What makes Jewish music what it is — Jewish?  I have pondered this question since my first year here at Peretz, singing my first Jewish song.  So, for my speech, I decided to research the progress of Jewish music through time, to find if it was a tune, the composer's religion, or just a song's content that made it Jewish.  I will discuss several prominent composers of Jewish music in various eras, then play for you a few pieces written for cello.




There is a lot to cover in such a broad topic, so I am starting in more recent times — the earliest composer having lived in the sixteenth century.  His name was Salomon Rossi.  He was a Jewish conductor who lived from 1570 to 1628.  He was a violinist, and he conducted an orchestra of Jewish musicians who also played outside the ghetto.  Rossi composed music typical of the time — that is, baroque — but he also wrote motets and hymns for synagogues.  For those unaware of exactly what a motet is, it is simply a choral composition on a sacred text usually without instrumental accompaniment, or a capella.  Rossi also contributed sonatas, instrumental music, and madrigals.  Most of his music was meant for violins, cellos, and violas.  Though his music was not well received at the time, some of his works have become very popular.  Certain ones among them are even used at religious festivals today!

The second composer, known as Marcello, lived from 1686 to 1739.  His, of all compositions, could truly be thought of as Jewish.  His "Estro poetico armonico" was made of various bits and pieces of the first fifty psalms.  His pieces were composed for a few solo voices, an occasional violin or cello, and basso continuo.  Marcello was inspired to these after hearing ancient Hebrew hymns in a Venetian synagogue.  Marcello could distinguish between Sephardic and Ashkenazic music, and in fact wrote several pieces in either of the two styles.  These pieces were written from right to left, and had the Hebrew words underneath the music.  His works became a great and useful source of information on traditional synagogue songs, and some people today base their own songs on his.

Salomon Sulzer, who lived from 1804 to 1890, is another great figure in Jewish music.  He searched for a between path: he wanted something that would keep the important elements of traditional Jewish music, but he wanted to give it an Austrian twist.  Even at the age of twenty-three, Sulzer was able to compose songs that were right for him and the rest of the world.  He wrote music that, while preserving the Jewish characteristics, also matched the modern cosmopolitan tastes.  Sulzer made an amazingly old dog learn a new trick, and his results were both remarkable and encompassing.  Sulzer pleased his community's elderly with something traditional, and at the same time drew the young's interest with something new.

In the early 1900s, people really began to fuse Jewish styles of music with other types.  One of the first people in this field was Don Byron, and, somewhat ironically, he was a black clarinetist.  He was one of the original members of the Klezmer Conservatory Band.  Byron kept the klezmer even after "dumping" his band.  The klezmer helped him so much that it began a solo career.  Byron showed the community that it was okay to enjoy something different.  After all, he was a black man and a clarinetist living in a segregated country.  Still he made good klezmer music and a good name for himself, despite the fact that he wasn't Jewish.  Byron showed an unfamiliar society some of the great aspects of klezmer, blues and jazz, and improvisation.

Another 1900s composer was Itzhak Perlman, a classical violinist with an obsession with klezmer.  He combined klezmer with classical.  Perlman's music was listened to throughout Europe, and gave the continent's intelligentsia a new appreciation for Jewish folk music.  He allowed music lovers with a taste for classical to embrace klezmer as a true art form that was both exciting and acceptable.

Other modern musicians added completely new twists to Jewish music, once again klezmer in particular.  Take, for example, the Klezmatics.  They took advantage of klezmer's ability to combine the musical sounds of the surrounding culture and traditional Jewish instruments and music.  Their music is a literal collision between "noise" and a music that we can all say we've heard, even though it's apart from mainstream pop culture.  The Klezmatics address anti-Semitic stereotypes (one of their best-selling albums being titled "Jews with Horns") all throughout Europe and the US.  Their music confronts you and demands to be heard — it can't be ignored.  The Klezmatics combine, in full songs, Jewish music with bluegrass, jazz, rock, and even rap.

Now we come to truly modern music.  If you thought the Klezmatics were weird, you've heard nothing, I assure you.  This is Antithesis.  The Zionist rapper.  Curioser and curioser, right?

Antithesis does rap and hip-hop music referring to Zionism and problems in Israel.  His music is sold all over the world, and all profits go to charity.  Believe it or not, Antithesis' music has been described as "a very novel prayer" by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain himself.

So once again, what is Jewish music?  A trembling harmony of strings?  An example of love?  A tale, with a different ending for each listener, to be examined at leisure?  All this and more.

For in each Jewish song I heard, there was a strange balance of sharps and flats not to be heard in any other style of music.  Sometimes fast or slow in the same song, sometimes high or low, Jewish music seems to be history's aural embodiment.  It expresses life's highs and lows, times of peace and times of war, times of love or hate.  Jewish music shows that each love story has an argument, and that there is really no such thing as simple good or bad.  With the turbulence of the music, and how two notes that should look the same don't sound the same, Jewish music shows that there is no black or white, but variations of gray.  It shows that throughout Jewish history and history in general, on the opposite shore of darkness and evil there are always goodness and light.  There is no cleanliness without filth, nor sweet laughter without bittersweet tears.  Thus, Jewish music really is a journey through time.

(Song #1)  The first piece I will be playing for you today was written by Gene and Jemmy Bluestein.  They lived in the early 1900s.  Gene was instrumental in making a Black Studies program for music.  The song here is called "Where Does Love Come From?" or in Yiddish, Fun vanen heybt zikh on a libe?

(Song #2)  This is an exerpt from a song called "I Sing," or Ikh Zing in Yiddish.  The music was written by Abraham Ellstein, and the words by Molly Picon.  Both lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

(Song #3)  I'll be ending with a slightly more upbeat song called "I've Got a Pair of Poodles," or Hob ikh a por oksn in Yiddish.  It's a traditional song, and its writer's name is unknown.

(After songs)  And, if you'll pardon the pun, that's all I've got to say of note!

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