Singing its praises

The national anthem, “Hatikva,” has remained a mystery until recently.

By URI EPPSTEIN
April 16, 2010 16:19
4 minute read.
Astrith Baltsan's book.

hatikva book 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Hatikva
By Astrith Baltsan | Ministry of Education | 155 pages; 2 CDs NIS 41.40

The national anthem, “Hatikva,” has remained a mystery until recently.

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While the author of its lyrics is well-known, the source of its tune has always been a subject of speculation. The writer of the text, Naphtali Herz Imber (1856-1909), was a minor Hebrew poet who was never accepted by the local literary establishment. His poem appealed, nevertheless, to the community of the first Jewish immigration wave to this country toward the end of the 19th century.

The source of the song’s tune, however, was obscure until musician Astrith Baltsan shed light on the riddle in her recent book Hatikva. According to her painstaking investigations, the tune is taken from a Romanian coachmen’s song that was popular among Jewish immigrants from Romania to whom Imber recited his poem in Rishon Lezion in 1888, and who spontaneously adapted his text to their folk song. Surprising though this sequence of events may seem, it is not entirely implausible. The setting of Hebrew texts, often sacred ones, to non-Jewish folk tunes by Jewish communities of the same, frequently Eastern European, environment is a common phenomenon, especially among klezmer musicians. It prevails even in this country where Arab tunes are adopted occasionally into their repertoire.

So far so good. As the patriotic Israeli that Baltsan is, however, she obviously cannot feel quite happy with the idea that the national anthem’s tune is no more than a mere Romanian coachmen’s song. She consequently embarked courageously on a search for more ancient, genuinely Jewish sources of this tune. In her inquiries she turned for help to a highly respected early pioneer of Jewish ethnomusicology, Abraham Tsvi Idelsohn, in whose Thesaurus of Hebrew-Oriental Melodies she found a 14th-century Sephardi Benediction for Dew that begins with the same six successive ascending notes of the minor scale as “Hatikva.”

The trouble, though, is that Idelsohn’s transcriptions are no longer considered reliable by ethnomusicologists because he, still influenced by late 19th-century European musicology, disregards micro-intervals that are narrower than a half-tone and ornamentations that are nowadays recognized as basic features of non-Western music traditions.

Moreover, basic melodic formulas, such as the ascending first six notes of a minor scale, can be encountered all over the globe in locations so distant from each other that mutual influences are out of the question, as every first-year student of ethnomusicology knows and as Baltsan herself admits.

Jumping to conclusions as though such a vague resemblance of melodies can prove their common origin, supposedly traveling with Jewish refugees expelled from Spain eastward all across Europe as far as Czechoslovakia, where Smetana snatched it for his Vltava, and on to Romania is an amateurish procedure, to put it mildly.

Back to historical facts, Baltsan reveals that “Hatikva” was only proclaimed by law as the state’s official national anthem in 2004. Much earlier, however, it had already been sung spontaneously at the Fourth Zionist Congress in 1900 for the first time, and was recognized as the anthem of the Zionist movement at the 18th Congress in 1933.

With disarming frankness, Baltsan discloses also some critical approaches to “Hatikva.” Composer Yoel Engel, for instance, called its tune “a whine suitable for the Diaspora.” Other conflicting opinions are related in detail. An entire Knesset debate in 2002 about the law promulgating “Hatikva” as the national anthem makes fairly amusing reading since the MKs deal only with marginal aspects and not with any matters of principle.


A value-added item of the book is two compact discs presenting musical examples related to “Hatikva.” The not widely known Romanian coachmen’s song, supposed to be the origin of the anthem’s tune, is of particular interest. So is a historic recording of “Hatikva” sung by the inmates of the liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, and an equally historic recording of it sung by the elected assembly at the proclamation of the independent state in 1948. The page indications of the CDs’ index are, unfortunately, erroneous and therefore misleading.

Accuracy is not one of the book’s outstanding features. The “Marseillaise,” for instance, is related to have been composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle using tunes from “two operas.” Their titles and composers are tantalizingly concealed. Similarly, the title of Smetana’s symphonic poem is spelled Vltava in Czech and Moldau in German, not “Moldava” as spelled in the book.

The book is written in a florid, patriotically inflated and moralizing style, not an informative and factual one as one would expect of a work of research. Apart from this, the book contains much valuable information that deserves to become widely known.


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