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Abraham Zevi Idelsohn Edit Profile


Abraham Zevi Idelsohn was a musicologist. Idelsohn is remembered for many important ethnomusicological innovations, including the discovery that the musical heritage of the Near Eastern Jews possesses considerable originality. His wide knowledge of Jewish music, from the European Ashkenazic to the eastern Sephardic traditions, created the possibility of comparative ethnomusicological research.


Abraham Zevi Idelsohn was born on July 14, 1882 in Latvia.


Originally from Latvia, Idelsohn began his studies in cantoral music (hazzanut) at Leipzig. He moved, for some time, to the Stern Conservatory in Berlin and returned to the conservatory in Leipzig.


From 1903 to 1905, he was cantor at Regensburg, and then after a year in Johannesburg, went to Jerusalem, where he worked from 1906 to 1921. There he began his research into music preserved through the oral tradition by various Jewish communities.

In Jerusalem, Idelsohn also taught music and composed as well as lecturing at the Hebrew Teachers’ College. In 1909 he received a research grant from the Academy of Science in Vienna, together with the gift of a phonograph; this enabled him to become a pioneer in the use of phonographic recordings to aid musicological fieldwork and research.

In 1910 Idelsohn founded the first Institute of Hebrew Music, and in 1914 he published the first of ten volumes of his Thesaurus of Hebrew-Oriental Melodies. This initial volume was devoted to the Yemenite Jewish tradition. The thesaurus itself was completed in 1932, and provided the musical world with the first in-depth studies and reports on the music of the Near Eastern Jews.

During World War I Idelsohn worked in Gaza as a bandmaster in the Turkish army; after the war, in 1919, he resumed his work in Jerusalem. He settled in Cincinnati in 1922 and in 1924 was appointed professor of Jewish Music at Hebrew Union College. Through his efforts this college became the major center for research in Jewish music in the United States.

From 1930 his health began to deteriorate and he became physically incapacitated. In 1937 he joined his family in Johannesburg, dying the following year.


Idelsohn treated the “oral” traditions of development as seriously as the “written” traditions. In his studies of Near Eastern Maqany systems he pioneered research into aspects common to both Jewish and Christian liturgical music traditions. His writings include Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (1929). This classic work presents the result of the author’s research in the field of Jewish music over a quarter of a century.