Israeli Folk Music

The music and lyrics expressed the dreams of a new nation.

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Indeed, as early as 1862, the composer Eliakim Zunser published collections of Hasidic songs, intended to concretize the culture being left behind in Europe.

Jews had always created music in the Diaspora, but each community had its own musical style, often influenced by its host society. Jewish musicians in British -ruled Palestine and in the early State of Israel developed a distinctive musical style, drawing heavily on European tonality, but coloring it with "eastern" or "exotic" sounds.

With the first wave of immigrants to the Land of Israel in the 1880s came the musical traditions of Europe. In fact, many of the earliest songs simply reused melodies familiar from the old country, but applied to them new words that reflected the nature of life in pre-state Israel.

But the traditions of Europe were not enough; the early olim wanted to develop their own national voice, one that reflected their reality. They thus quickly began to develop their own musical style, one that embodied the "exotic" nature of their quest. They therefore sought out and employed sounds of the music of their middle-eastern Arab neighbors to give their new music an authentic Middle Eastern flavor; many songs from this early period imitate closely folk songs already circulating among Arab populations of the area. Composers of the new musical style also eagerly applied their new sounds to the verses of such important poets as Chayim Nachman Bialik.

Exploring New Subjects

After the War of Independence in 1948, the topics of Israeli folk songs began to change. Rather than describing the pastoral scenes or the construction of the Land of Israel, they began to reflect the political reality of the new state. Songs were composed memorializing fallen friends and describing warfare, the defense of Jewish villages against their enemies, and the perpetual desire of the Jewish people for peace.

With the establishment of the State of Israel came an enormous influx of new olim from more heterogeneous backgrounds. The folk music of the country reflected this new variety, and a many distinct musical styles and trends were crystallized among Israeli composers. In 1960, the first Israel Song Festival took place to celebrate the rich musical tradition that had emerged in such a short time, and as a means of sharing the diverse musical flavors of the country.

Israeli folk music, along with its companion folk dance, spread throughout the country and the world quickly, and the invention first of radio and then of television made this process even faster. Especially in the 1960s, the use of radio allowed for the formation and popularization of musical groups like "HaTarnegolim" (The Roosters) and "Batzal Yarok" ("Spring Onions"). Naomi Shemer's compositions and her voice came to represent the spirit of the young country, and the radio spread the sound of her songs across Israel, America, and beyond.

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Dr. Rebecca Cypess

Rebecca Cypess graduated with honors in music from Cornell University and holds a Master of Music degree in harpsichord from the Royal College of Music in London. She has pursued Jewish studies at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. She has a Ph.D. in music history from Yale University, and is a musicologist and performer at the New England Conservatory.