Musical Magpies

George Gershwin: A genius of fusion 

It is pitch dark, dead of night, in Safed and my feet are crunching gravel in a graveyard. Not any cemetery. Perhaps the holiest in the Holy Land. At the end of this unlit path lie side by side the twin propulsive forces in Judaism, the great masters of mysticism and legalism, the Holy Lion and the House of Joseph.

A candle flickers at the foot of the adjacent tombs. My companion, Eyal Shiloach, takes out his violin. Eyal used to play in the London Symphony Orchestra until he was drawn to the light of faith. He starts a tune that he tells me was sung by Levites in the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Both he and I know, exchanging glances, that this cannot be true: tonality, colour and pulse place the melody in eastern Europe, early 19th century. But tradition holds that it is Temple music and there is no arguing with tradition. We stand riven between the mysticism of the Holy Lion (Isaac Luria) and the meticulous rationalism of the House of Joseph (whose surname was Caro).

I am in Israel, gathering testimony for a BBC Radio 3 series titled Music and the Jews. Not Jewish music, note. There is insufficient reason, in my view, to delineate a genre whose main streams — klezmer bands, Chasidic songs, cantorial melismas, Ladino ballads — are no more Jewish than pickled herring. Each is a local catch, harvested and embellished by Jews in the lands of their dispersion. Music and the Jews pursues a different story. It explores how music shaped the history and identity of the Jews, and how Jews influenced the course of music in all its forms.

I am not the first on this trail. In 1905, a cantor called Abraham Zvi Idelsohn arrived in Jerusalem from South Africa and found the streets paved — or squatted — by old men from all corners of the earth, each with his native cantillation for singing the Torah. Idelsohn set to work, like Béla Bartók in the Balkans, recording fragile voices on a wire machine. Analysing the results, he concluded that Yemenites had the oldest traditions and that their tropes bore such affinity to early Gregorian chant that it was likely Christians were singing music of the Temple. All hell broke loose at this hypothesis. (Idelsohn went on to compose an Israeli dance, Hava Nagila, the most popular of its kind. The melody is Romanian.

At the National Sound Archive in Jerusalem I spun some of Idelsohn’s cylinders, as well as much weirder items by the obsessive Robert Lachmann who, when Hitler’s Reich stopped supplying wax for his project, recorded old men’s chants on discarded hospital X-rays. I have handled a celluloid disc with the shadow of human ribs on it.

The quest continues. The American composer Steve Reich studied with a Yemenite sage in Jerusalem before writing his masterwork, Tehillim. The Israeli-Yemenite artist Ahinoam Nini performed a fusion song with Mira Awad, a Palestinian, at Eurovision 2009. In her house near Herzlia beach, Ahinoam sings for me a capella a melody that unites Yemenite, Gregorian and medieval Italian modes.

Where is this leading? Towards an essence of Jewish identity. The 4,000-year history of the Jews is a recurrent cycle of exile and redemption: Egypt and Sinai, Israel and Babylon, Israel and diaspora. The Torah, inscribed by quill on parchment scrolls as it is to this day, was the crucible of a continuing Jewish existence. But in an age before printing and mass literacy, writing words on animal skin was never going to be a safe enough way to conserve heritage. Memory is fallible and scrolls flammable. When text fades, however, music still endures.

So around the fifth century, a group of rabbis known as Masoretes (masoret is Hebrew for tradition) gathered in Tiberias to pin tropes, or musical signs, to every word of holy writ. These tropes are still sung wherever Jews gather to pray. The tune varies considerably, influenced by the host culture. In a German community it will be tonal, among Iraqis microtonal. The system, though, remains the same and the phrasing is identical wherever Torah is sung. Musical notation saved the Jews from oblivion.

Bearing that lesson in mind, Jews came to regard music as a defence mechanism for their civilisation. Evicted from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497, they carried away a bevy of Iberian melodies and liturgies in their hybrid language, Ladino. Oppressed in the Russian Empire, they absorbed indigenous themes and gave them a Jewish specificity. A march song of the invading French army in 1812 was renamed the Napoleon Nigun and sung by Lubavitch Chasidim at the climax of their religious devotions, the end of Yom Kippur.

The entry of Jews into European music was resisted by Church and state until the post-Napoleonic era, when two Berliners, Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, burst into opera and symphonic music with irresistible force. Within two generations, Gustav Mahler was reforming the Vienna Opera and Arnold Schoenberg had torn off the tonal corset of the western canon, replacing it with a liberated atonality.

On New York’s Lower East Side, sons of Russian pogrom refugees and former plantation slaves turned a common tendency to sing “blue” notes in minor keys into an industry of popular music. George Gershwin, a genius of fusion, named some of his themes as “freygish” — the interrogative melody of Talmud study (musicologists thought he meant the Phrygian mode). In the Bible-sceptical It Ain’t Necessarily So, Gershwin simultaneously exalts and challenges his ancestral civilisation.

Resistance to the upsurge of Jews in music found violent expression in Richard Wagner’s writings and violent reaction in Hitler’s Europe. Jews were accused of lacking musical originality and remoulding public taste. There is a grain of truth in these charges. Michael Grade, born into an entertainment dynasty, maintains that Jews invented the music business because their history had taught them to be one step ahead of the popular mood, ugly as it might turn.

An Israeli composer, visiting Bayreuth, exclaims: “Wagner was right! We don’t hear music in the same way as they do.” A Mahler symphony is open to conflicting interpretations. An Amy Winehouse song exposes a grief older than her own. The interaction of music and the Jews is a fertile engagement of primal, nebulous forms, a mystic glimpse of infinite possibilities.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"