About the music of the 2023 festival

Presenting a comprehensive program on the choral music of Israel is no easy task, and not only because the country is once again facing a cruel war and its thriving musical cultures are inevitably weakened. It is a daunting task because the music (plural) of Israel represents both global traditions and local innovations, embracing both antiquity and modernity and constant experimentation. Israeli sounds reflect world music worldwide (as Bengali musicologist Deben Bhattacharya noted as early as 1957), and they represent an unparalleled cultural achievement.

Development of music in Israel

To understand the development of music in Israel, we must first look at Jewish musical cultures expressed in synagogues, homes and communal spaces around the world, where multiple and highly diverse Jewish and non-Jewish cultures constantly intermingle and overlap. At the same time, we must consider the continuous movement of Jews from the four corners of the global diaspora to and from the Land of Israel over many centuries: in and out of the Ottoman Empire until the early 20thth century, in British Mandate Palestine after 1920, and in the State of Israel after 1948. Migration and cultural encounters are key: each wave brought with it different traditions from across the Jewish world and connected in different ways with the layers of musical culture already present. In Israel, traditional, folk, popular and artistic music merge seamlessly, with infinite permutations. In such a landscape, nothing is more striking and at the same time more culturally evident than the emergence of new sounds resulting from the meeting of music from the lands of Islam, brought by Jews from the Middle East and North Africa, with the canon of European “Western” music.

European composers

The arrival of European composers at the turn of the 20th century had an enormous influence, which also led to the development of a new choral tradition. Then as now, it is not unusual for European composers to constantly reshuffle the cultural cards: Russians and Germans are setting traditional Yemeni songs to chamber and choral works, Iraqis and Moroccans are reinterpreting European texts, Ethiopians are reinventing jazz and African pop, and Israeli-born writers educated locally, in Europe and in North America are adapting music and texts from across the Jewish world with a sensibility that ranges from late Romanticism to Modernism to New Music…. All of this is accompanied by a constant search for a new, evolving national musical pop culture, in which it is not uncommon for classically trained composers to write popular music, from children’s songs to radio hits, and for rock bands or rappers to sing biblical lyrics.

Two major currents in the Jewish musical tradition

Israel’s choral music is the result of the unique confluence of two important streams of Jewish musical tradition. On the one hand, the venerable tradition of Hebrew poetry, which supplemented biblical texts with poems written and disseminated over many centuries in Spain, Yemen, Persia, Turkey, Italy, Gaza, Morocco, Germany and Israel itself (including new songs known as shire eretz yisrael, or “songs of the land of Israel”), set to music according to the traditions of the Diaspora and to new compositions by Jewish and Israeli authors. Second, the fundamental role of communal singing that characterizes Jewish music across time and space, from monophonic singing in the synagogues of North Africa and the Middle East, to synagogue choirs in Europe, to the Israeli passion for shirah be-tzibur (social singing), through which language and culture, secular and religious, are constantly transmitted and renewed in one of the most artistically creative countries in human history.

Francesco Spagnolo

University of California, Berkeley