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Idelsohn, Abraham Zvilocked

  • Edith Gerson-Kiwi
  • , revised by Israel J. Katz

(b Filzburg, nr Libau [now Liepāja, Latvia], June 11, 1882; d Johannesburg, Aug 15, 1938). Jewish cantor and musicologist of Russian birth. Raised in a traditional German Jewish environment, he trained as a cantor in Libau; he also studied briefly at Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) where he met Eduard Birnbaum. Later he studied at the Stern Conservatory in Berlin and at the conservatory and university in Leipzig; his claim to have studied at both institutions with Kretzschmar (history), Zöllner (composition) and Jadassohn (harmony) remains unsubstantiated. He served as cantor at the Adat Jeshurun congregation, Leipzig (1902). From 1903 to 1905 he was a cantor at Regensburg and then after a year in Johannesburg he was persuaded by the president of the Zionist movement, David Wolffsohn, to emigrate to Jerusalem, where he lived from 1906 to 1921. These were decisive years for Idelsohn's research into the diverse musical traditions of the Sephardi and ‘Oriental’ Jewish communities and Muslim and Christian sects. 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 monumental Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz (1914–33) with the help of the academy director. After serving in the Turkish army, he returned to teaching, research and composition in 1919: his five-act opera Jiftah was performed and published in Jerusalem in 1922, and he transcribed and composed much cantorial music (including the songs Havah negilah and Orah, orah). In 1921 he left Jerusalem and after an extended lecture tour he settled in Cincinnati (1922–30). He was appointed professor of Jewish music and liturgy at the Hebrew Union College in 1924. The college became a centre of research in Jewish music through his work, which was aided by the extensive Birnbaum collection. He wrote prolifically on the history and liturgy of Jewish music and his publications included two major books, the last five volumes of his Melodienschatz (on Ashkenazi music) and numerous essays. He also composed several complete synagogue services. He suffered a heart attack in 1930 and by 1934 he could no longer work; in 1937 he moved to be with his family in Johannesburg. Hebrew Union College conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1933.

Idelsohn was the first to apply the methods of comparative musicology to the study of Jewish music, and was also first to record music on wax cylinders in Palestine. His articles on the maqām system in Arab music and the practice of singing Hebrew poems in ‘Oriental’ Jewish diwans (anthologies of poetry) according to a prescribed order of maqāmāt remain fundamental studies. He discovered relationships between ancient Hebrew (mainly Yemenite) and early Christian (Byzantine, Jacobite and Gregorian) chant that had hitherto remained undetected. His magnum opus, the Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz, summarizes his work in Palestine (vols.i–v) and Cincinnati (–x). Although he was largely self-taught as a musicologist, his writings represent an impressive contribution to the study of Jewish music.


  • ‘Die Makamen in der hebräischen Poesie der orientalischen Juden’, Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, 57 (1913), 314–25
  • ‘Die Maqamen der arabischen Musik’, SIMG, 15 (1913–14), 1–63
  • Hebräisch-orientalischer Melodienschatz (Leipzig, 1914–33/R; Heb. edn of vols.i–v as Otzar neginoth Yisrael, 1922–8; Eng. edn of vols.i–iii, vi–x as Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies, 1923–33/R)
  • Phonographierte Gesänge and Aussprachsproben des Hebräischen der jemenitischen, persischen und syrischen Juden (Vienna, 1917)
  • ‘Die Vortragszeichen der Samaritaner’, Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, 61 (1917), 117–26
  • ‘Hebrew Music with Special Reference to the Musical Intonations in the Recital of the Pentateuch’, Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society, 1/2–3 (1921), 80–94
  • ‘Parallelen zwischen gregorianischen und hebräisch-orientalischen Gesangsweisen’, ZMw, 4 (1921–2), 515–24
  • ‘Der Kirchengesang der Jakobiten’, AMw, 4 (1922), 364–89
  • ‘Der synagogale Gesang im Lichte der orientalischer Musik’, Der Andenken Eduard Birnbaums: Sammlung kantoral-wissenschaftlicher Aufsätze, ed. A. Friedman (Berlin, 1922), 62–9
  • Tôledôt han-megînah ha- ‘ivrît [History of Jewish music] (Tel-Aviv and Berlin, 1924)
  • ‘Song and Singers of the Synagogue in the 18th Century with Special Reference to the Birnbaum Collection’, Hebrew Union College Jubilee Volume 1875–1925, ed. D. Philipson and others (1925), 397–424
  • Manual of Musical Illustrations … on Jewish Music and Jewish Liturgy (Cincinnati, 1926)
  • ‘Der Missinai-Gesang der deutschen Synagogue’, ZMw, 8 (1926–7), 449–72
  • The Ceremonies of Judaism (Cincinnati, 1929, 2/1930/R)
  • Jewish Music in its Historical Development (New York, 1929/R)
  • ‘The Kol-nidre Tune’, Hebrew Union College Annual, 8–9 (1931–2), 493–509
  • Jewish Liturgy and its Development (New York, 1932/R)
  • ‘Musical Characteristics of East-European Folksong’, MQ, 18 (1932), 634–45
  • ‘Deutsche Elemente im alten Synagogengesang Deutschlands’, ZMw, 15 (1932–3), 385–93
  • ‘Parallels between the Old-French and the Jewish Song’, AcM, 5 (1933), 162–8; vi (1934), 15–22
  • ‘Traditional Songs of the German (Tedesco) Jews in Italy’, Hebrew Union College Annual, 11 (1936), 569–91


  • A.Z. Idelsohn, ed.
  • Shire Zion [Songs of Zion] (Jerusalem, 1908)
  • Liederbuch: Sammlung deutschen Lieder für Volks- und höhere Schulen (Berlin, 1912)
  • Sefer ha-Shirim [Collection of Hebrew songs] (Berlin, 1922)
  • Tzelilé Aviv [Songs of spring] (Berlin, 1922)
  • Tzelilé ha-Aretz [Love- and folksongs] (Berlin, 1922)
  • Jewish Song Book for Synagogue, School and Home (Cincinnati, 1928, 3/1951)


  • M.C. Weiler and T.S. Ross: ‘Abraham Zvi Idelsohn’, Hebrew Union College Monthly, 20/1 (1932), 9–11
  • J. Reider: ‘Idelsohn's History and Other Works on Jewish Music’, Jewish Quarterly Review, 19 (1929), 313–19
  • A. Idelsohn: ‘My Life (a Sketch)’, Jewish Music Journal, 2/2 (1935), 8–11; repr. in The Abraham Zvi Idelsohn Memorial Volume, ed. I. Adler and others (Jerusalem, 1986), 15–23
  • E. Werner: ‘A.Z. Idelsohn in Memoriam’, Reconstructionist [New York], 29/2 (1963–4), 14–18
  • J. Idelsohn: ‘Akhi Abraham Zvi Idelsohn zal’ [My brother, the late Abraham Zvi Idelsohn], Barkai, 38 (1969), 86–8
  • I.J. Katz: ‘Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882–1938): a Bibliography of his Collected Writings’, Musica judaica, 1 (1975–6), 1–32
  • I. Adler and J. Cohen: A.Z. Idelsohn Archives at the Jewish National and University Library (Jerusalem, 1976) [catalogue]
  • I. Adler and others, 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 pubd compositions and song books, 31–50]
Musical Quarterly
Sammelbände der Internationalen Musik-Gesellschaft
Archiv für Musikwissenschaft
Zeitschrift für Musikwissenschaft
Acta musicologica