Norman Lebrecht: Musical history is a voyage of discovery

The BBC gave me one piece of advice,” reveals writer and broadcaster Norman Lebrecht, laughing. “They said: ‘We aren’t going to do this again for a generation. So make it comprehensive.’” For the next three Sundays on Radio 3, Lebrecht is fronting a series on Music and the Jews. It’s over two hours of broadcasting but he could easily have done twice as much, and is cheerfully regretful about what was left out.

Like his great friend Simon Schama, who got five hours on prime time television to explain the history of the Jews, Lebrecht has had to do a massive editing job, given that he begins with King David, devotes the middle programme to the music of women, and takes in a glorious cornucopia of the influence of Jews on western culture in all three episodes.

It is, says the broadcaster, a journey into Jewish history, though he makes it very clear that he wanted to avoid any mention of Jewish music. “That’s a term I have always treated with suspicion — at very best it arises out of 19th century nationalism.” One of his contributors to the first programme, Joel Cohen of the Boston Camerata, makes a similar argument, noting that sneering critics of Jewish composers said they could only play or write “Jewish music”, a point leapt upon eagerly by the antisemite Richard Wagner.

And yet, listening to some of the astonishing array of sounds in the programmes — from the breathy growl of Leonard Cohen to plaintive Yemenite chants recorded in Jerusalem more than 100 years ago — the minor key is prevalent. “What I believe is a different proposition,” Lebrecht says. “How music has shaped the character of the Jews and how Jews have shaped the character of what we think of as music in Western civilisation. It’s very intense, it’s very intimate, and it’s often prohibitive.”

Lebrecht has been presenting classical music programmes for more than 15 years, but this is the first time his personal and professional life have synchronised in public. As a child in a strictly Orthodox Stamford Hill home, he was intrigued about halachic restrictions on the playing of music after the destruction of the Temple. “And there were also restrictions on listening to a woman’s voice, said to be akin to having an illicit liaison. And yet sitting around the Shabbat table, it was my sisters that I heard, because my father was tone deaf. There was music everywhere. I wondered: ‘How does that work?’” Lebrecht’s conclusion was “an understanding of the extraordinary flexibility of the Jews. We respond to crises with prohibition — and then we find a way round it.”

His research led him to decide to devote one of the three programmes entirely to the music of Jewish women and he has come up with some delicious moments. We hear contributions from the Yiddish singer Myriam Fuks in Brussels, the eighth generation to sing and pass on songs from mother to daughter; from the Israeli Yemenite singer Achinoam Nini, better known as Noa; from the Ladino specialist singer Yasmin Levy and her mother Kochava, who are the curators of a whole repertoire of Ladino songs. And with great relish, Lebrecht recounts the Yemenite tradition of the “keening woman”, produced when someone dies. “She had great power. She would sing about the dead person. If they were a bit of low-life it would be a couple of minutes and it would include a catalogue of their misdeeds. If they were an important person the keening could go on for half-an-hour. If the person had offended someone, the keening woman would sing about that; or if someone in the community had offended the dead person, that would also go into her song. These women were incredibly powerful and people lived in awe of them. I got one of the last practitioners of this to sing on the programme and it is incredibly moving. Unbidden, the tears come.”

Even more extraordinary, Lebrecht says, the keening woman may be the oldest known Jewish sound because the Yemenites are the oldest Jewish community, unbroken in tradition.

He begins with King David the Psalmist and a frank look at the linkage of music and guilt, with psychotherapist and composer Yehoshua Engelman. Rabbi Engelman describes David’s punishment for the sin of eying up Bathsheba and sending her husband into battle so that he could have her for himself. The punishment, says Engelman, was that David had his creative inspiration taken away, so that he was no longer able to compose music. A grim fate indeed.

Later, we learn how an often illiterate population substituted music and melody for text. It was said that during the time of the Temple, a listener could tell what time and day it was purely by hearing the music from inside the Temple.

And, of course, the entire Torah has a musical notation, constructed by the rabbis so that the Jews could take the sounds — if not the written words — wherever they were dispersed.

The third programme examines how Jews entered Western music. “Apart from some isolated incidences in the 17th century, it’s not really until the 1820s with Mendelsohn and Meyerbeer that Jews really begin to make an impact on Western culture.”

Lebrecht tracks that elusive minor key all the way up to the unlikely marriage between the music of the Jews and that of African-American slaves, which produces the fusion of first jazz, and latterly pop music.

Of one thing he is sure. “We as Jews and as human beings can’t live without music. It is a primal need and has helped to shape our identity.”

    Last updated: 1:53pm, August 28 2014