Home » Uncategorized » Abraham Zevi Idelsohn and Hava Nagila

Abraham Zevi Idelsohn and Hava Nagila

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Abraham Zevi Idelsohn (July 14, 1882 – August 14, 1938) was a prominent Jewish ethnologist, musicologist and composer, who conducted several comprehensive studies of Jewish music around the world.  Idelsohn was born on July 14, 1882, in Feliksberg (former Kurland or Courland), on the Baltic Sea, between Windau and Sackenhausen, Latvia. When he was less than six months old, his parents moved to Libau, where he began his study of Jewish music and trained as a cantor under Abraham Mordecai Rabinovitz, continuing his education at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin in 1901 and at the Leipzig Academy in 1902.  In the latter, he met and married the daughter of Cantor H. Schnieder. He worked briefly in both Europe as a cantor at the Adat Jeshurun Synagogue in Leipzig and in Regensburg and Johannesburg, South Africa before emigrating to Palestine in 1905 where he began working as a cantor and music teacher at the Hebrew Teacher’s college.  During World War I, Idelsohn served in the Turkish Army as a bandmaster in Gaza, returning to his research in Jerusalem at the end of the war in 1919 and establishing a school of Jewish music there that year.  At that time, he embarked on a massive project to record their unique musical and linguistic traditions.  To this end, Idelsohn was awarded a research grant from the Academy of Science in Vienna, along with a phonograph to use in his field work.

Idelsohn is generally acknowledged as the “father” of modern Jewish musicology. During his time in Jerusalem, he noted a great diversity of musical traditions among the Jews living in the region. Idelsohn examined these traditional melodies and found recurring motifs and progressions that were not found in any other national music. This suggested a common origin for musical phrases that went back to Israel/Palestine in the first century A.D. He found that these motifs fell into three distinct tonal centers, which corresponded to the Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian modes of the ancient Greeks. Each of these modes elicited a distinct psycho-emotional response. The Dorian Mode was used for texts of an elevated and inspired nature; the Phrygian for sentimental texts, with their very human outbreaks of feeling, both of joy and grief; and the Lydian was used in composing music for the texts of lamenting and confessions of sins. Idelsohn further categorized and defined these motives as ones that either prepared a musical phrase, began it, or concluded it.  Though less well known, Idelsohn also dedicated himself to the study of Near Eastern maqam systems, which is outlined in his work Die Maqamen der arabischen Musik (1913).

Idelsohn is considered to be the author of the lyrics of the famous Jewish folk song “Hava Nagila.”   The melody is based on a Hassidic Nigun.   While a professor at Hebrew University, Idelsohn began cataloging all known Jewish music and teaching classes in musical composition; one of his students was a promising cantorial student, Moshe Nathanson, who with the rest of his class was presented by the professor with a 19th-century, slow, melodious, chant (niggun or nigun) and assigned to add rhythm and words to fashion a modern Hebrew song. There are competing claims regarding Hava Nagila’s composer, with both Idelsohn and Nathanson being suggested.  The niggun Idelsohn presented has been attributed to the Sadigurer Chasidim, who lived in what is now Ukraine, which uses the Phrygian dominant scale common in music of Transylvania.  The commonly used text was probably refined by Idelsohn. It is perhaps the first modern Israeli folk song in the Hebrew language that has become a staple of band performers at Jewish weddings and bar/bat mitzvah celebrations.

This was in 1915 in Ottoman Palestine, when Hebrew was being revived as a spoken language for the first time in almost 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For the first time, Jews were being encouraged to speak Hebrew as a common language, instead of Yiddish, Arabic, Ladino, or other regional Jewish languages. “Hava Nagila” (“Let us rejoice”) is an Israeli folk song traditionally sung at Jewish celebrations.   In 1918, the song was one of the first songs designed to unite the early Yishuv [Jewish enterprise] that arose after the British victory in Palestine during World War I and the Balfour Declaration, declaring a national Jewish homeland in the lands newly liberated from Turkey by the Allies and entrusted to Britain under the Treaty of Versailles. Although Psalm 118 (verse 24) of the Hebrew Bible may have been a source for the text of “Hava Nagila,” the expression of the song and its accompanying hora (“circle”) dance was entirely secular in its outlook. In 1922, Idelsohn published the Hebrew song book, “Sefer Hashirim,” which includes the first publication of his arrangement of the song Hava Nagila.

In 1924, Idelsohn was contracted to catalogue the Eduard Birnbaum collection of Jewish Music at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.   Shortly thereafter he was appointed professor of Jewish music and liturgy at HUC, a position he held until his health began to deteriorate in 1934.  His works include the monumental Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies (10 volumes, 1914–1932), Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929), and Jewish Liturgy (1932).  In 1929 he was taken sick with coronary-vessel disease, and was laid up for six months.  Then in 1931 he had a paralytic stroke on his left side which repeated several times, so that he could not teach any more, nor write.  The Board of the College granted him a pension for the rest of his life.   He died on August 14, 1938, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The following work by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn is contained in my collection:

Hava Nagila.

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