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Israeli Folk Music: Songs of the Early Pioneers.

This volume is an anomaly in many ways. To begin with, not only the specific topic of Israeli pioneer songs, but Hebrew song in general, is uncommon in musicological studies and scholarly editions. Nor is it often that a new publication presents an anthology of unknown pieces by such recognized composers as Kurt Weill, Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, Stephan Wolpe, Aaron Copland, Paul Dessau, and Ernst Toch. It is equally rare to associate the output of these composers, grounded in the written tradition of Western classical music, with "oral traditions." Moreover, the unusual source of inspiration for the songs in this anthology is a series of postcards (albeit musical postcards). And just as many a modern postcard is delayed in the mail, so has it taken sixty years to carry Hans Nathan's original project from its point of departure in the 1930s to its final late delivery in this newly published volume. These anomalies add greatly to the value of the music and its relevance to the series Recent Researches in the Oral Traditions of Music, for removed from their historical and cultural context, these Hebrew songs would be of little interest from only a musical perspective, despite the contributions of the well-known composers.

Inspired by the songs of the Zionist movement, the creators of the melodies and texts appearing in this anthology were nearly all eastern European Jewish immigrants born around 1900 who settled on kibbutzim as manual laborers. Most of the composer-pioneers were musically untrained and found models for their new songs in a variety of written and oral music traditions then prevalent in Palestine, including triadic European melodies (particularly children's songs), Yiddish folk song, the niggunim and hassadim of eastern Europe, Biblical cantillation, popular music, and the melodic and rhythmic practices of Arabic music. To promote a national musical identity, the Keren Kayemeth (Palestinian National Fund) first published many of these newly invented folk songs in the early 1930s as postcards, a medium that had become popular in Europe by the late nineteenth century for the wide dissemination of national songs.

Nathan was a musicologist of unusually wide range whose publications spanned the thirteenth-century motet, William Billings, Negro minstrelsy, and Luigi Dallapiccola. Born in Germany in 1910, Nathan managed to complete his dissertation - ironically, on Richard Wagner - at the University of Berlin in 1934 before fleeing to the United States two years later.

Israeli Folk Music: Songs of the Early Pioneers has its origins in the 1930s, when Nathan commissioned well-known European and American Jewish composers to provide piano accompaniments to a group of songs devoted to pioneer themes currently disseminated on postcards by the Keren Kayemeth. Nathan planned for thirty songs to appear in two series comprising twelve fascicles with the collective title Folk Songs of the New Palestine.

The series page (reproduced as plate 11 in the new edition) clearly indicates that Nathan intended this collection to be

an outstanding contribution to Jewish music . . . composed by the true builders, the pioneers; and arranged by a group of eminent Jewish composers, including several of the leading musical personalities of our time; . . .

Only the first series of fifteen songs was published (New York: Hechalutz Organization and Masada, Youth Zionist Organization of America, 1938-39) before the outbreak of World War II interrupted further publication. Nathan returned to the project a half century later after retiring from teaching. Before his death in 1989, Nathan had begun to collaborate with Philip V. Bohlman on the present volume, which includes songs from the published first series and the unpublished second set.

Nathan's preface gives a short explanation of the Keren Kayemeth postcard project and quotes four excerpts from Nathan's correspondence with Toch, Milhaud, and Weill - including Milhaud's comment that "I have rarely seen such a poorly constructed melody" (p. xii). Bohlman, general editor of the series, offers a brief foreword outlining Nathan's project, and as an afterword, a detailed, largely sociological essay on Jewish folk song and Israeli music that discusses the background of the songs, recreates the atmosphere in which both the songs and the postcards arose, and analyzes in depth six of the songs to illustrate the contrasting approaches adopted by the arrangers. He also includes fifteen Hebrew texts with English translations, an appendix containing editions, texts, and translations of two additional songs, a bibliography, and facsimile reproductions of the ten extant postcards in Nathan's collection. Bohlman has taken great pains to separate his own contributions from Nathan's work (the edition and the preface), acknowledging that "this volume is Hans Nathan's" (p. ix). The dedication "In Memory of My Mother, Lucie Nathan Weyl" is to Nathan's mother, one of the martyrs of Auschwitz.

Recent Researches in the Oral Traditions of Music is the newest and least traditional of the seven series of music editions published by A-R Editions. Although Israeli Folk Music is labeled volume 4 in the series, it actually represents only the second oral tradition of the series, the first being the three-volume Ethiopian Christian Liturgical Chant: An Anthology (ed. Kay Kaufman Shelemay and Peter Jeffery [1993-97]). While the Ethiopian volumes contain no general statement defining the purpose or scope of Recent Researches in the Oral Traditions of Music, Bohlman does delineate in the foreword to Israeli Folk Music "a series devoted to the relation between oral and written traditions" (p. ix). He then proceeds to explain how this parameter applies to the songs of the early pioneers:

The songs began (at least we believed at the time) as folk songs, they assumed one literate form on postcards, and these became art songs. That these interrelations eventually proved to be even more complex than we had initially imagined, and that they challenge notions such as "folk song" and "composition," only serve to make this edition even more appropriate for the Recent Researches in the Oral Traditions of Music.

Associated with most of the songs are three names denoting the author of the text, the composer of the melody (if known), and Nathan's chosen arranger of the setting for voice and piano. Among the composers, only Erich Walter Sternberg is not well known, while Chaim Nachman Bialik stands out in particular among the poets. But most of the poets and all of the composers of the original melodies will be unfamiliar to musicologists and others who work outside the realm of Jewish literature and folk music. Although Nathan mentions (p. xi) the entries on the composer-pioneers in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971-72), the inclusion of even short biographical notices on the little-known poets and composers certainly would have been helpful.

From a practical point of view, this is an excellent performing edition. The notes are well spaced and easy to read, and in songs with multiple stanzas, the entire text is underlaid. Occasional blank pages between some of the songs serve to avoid page-turns. The edition retains the English translations and, with minor adjustments, the transliterations by Harry H. Fein from the 1938-39 edition. Yet I do not understand why Bohlman has included a table with the transliteration system of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, since he did not retrospectively impose this system upon the earlier transliterations. Hebrew can be difficult to translate because it is powerfully compact and syntactically flexible. English is neither. The translations of the postcard songs are intended to "represent the beauty of the Hebrew texts" according to the aesthetic of the 1930s (p. xiii). Indeed, they convey the meaning of the texts quite well, although the English is often stretched for the sake of a rhyme or a literal reading. The texts (many of which deal with the land of Israel, agriculture, or toil) range from the playful children's Channukah song "Yeled kat" ("Tiny Child") to contemplative - even serious - themes. Sometimes the poetic sounds, such as those used to evoke almost palpable nocturnal images, seem impossible to translate adequately into English - for example, the opening of no. 9 (set by Dessau):

Hine achal'la bachalili B'dumiyat leili. (Lo, I play upon my flute In a night that's dark and mute.)

or the refrain from "Ba'a M'nucha" ("There Comes Peace"):

Ma, ma, laila mileil? D'mama d'yizr'el. (What of the night? What of the night? Silence reigns in Jezreel.)

In this song, one of the six individually discussed by Bohlman in the afterword, Daniel Sambursky's melody (as evinced in Weill's arrangement) employs the same phrase for both lines of the refrain, poignantly echoing the poet's alliteration of both "ma" and "e[i]l."

Through the brief selection of seventeen pioneer songs that comprise Israeli Folk Music, Nathan and Bohlman have introduced us to a much larger and unfamiliar repertory with an unusual history. Their work has successfully delivered these pre-war musical postcards and their contrasting arrangements to a new destination, offering us everything we need to appreciate these songs and their historical and sociological contexts.

DANIEL S. KATZ Judische Gemeinde in Hamburg
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Author:Katz, Daniel S.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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