In every country and among every people, music attests to national character and national ideals. The rhythms, harmonies, melodies, and poetry of music relate to and help to define personal characteristics, social customs and rituals, as well as national and personal identity. Most of today’s societies have had hundreds or thousands of years to develop a national music; the State of Israel has had only since 1948 to assert itself as a political, social, and cultural entity in a fast-moving world. In many ways, the history of Israeli music reflects the broad struggles of that young country.
The early history of music in Israel was determined by two major forces: the Zionist movement, whose participants encouraged the creation and dissemination of Israeli “folk” music; and the political struggle against Fascism, which led many European-born musicians to flee to the Holy Land. Jewish immigrants brought with them music of their various host countries. The leaders of the Zionist movement sought to inspire and unite these new olim (immigrants) with a common cultural identity. To that end, Zionist musicians composed hundreds of simple folk songs for dissemination among the immigrant communities and among Jews abroad. The songs’ lyrics spoke of the experience of living in the Holy Land, from stories about the agricultural cycle to lullabies to stories of love. Their musical qualities combined the sounds of European music with hallmarks of the “exotic” — minor modes, the Yemenite trill, and Arabic instruments. Many of these songs are still sung today throughout the Jewish community
The folk tradition dovetailed into a new form of popular music, represented above all by Naomi Shemer. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Shemer sang of the uniqueness of the land of Israel. Her song “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”)–composed just before the Six Day War of 1967–spoke of Jews’ longing for Jerusalem. After Jerusalem’s unification, Shemer famously modified the lyrics to reflect Israel’s accomplishments in the war.
Israel also has cultivated a rich tradition of classical European music. The Palestine Orchestra was founded in 1936 by Bronislaw Huberman, who anticipated the coming war against the Jewish people in Europe and took scores of other Jewish musicians from Europe with him to Palestine. The formation of the orchestra was a distinctly political move: Huberman stated that his goal was to produce a “materialization of the Zionist culture in the fatherland.” After the creation of the State of Israel, the orchestra changed its name to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
Classically trained Jewish artists from Israel and abroad–Koussevitsky, Bernstein, Heifetz, Rubinstein, Arrau, and many others–were naturally drawn to participate in the orchestra’s activities from its inception. Together with music departments in Israel’s various universities and institutions the Israel Philharmonic continues to cultivate the country’s interest in European classical music.
In addition, there is a growing new generation of Jazz musicians, creating a unique and contemporary Israeli sound.