Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Yiddish music in Israel

What a curious topic, I thought on my last visit to the Stanford music department, as I saw the poster for a talk on this subject. I think I'll go. So tonight I did. It was given by Laya Silber, a visiting Israeli professor of choral music. Here's what I already knew, which might clarify what made the topic curious:

For Eastern European Jews, Hebrew was purely a liturgical language. Their mama loshen, mother tongue for daily use, was Yiddish, a highly inflected German dialect full of Hebrew loan words and other influences, and using its alphabet. But that was just the Ashkenazic culture: other Jewish cultures had their own hybrid tongues or ways of speaking.

The founders of the state of Israel sought a common Jewish culture and also to free it from the ghetto image, remaking the Jewish figure into the athletic, outdoorsy sabra, so they reconstructed Hebrew as a secular, everyday language. In the process Yiddish was deprecated in Israel.

So much I knew. What about music? Prof. Silber explained further: Such Yiddish songs as were deemed suitable were not just translated into Hebrew, but the lyrics were entirely reworked. The tempos were made more upbeat, the melodies changed from minor to major, ornaments added to the line and syncopation to the rhythm, characteristics of Arabic and Yemeni music which had been adopted into the Israeli musical style.

But later, starting in the 1960s and 70s, Israeli composers such as Ami Maayani (classical) and Dov Seltzer (mostly pop songs and theater), who didn't even speak Yiddish, began composing songs and vocal works in that language. Why? Because they'd been introduced to Yiddish poetry which they found interesting, and because they realized that Yiddish was an important aspect of Jewish history. But they continued to write the music in Israeli and modernist styles, eschewing for instance the augmented seconds so characteristic of Yiddish folk music and American Yiddish art music.

So that was the talk, heavily musically illustrated. Illuminating stuff.

Meanwhile, in other musical news, I have a review of the opening Symphony Silicon Valley concert for you. I consider this a pretty basic review: I enjoyed the concert a great deal but it didn't generate much to say about it. So it goes sometimes.

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