Idelsohn, Abraham Zvi

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IDELSOHN, ABRAHAM ZVI (1882–1938), musicologist, a pioneer and founder of Jewish music ethnomusicology. Born in Filsberg (Felixberg, Latvia), where he received a thorough cantorial training and then continued his musical education at the Stern Conservatorium in Berlin and the Leipzig Academy. He served for short periods as cantor in Leipzig and Regensburg, and in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 1906 he settled in Jerusalem and worked there as a cantor and music teacher, especially at the Hebrew Teachers' College. These were decisive years for Idelsohn's research into the diverse musical traditions of the Sephardi and "Oriental" Jewish communities as well as Muslim and Christians, dedicating himself to the collection and study of their musical (and linguistic) heritage. Although his plans in 1910 for an Institute for Jewish Music never materialized, he was invited in 1913 to present his early recordings to the Akademie der Wissenschaften in Vienna. He remained there for eight months and laid the groundwork for his ten-volume monumental Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz. During World War i Idelsohn served as a bandmaster in the Turkish army in Gaza. In 1919 he resumed his teaching and composing work in Jerusalem. He wrote a five-act opera, Jiftaḥ, performed and published in Jerusalem in 1922, and he transcribed and composed much cantorial music, and the song "Havah Nagilah"). In 1921 he left Jerusalem and after an extended lecture tour settled in Cincinnati (1922). In 1924 he was engaged to catalog the Birnbaum Collection of Jewish Music at the *Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, and in the same year he was the first to be appointed to the chair of Jewish Music there. Through his work the college became a center of research into Jewish music From 1930 onward his health began to fail and he was permanently incapacitated from 1934; he joined his family in Johannesburg in 1937 and died there.

The Hebrew Union College conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1933. Idelsohn is considered the founder of modern Jewish musicology and one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology; he was the first to apply the methods of comparative musicology to the study of Jewish music and the first to record music on wax cylinders in Palestine. His field recordings (numbering over 1,000) are invaluable; their transcriptions and analyses brought the non-European communities into the conspectus of Jewish music. These recordings on wax cylinders were digitized and produced in Vienna (2006) and his archive is at the Music Department of the Jewish National and University Library. Idelsohn was the pioneer of comparative research in biblical cantillation and of studies on the unique quality of Oriental Jewish musical cultures with emphasis on their antiquity; he was the first to attempt an integration of the historical records of music in Jewish culture, together with a synoptic view of the ethnic traditions, into a coherent view of the history of music among the Jewish people. Equally pioneering were his studies of the Near-Eastern maqām systems and of the elements common to the Jewish and Christian liturgical-music traditions, exploring their relationships with ancient Hebrew (mainly Yemenite) and early Christian (Byzantine, Jacobite and Gregorian) chant. The crowning monument of Idelsohn's collections and investigations is his ten volumes of the Thesaurus, of Hebrew Oriental melodies, which was published in German, with several volumes translated into English and Hebrew, and contained thousands of specimens of liturgical chant and religious song (Leipzig 1914–1933; rep. New York 1973). His other publications include Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929, repr. 1968); Jewish Liturgy (1932, repr. 1968); Sefer ha-Shirim (vol. 1, 1913; vol. 2, 1922 – the first Hebrew songbook published in Palestine), in Toledot ha-Neginah ha-Ivrit (vol. 1, 1924; vols. 2 and 3 remained in manuscript); The Ceremonies of Judaism (1929); Shirei Teiman (1930), an anthology of Yemenite poems, and more than 100 scholarly articles. Although he was largely self-taught as a musicologist, his writings represent an impressive contribution to the study of Jewish music.


Grove; mgg; I. Adler et al. (eds.), The Abraham Zvi Idelsohn Memorial Volume (Jerusalem, 1986) (incl. E. Gerson-Kiwi: "A.Z. Idelsohn: a Pioneer in Jewish Ethnomusicology," 46–52; complete list of writings with annotations, 53–180; list of published compositions and song books, 31–50).

[Baruch J. Cohon and

Israel J. Katz /

Gila Flam (2nd ed.)]