medieval historical documents and modern living traditions and to come to an approximate understanding of the basic structures of medieval Arabo-Andalusian music” (pp. 3-4). This helps to explain both the diversity and continuity within and between various idioms expressive of an “Arab style.” With reliance on generational transfer rather than written notation, these traditions could develop and flourish in a variety of directions without losing a fundamental link to the past.

The third area is the role of poetry. In the classical conception, Arab music was not considered an independent art form, but a vehicle for sung poetry. Thus, melodic construction was largely dictated by the rhythms, meters, and forms of Arabic poetry (essentially a form of logogeneic, or word-born, music). Because of this more or less stable linguistic foundation, the “Arab style” could accept expanding influences from Byzantine, Persian, African, and other sources without losing its aesthetic signatures.

Fourth, and most central, is hybridity. Again quoting Reynolds: “Over a period of nine centuries, from 711 to 1610, there is evidence of professional musicians from a variety of different ethnic, religious, and regional origins performing diverse musical traditions before patrons and audiences of diverse backgrounds. There is also good evidence for understanding the music itself (and not just the music makers) as a very cosmopolitan tradition that incorporated influences from multiple sources and developed innovative new forms by combining and hybridizing traditions” (pp. 21-22). Such hybridity remained a feature of the Sephardic diaspora. For example, Jewish performers of chanson Oranaise, mentioned above, combined medieval Andalusian repertoire and French chanson, a popular genre of music halls and cabarets. Beyond music, hybridity is a characteristic of Sephardic languages, such as the Moroccan Judeo-Spanish vernacular of Haketía, which combines Spanish, Moroccan Arabic, and Hebrew, as well as performance contexts, such as the piyyut revival in Israel, which mixes secular and sacred, East and West.

These themes and the chapters that elucidate them remind us not only of the substantial musical contributions of al-Andalus and its Jewish diasporas, but also of the complex and nearly indefinable nature of Jewish music. More broadly, they support the case for answering questions of “Jewishness”—musical and otherwise—in the plural: Jewish identities, Jewish traditions, Jewish styles, Jewish diasporas, Judaisms. As Ruth Rubin observed decades ago, the music of the Jews is “as diverse and variegated as the Jews themselves” (A Treasury of Jewish Folksong, 1950).

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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A Windfall of Musicians (Book Review)

A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California, by Dorothy Lamb Crawford. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009. 318 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Immediately following his appointment as chancellor in January of 1933, Hitler launched an aggressive attack on Germany’s radio, press, film, music, and publishing industries. Hitler was himself an unsuccessful artist and amateur musician, who was denied entrance to art school in Vienna and failed in his effort to complete the text, design the sets, and compose the music for a mythic play Wagner had tossed aside. Control of the arts and media was given to propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who oversaw the content of every German newspaper, book, novel, play, film, broadcast, and concert, big and small. Goebbels gave the rationale for Nazi censorship, especially regarding music: “Judaism and German music are opposing forces which by nature stand in glaring contradiction to each other. The war against Judaism in German music—for which Richard Wagner once assumed sole responsibility [was to be carried out by] a united people.” As a result, Jewish composers, conductors, and performers who had once thrived in the Weimer Republic were now forced into silence and expulsion.

Musicologist Dorothy Lamb Crawford’s well-researched and informative book, A Windfall of Musicians, chronicles how many of these musicians fled Europe and gathered in the Los Angeles area beginning in the 1930s. As she explains in the unusually engaging Preface, Hitler’s rise to power coincided with the emergence of sound technology in Hollywood films. These converging developments brought an array of talented European musicians to the promising, though yet untapped, Los Angeles music scene. Crawford writes, “they constituted Hitler’s (unintentional) gift to American music” (p. ix), and helped transform Southern California from a “cultural desert” to a “musical mecca” (p. xi).

The book profiles fourteen composers, sixteen performers, and one opera stage director whose impact on the Los Angeles area was felt in the film industry, concert halls, universities, and through private teaching. Some of these musicians left Europe with impressive resumes and reputations, while others rose to prominence during their time in Southern California. Still others never quite established themselves in a cultural environment that for the most part resisted musical innovation. Even well known personalities like Arnold Schoenberg had trouble convincing the unsophisticated Los Angeles public to embrace his twelve-tone system; and Ernst Toch, one of the great avant-garde composers of the pre-Nazi era, constantly fought the label “film composer,” which he felt was beneath him. The book’s greatest attribute is its treatment of the struggles and successes of these immigrant musicians, both famous and lesser known.

The breadth and detail of this study are commendable, and evade summary in a short review. However, a couple of accounts gleaned from its pages should provide a sense of its fascinating subject matter. The third chapter profiles German-born conductor Otto Klemperer, who arrived in Los Angeles on October 14, 1933, and conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic until 1939, when he was incorrectly diagnosed with a brain tumor. Klemperer, a temperamental perfectionist, brought instant and marked improvement to the hitherto unimpressive orchestra. His first performance left audience members with the impression that he had brought the musicians with him from Europe, so changed was their sound. He was taken aback when he heard whistling in the crowd’s rousing ovation, which in Europe was a sign of disapproval.

The book also offers several portraits of composers in the motion picture business (chapter 8). Among them is Franz Waxman, who scored a number of classic films, such as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and A Christmas Carol (1938), and earned the Academy Award for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951). The seriousness with which he approached film composing was characteristic of this intense and highly trained group of composers. In a letter to the producers of The Nun’s Story (1959), Waxman complained about the late starting dates and short deadlines typically given for film scores: “Babies are not born overnight . . . and so it is with music or anything completely creative. . . . Everyone else connected with this picture has now been thoroughly drenched in it . . . and has had time to give it adequate thought. How, then, can a composer, if he is to do a decent job of creating, see a film one day and start writing it the next morning at nine o’clock?” (pp. 171-172).

Additional musicians featured include composer Igor Stravinsky, pianist Arthur Rubinstein, cellist Emanuel Feuermann, singer Lotte Lehmann, and many more who “managed to find personal self-renewal through individual journeys of discovery in their Californian lives” (p. 243). The depth with which Crawford delves into each biography varies, with some taking up an entire chapter (e.g., Klemperer, Schoenberg, Toch, and Stravinsky), and others just a few paragraphs. At times, these read like encyclopedia entries, with both the wealth of information and the dryness one would expect from such a resource. Still, Crawford’s enthusiasm for the book’s musicians and the Southern California setting is palpable. She has amassed a comprehensive survey of lasting value, and a worthy homage to this remarkable assemblage of vibrant personalities and artistic talent.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Wagner and the Music of the Jews

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Anti-Semitism was not uncommon among nineteenth-century composers. Chopin, Liszt, Mussorgsky and others are on record making derogatory comments about Jews and Judaism. Most of these musicians carry no stigma; their works are performed without hesitation. This is not so with Richard Wagner, whose vitriol was exacerbated by his affiliation with left wing revolutionaries. Two things make it difficult to separate Wagner’s work from his views: the Nazis espoused his music, and he wrote a polemical essay, “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music,” 1850, 1869). While he cannot be blamed for the Nazis’ use of his music—he died before Hitler was born—the anti-Jewish sentiment in his infamous essay is hard to dismiss.

Wagner makes two basic points in “Das Judenthum in der Musik.” The first is that “the Jew” is incapable of reaching the musical heights of European composers. He takes specific aim at Felix Mendelssohn, whom he considered more of a technician than an artist, and whom he thought lacked the passion and heart of a Beethoven (or of Wagner himself). He also mentions Giacomo Meyerbeer (Jacob Lieberman Beer), a once-popular opera composer whom Wagner felt was too practical, too calculated, and too concerned with popular tastes to be truly creative. Not incidentally, Wagner was convinced that Meyerbeer, a Frenchman, had deliberately sabotaged his early efforts to enter the Paris establishment. (Contrastingly, in 1841 Wagner wrote a glowing review of La Juive—The Jewess—a grand opera by another French Jewish composer, Fromenthal Halévy.)

If we remove the anti-Semitism and generalizations that fueled these observations, then Wagner’s views are not far off: Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer are in some ways inferior composers of the Western canon. But there is good reason for this. Jews did not enter the world of European music until the nineteenth century, and even then had limited opportunities to develop their craft. They were late to the party and had a lot of catching up to do. Wagner died in 1883, so he missed out on the twentieth century and its slew of innovative Jewish composers: Copland, Schoenberg, Bernstein, Philip Glass, the pioneers of Hollywood film music, etc. In addition to being a venom-infused stereotype, Wagner’s image of Jews as musically uncreative is simply outdated.

His second point is that “The Jew flings together the various forms and styles of all composers and eras.” Wagner meant this as an insult: Jews have no musical language of their own, but instead appropriate their neighbors’ music and perform it as foreigners. If we take out the negative implication of “Jew as imitator,” then Wagner’s opinion was actually correct—and perhaps even ahead of its time.

Wagner lived when Jewish music was gradually becoming a topic of interest among Wissenschaft scholars, who amplified the cultural uniqueness of Jews and Judaism. As part of that agenda, Jewish scholars perpetuated a myth of musical continuity, wherein some elusive element of “authentic” Jewish music could be traced back to Jerusalem’s Second Temple. This element was never discovered, and was never really looked for in any serious way. Still, it was a powerful sentiment that basically went unchallenged until the mid-twentieth century, when scholars came to terms with the fact that Jewish music is always tied to its surrounding, as Wagner pointed out. Contemporary critics view the ability to adapt music of the surroundings as a strength, rather than a weakness, of Jewish culture.

Not surprisingly, Wagner’s admirers tend to downplay his anti-Semitism, while his detractors emphasize it. As noted, he wasn’t entirely incorrect in his comments on the music of the Jews in his time and place; but the hatred that saturates his words cannot be ignored.

It is sometimes remarked that Wagner was envious of the Jews, but this assertion is rarely elaborated upon. I’d like to add my own theory. Wagner’s greatest claim to fame as a composer is the leitmotif: a recurrent theme throughout a musical composition that is associated with a specific person, idea or situation. Given Wagner’s obsession with the Jew in music, he was almost certainly aware that leitmotifs were a staple of synagogue music in his native Germany, and had been since the Middle Ages. The High Holidays, for instance, were full of them (the so-called “Mi-Sinai tunes”). One might even argue that Wagner stole the concept from the Jews, or was appalled to hear Jews using a musical device he thought he had invented. This could explain at least some of his vehemence. It also suggests that maybe—just maybe—Jews weren’t so uncreative after all.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Score is Not Territory

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

William Sharlin (1920-2012) was among the twentieth century’s most active and innovative composers of synagogue music. A masterful choral writer and self-described “freak” for the canon, Sharlin’s music freely crosses stylistic borders and evades conventional limitations and expectations of the worship setting. At its most elegant, his music seamlessly blends melodic modernism, jazz harmonies, Renaissance form and Jewish folk material. And nothing he wrote was ever finished.

Like many artists, Sharlin was never completely satisfied with his output—or, more accurately, ceased being satisfied with it after a short duration. Well into his eighties, he compulsively made changes to vocal lines, expanded harmonic coloring, and added figures to piano accompaniments. Some pieces were left on the brink of indecipherability, while others bear only surface resemblance to their original conceptions. He gave this treatment to published and unpublished pieces alike, and would complain whenever his music was reprinted without his express consent, as he almost certainly possessed a more recent version.

None of this editing or re-editing was done from a place of frustration. It was the inevitable byproduct of a perspective that saw written notes as temporary suggestions rather than concrete representations. For Sharlin, whatever appeared on the page was but a carefully constructed abstraction (though he was meticulous about how it should be presented). Notation was the model of an artistic reality, not the reality itself.

The above example complements the now widely accepted view of composition as a fluid and potentially unending process. Written notes are performed into existence. They only become music when they are heard. And each interpretation brings something new.

The creative functions of performance and reception cannot be overstressed. A piece is defined and redefined by the tempo, articulations, dynamics, attacks and tone qualities with which it is rendered. No two presentations are precisely the same, and each gives its own character to the composition. (This is clearly demonstrated on jazz albums that include two or more takes of a selection.) Listeners likewise play an active part in the creation of music, as their ears, minds and bodies make meaning of the sundry sound clusters. In this fundamental way, the involvement of performers and audiences, whether the music is live or recorded, is an extension of the compositional process.

The unfolding phenomenon of composition expands in cases where the composer continuously modifies his or her work, or leaves us with renditions capturing different stages of critical editing. Each of these versions carries with it unique nuances in addition to those always present among performers and listeners.

The upshot here is that the written note, while central to composed music, should not be confused with the end result. The depiction is not the depicted. Score is not territory.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Playing Favorites

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A young cellist waited anxiously for her turn to audition for the high school all-district orchestra. She had searched carefully for an audition piece that was both appropriately demanding and personally meaningful. Her choice fell upon Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 (1881), a work combining motifs chanted on Yom Kippur evening, phrases from a song arranged by Isaac Nathan (“O Weep for Those that Wept on Babel’s Stream”) and passages derived from Bruch’s imagination. For the cellist and most others reared in Ashkenazi Judaism, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is saturated with associations linked to the atonement holiday and larger themes of Jewish culture and identity. (This, despite the fact the Bruch was a Protestant, composed the piece for the concert hall, and intended it as a study in folklore, not for sacred consumption.)

As the cellist played for the adjudicator, her mother sat in the corner of the room weeping. The soaring tones flooded her with memories and emotions, just as they did each time her daughter practiced at home. The adjudicator was less visibly moved, partly because he had to maintain a professional demeanor, but mainly because he was not Jewish and had no investment in the music. To him, it was merely a nice piece, which was the term he used to describe it (and the performance).

This vignette is indicative of how we process music. No piece is heard in isolation. The mother’s experience was informed by past exposure, religious sentiments, ethnic affiliation and pride that her daughter, through her playing, was preserving their heritage. The adjudicator’s experience was not so weighty. The piece had no personal resonance for him, other than maybe recalling other late-Romantic adagios. If the girl had played something that touched him on a personal level—like a sonata he learned from a dearly departed mentor—he might have shown more emotion.

Our backgrounds always inform our musical reception. If we are intimately familiar with certain music and if that music has deep associations for us, we are likely to hear it as superior or otherwise set apart. It matters little what the music is or from which genre, era or purpose it derives. What is important is that we hear it as our music, and that it serves as an extension and self-reminder of who we are.

There are no rules or limits regarding which type of music can conjure profound attachments. Kol Nidrei might be an obvious example, with its lofty Romanticism and ethnic-religious substance; but for someone else, a tango, doo-wop ballad or cartoon theme song can have the same effect. There is really no point in debating whether one selection is more worthy of this high esteem than another. Fondnesses occur on such an individual level that they (at least should) escape criticism.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer (Book Review)

Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, edited by Yale Strom, Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2012. 153 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The past decade or so has witnessed a flourishing of books tackling various aspects of klezmer, a term referring both to a style of Eastern European-born Jewish folk music and the musicians who perform it. Growing interest in the centuries-old genre has spurred the printing of a variety of songbooks, fake books, instrument-specific collections, historical analyses and ethnographic studies. All of these areas find a home in Shpil: The Art of Playing Klezmer, a slim yet information-rich volume edited by accomplished klezmer violinist and ethnographer Yale Strom. Filled with historical details, practical advice, technical instruction, musical examples and illustrative anecdotes, this all-in-one book gathers the wisdom of renowned klezmer performers, specifically Peter Stan (accordion), Jeff Pekarek (bass), Norbert Stachel (clarinet), David Licht (drums), Yale Strom (violin) and Elizabeth Schwartz (vocals).

The book begins with two chapters of condensed history from the Middles Ages to the present. These introductory surveys, written by Strom, ease through the somewhat disjointed development of the genre, from the dance halls of twelfth-century Germany, to the Hasidic ecstasy of seventeenth-century Poland, to the army bands of Czarist Russia, to the immigrant ensembles of the United States, to the Yiddish theater, to the modern revival and profusion of the art form.

In the limited space of roughly thirty pages, Strom manages to lay a solid historical foundation while sprinkling in several amusing vignettes. For instance, he includes a story of a man who grew up in New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. During his childhood, a fiddler would come through his neighborhood around seven a.m., just after the men had gone to work. As he played a slow waltz, the wives would lean out of their apartment windows. When the music finished, the women clapped in appreciation and threw down money accompanied by rolled-up pieces of paper. The papers contained numbers corresponding to horseraces, which the fiddler brought to a bookie on the women’s behalf (p. 18).

The other chapters continue in this vein. The well-chosen authors elegantly combine the performance history of their instruments, profiles of legendary masters, insights about style and technique, stories from their own experiences, and a handful of musical illustrations. Though they are presented in unique authorial voices (Stan, Pekarek, Stachel, Licht, Strom and Schwartz) and profile unique instruments (accordion, bass, clarinet, drums, violin and vocals), they do address similar issues. It is therefore possible, if not entirely fair, to generalize their content using a few examples.

The topic of stylized embellishments appears throughout the book. This is to be expected, as the use of specific ornaments is largely what defines klezmer playing. Roughly half of Stan’s chapter on the accordion is devoted to this subject (pp. 35-39), and Strom describes the nine core embellishments, or dreydlekh, of the klezmer violin: glitshn (portamenti); mordent; krekhtsn (“moan”); kneytshn (“fold”); tshoks (“bend”); turn; harmonic; trill; and ponticello (pp. 100-101).

The authors also stress that klezmer is a lived heritage, and one rooted in a vibrant and still expanding continuum. As Stachel writes in his chapter on the clarinet: “folk music such as klezmer is a living testament to the history and collective emotional experiences of that culture and its people. It has been passed down from one generation to the next; and that transcends any professor’s attempt to mechanically and coldly ‘explain’ in a theoretical way the essence of Ashkenazi music” (p. 64).

Another theme is the influence of Eastern European cantorial music on klezmer playing and singing. Instrumentalists emulate cantorial adornments and phrasings, and vocalists cannot help but pay homage to chazzanut (cantorial art). As Schwartz puts it in her chapter on vocals: “To sing klezmer in the folk style, one must . . .  harken back to the vocal traditions of the synagogue—not because the songs are liturgical, but because these ornamentations have become an indelible part of the music’s performance” (p. 129).

Many more subjects are addressed in this useful and readable volume. Of course, as with any book, there is room for criticism. For instance, some familiar klezmer instruments were omitted—like the mandolin and members of the brass family—and some chapters offer more technical insights than others. But these objections are minor. Performers, scholars and fans of klezmer music will benefit from the book’s informative discussions, pedagogical elements, personal stories and enthusiastic tone.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.