Jewish music is honoured — but what is it?

By William Littler

Many years ago the American composer Virgil Thomson was asked how to write American music. “First you be an American,” Thomson replied. “Then you write any kind of music you like.”

It was a good answer, although it avoided the questioner’s implication that certain qualities should be involved to make one kind of music different from another.

During much of the 19th century, an age of nationalism, those qualities were often rooted in folk traditions. The visiting Czech composer Dvorak advised his American colleagues to look to their country’s Black heritage for inspiration.

Musical styles became more internationalized during the 20th century and yet the question of stylistic identity persists. Witness a press conference I attended not long ago in Montreal, during which $200,000 prizes were awarded for the composition of Jewish music.

Every two years, beginning in 2014, the Azrieli Foundation has awarded the Azrieli Prize for Jewish music to a composer deemed by a jury (including Montreal conductor Boris Brott) to have written the best new major work of Jewish music.

The foundation also awards the Azrieli Commission to a composer who proposes a work addressing the question, “What is Jewish Music?”

It is not an easy question to answer. During the course of 86 densely argued, two-column pages, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians points out that “Jewish music as a concept emerged among Jewish scholars and musicians only in the mid 19th century with the rise of modern national consciousness among European Jews, and since then all attempts to define it have faced many difficulties.”

The Azrieli Foundation obviously recognizes the challenge. As director and soprano Sharon Azrieli pointed out at the press conference, you don’t even have to be Jewish to compose this music. Indeed Kelly-Marie Murphy, winner of the 2018 commission, happens to be non-Jewish.

Murphy’s piece, “En el escuro es todo uno (In the Darkness All is One),” can be found on a new Analekta CD album titled “Azrieli Music Prizes Vol. 2,” along with music by Avner Dorman and the late Toronto composer Srul Irving Glick. One review of the album found “atmospheric wisps reminiscent of Mahler’s First Symphony” in its opening pages.

Mahler was, of course, a Jewish composer, who converted to Catholicism for the sake of his Viennese career. Felix Mendelssohn notwithstanding, being a recognized Jewish composer scarcely represented a career advantage in the years before Leonard Bernstein came along.

But to return to the question — “What is Jewish Music?” — Aron Marko Rothmuller in his comprehensive survey, “The Music of the Jews,” confesses to an avoidance of reference to “a specifically Jewish music” but asserts that it is always moulded by the circumstances of Jewish life, acquiring such typical characteristics as the predominance of the minor mode and the frequency of rhythmic syncopation, the latter related to the structural peculiarities of the Hebrew language.

All this reminds me of the confession by U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart that he couldn’t define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. The same might be said of Jewish music — its poignancy, its lyricism, its melancholy, its gaiety together pointing toward an identifiable sound.

“It’s about the integration of the East and West,” suggests Yitzhak Yedid, Australian-based winner of the 2020 Azrieli Prize. “It’s in my DNA.”

“Yet it isn’t one sound,” counters Yotam Haber, American-based 2020 winner of the Azrieli Commission for new Jewish music. “I wrote a piece based on Sardinian folk music and integrated it into a work that deals with Jewish themes.”

Haber nevertheless acknowledges that “there is something impressive about a tradition of more than two thousand years and I love the idea of passing it on. For years I was dead set against being labelled a Jewish composer. Yet it is the experience of being Jewish that makes me one. At the same time, I can choose just to be a composer.”

That, to be sure, is the automatic choice of non-Jewish Montreal-based Keiko Devaux, winner of the first Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music. “As a composer I don’t think of borders,” she insists. “Canada is multicultural, it is a tapestry.”

In line with this way of thinking perhaps Jewish and non-Jewish composers might agree to adapt Virgil Thomson’s dictum: First you be a composer. Then you write any kind of music you like.