Jewish Music:

History of religious Jewish music

The history of religious Jewish music is about the cantorial, synagogal, and the Temple music from Biblical to Modern times. The earliest synagogal music was based on the same system as that used in the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the Mishna, the regular Temple orchestra consisted of twelve instruments, and the choir of twelve male singers. A number of additional instruments were known to the ancient Hebrews, though they were not included in the regular orchestra of the Temple: the uggav (something like church organ)

After the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent diaspora of the Jewish people, music was initially banned. Later, these restrictions were relaxed. It was with the piyyutim (liturgical poems) that Jewish music began to crystallize into definite form. The cantor sang the piyyutim to melodies selected by their writer or by himself, thus introducing fixed melodies into synagogal music. The music may have preserved a few phrases in the reading of Scripture which recalled songs from the Temple itself; but generally it echoed the tones in the country and age in which the Jews lived, not merely in the actual borrowing of tunes, but more in the tonality on which the local music was based.

Contemporary Jewish religious music

Religious Jewish Music in the 20th century has varied greatly. Religious Jewish Music in the 20th century has spanned the gamut from Shlomo Carlebach‘s nigunim to Debbie Friedman‘s Jewish feminist folk, to the many sounds of Daniel Ben Shalom. Velvel Pasternak has spent much of the late twentieth century acting as a preservationist and committing what had been a strongly oral tradition to paper. In the 1970s, Mordechai Ben David, Avrohom Fried and Jewish boys choirs such as Yigal Salik’s London Pirchei became popular. Periodically Jewish music jumps into mainstream consciousness, with the reggae artist Matisyahu being the most recent example.

A large body of music produced by Orthodox Jews is geared toward teaching religious and ethical traditions and laws. The lyrics of these songs are either in English or in Hebrew, often using phrases from the Jewish prayerbook.

Piyyut

A piyyut is a Jewish liturgical poem, usually designated to be sung, chanted, or recited during religious services. Piyyutim have been written since Mishnaic times. Most piyyutim are in Hebrew or Aramaic, and most follow some poetic scheme, such as an acrostic following the order of the Hebrew alphabet or spelling out the name of the author.

Many piyyutim are familiar to regular attendees of synagogue services. For example, the best-known piyyut may be Adon Olam (“Master of the World”), sometimes attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol in 11th century Spain. Its poetic form consists simply of rhyming eight-syllable lines, and it is so beloved that it is often sung at the conclusion of many synagogue services, after the ritual nightly saying of the Shema, and during the morning ritual of putting on tefillin. Another well-beloved piyyut is Yigdal (“May God be Hallowed”), which is based upon the Thirteen Principles of Faith developed by Maimonides.

Zemirot

Zemirot are Jewish hymns, usually sung in the Hebrew or Aramaic languages, but sometimes also in Yiddish or Ladino. The best known zemirot are those sung around the table during on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Some of the Sabbath zemirot are specific to certain times of the day, such those sung for the Friday evening meal, the Saturday noon meal, and the third Sabbath meal just before sundown on Saturday afternoon. In some editions of the Jewish prayerbook (siddur), the words to these hymns are printed after the opening prayer (kiddush) for each meal. Other zemirot are more generic and can be sung at any meal or other sacred occasion.

The words to many zemirot are taken from poems written by various rabbis and sages during the Middle Ages. Others are anonymous folk songs that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Nigun

Nigun refers to religious songs and tunes that are sung by groups. It is a form of voice instrumental music, often without any lyrics or words, although sounds like “bim-bim-bam” or “Ai-ai-ai!” are often used. Sometimes, Bible verses or quotes from other classical Jewish texts are sung repetitively in the form of a nigun. Nigunim are largely improvisations, though they could be based on thematic passage and are stylized in form.

A revival of interest in Nigun was sparked as part of Hasidism. Different Hasidic groups have their own nigunim, often composed by their Rebbe or leader. Hasidim gather around holidays to sing in groups. There are also nigunim for individual meditation, called devekus or devekut (connecting with God) nigunim. These are usually much slower than around-the-table nigunim, and are almost always sung without lyrics. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, spoke of devekus nigunim as “songs that transcend syllables and sound.” Several tunes attributed to him are still used today.

Pizmonim

Pizmonim are traditional Jewish songs and melodies with the intentions of praising God as well as describing certain aspects of traditional religious teachings. They are sung throughout religious rituals and festivities such as prayers, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, weddings and other ceremonies. Pizmonim are traditionally associated with Middle Eastern Sephardic Jews, although they are related to Ashkenazi Jewszemirot. The best known tradition is associated with Jews descended from Aleppo, though similar traditions exist among Iraqi Jews (where the songs are known as shbaִhoth, praises) and in North African countries. Jews of Greek, Turkish and Balkan origin have songs of the same kind in Ladino, associated with the festivals: these are known as coplas.

The texts of many pizmonim date back to the Middle Ages or earlier, and are often based on verses in the Bible. Many are taken from the Tanakh, while others were composed by poets such as Yehuda Halevi and Israel Najara of Gaza. Some melodies are quite old, while others may be based on popular Middle Eastern music, with the words composed specially to fit the tune.

Baqashot

The Baqashot are a collection of supplications, songs, and prayers that have been sung for centuries by the Sephardic Aleppian Jewish community and other congregations every Shabbat morning from midnight until dawn. Usually they are recited during the weeks of winter, when the nights are much longer.

The custom of singing Baqashot originated in Spain towards the time of the expulsion, but took on increased momentum in the Kabbalistic circle in Safed in the 16th century. Baqashot probably evolved out of the tradition of saying petitionary prayers before dawn and was spread from Safed by the followers of Isaac Luria (16th century). With the spread of Safed Kabbalistic doctrine, the singing of Baqashot reached countries all round the Mediterranean and became customary in the communities of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Rhodes, Greece, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Turkey and Syria. It also influenced the Kabbalistically oriented confraternities in 18th-century Italy, and even became customary for a time in Sephardic communities in western Europe, such as Amsterdam and London, though in these communities it has since been dropped. By the turn of the 20th century Baqashot had become a widespread religious practice in several communities in Jerusalem as a communal form of prayer.

Secular Jewish music

Since Biblical times, music and dance have held an important role in many Jews lives. Secular Jewish music (and dances) have both been influenced by surrounding Gentile traditions and Jewish sources preserved over time.

Israeli music

Modern Israeli music is heavily influenced by its constituents, which include Jewish immigrants from more than 120 countries around the world, which have brought their own musical traditions, making Israel a global melting pot. The Israeli music is very versatile and combines elements of both western and eastern music. It tends to be very eclectic and contains a wide variety of influences from the Diaspora and more modern cultural importation to Hassidic songs, Asian and Arab pop, especially Yemenite singers, and hip hop or heavy metal.

From the earliest days of Zionist settlement, Jewish immigrants wrote popular folk music. At first, songs were based on borrowed melodies from German, Russian, or traditional Jewish folk music with new lyrics written in Hebrew. Starting in the early 1920s, however, Jewish settlers made a conscious effort to create a new Hebrew style of music, a style that would tie them to their earliest Hebrew origins and that would differentiate them from the style of the Jewish diaspora of Eastern Europe, which they viewed as weak. This new style borrowed elements from Arabic and, to a lesser extent, traditional Yemenite and eastern Jewish styles: the songs were often homophonic (that is, without clear harmonic character), modal, and limited in range. “The huge change in our lives demands new modes of expression”, wrote composer and music critic Menashe Ravina in 1943. “… and, just as in our language we returned to our historical past, so has our ear turned to the music of the east … as an expression of our innermost feelings.”

The youth, labor and kibbutz movements played a major role in musical development before and after the establishment of Israeli statehood in 1948, and in the popularization of these songs. The Zionist establishment saw music as a way of establishing a new national identity, and, on a purely pragmatic level, of teaching Hebrew to new immigrants. The national labor organization, the Histadrut, set up a music publishing house that disseminated songbooks and encouraged public sing-alongs (שירה בציבור). This tradition of public sing-alongs continues to the present day, and is a characteristic of modern Israeli culture.

Israeli folk

Termed in Hebrew שירי ארץ ישראל (“songs of the land of Israel“), folk songs are meant mainly to be sung in public by the audience or in social events. Some are children’s songs; some combine European folk tunes with Hebrew lyrics; some come from military bands and others were written by poets such as Naomi Shemer and Chaim Nachman Bialik.

The canonical songs of this genre often deal with Zionist hopes and dreams and glorify the life of idealistic Jewish youth who intend on building a home and defending their homeland. A common theme is Jerusalem as well as other parts of Eretz Israel. Tempo varies widely, as do the content. Some songs show a leftist or right-wing bent, while others are typically love songs, lullabies or other formats; some are also socialist in subject, due to the long-standing influence of socialism on Jews in parts of the Diaspora.

Patriotic folk songs are common, mostly written during the wars of Israel. They typically concern themselves with soldiers’ friendships and the tragedy of death during war. Some are now played at memorials or holidays dedicated to the Israeli dead.

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