King David and the music

King David…. One of the Bible’s most inspiring and appealing personalities. But did he really exist? We live in a time when all sorts of things are being doubted, and that is alright.

Some historians assume that King David actually existed, but that (as with King Arthur, for example) many of the stories about his life are more likely to be apocryphal and they should not be considered hard historiography. So what? There is still such a thing as faith. And it is a reassuring and lovely story, which is so much needed in our troubled times.

King David, besides being a good man, a naughty husband and a harpist, was also a brilliant poet. His psalms are still among the finest that poetry has ever produced. His influence on art and certainly on music was and is immense. His psalms have therefore been set to music by many composers, think Bach, Allegri, Schütz, Strawinski, Kodaly, among others…. which is one of the reasons I started looking into David again. Whether or not he existed does not really matter. Inspiration does not need scientific evidence and art does not need to be tested against facts.

A small (with an emphasis on ‘small’!) selection of what’s out there. The order is random.

David’s harp playing soothed Saul’s mind and spirit.
Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), King David Playing the Harp (1611), Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Holland

Michael Levy wonders: what would his harp have sounded like? He posted a ‘live’ performance of the traditional Hebrew song “Zemer Atik” (track 5 of his 2008 album, “King David’s Lyre; Echoes of Ancient Israel”):

Zoltan Kodaly, Psalmus Hungaricus:

Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze played by Andras Schiff:

Paul Schoenfield and his beautiful viola concerto ‘King David dancing before the ark’:

Sarah Connolly sings King David by Herbert Howells:

King David’s Suite by Lionel Hampton, recorded in Munich on the occasion of the Munich Summer Piano Festival in 1994. The St Petersburg State Orchestra is conducted by Alexander Tschernuschenko, Lionel Hampton plays vibraphone:

Franz Liszt, Psalms of David

Igor Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms performed by the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Great Broadcasting Choir:

Krzysztof Penderecki, Psalm of David recorded at Carnegie Hall:



David symphony for Harp (act I, scene V) Sara Águeda, arpa doppia:

Aria of David:

Carl Nielsen, the entire opera:

Paul Ben-Haim, Sweet Psalmist of Israel. David before Saul.:


Jonathan was the son of Saul, king of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin. David was from the tribe of Judah. Once rivals for the crown, they became friends and probably more, but the Bible does not explicitly portray the true nature of David and Jonathan’s relationship. The traditional interpretation of their friendship emphasises platonic love, an example of ‘homosociality’. Something later described as strong personal friendships between men. Today, there is often an emphasis on what some see as homoeroticism in the story

David et Jonathas by Charpentier, recording from Ais-en-Provence:

Trudy Labij: ‘What I’ve been reading’ from the musical Foxtrot (4), 1977:

Koning David en de muziek

Koning David…. Een van meest inspirerende en tot de verbeelding sprekende figuren uit de Bijbel. Maar bestond hij echt? Wij leven in een tijd waar van alles aan getwijfeld wordt en dat mag. Het is niet verkeerd, tenzij je gaat beweren dat de aarde plat is en een aanhanger van de complottheorieën bent..

Sommige historici nemen aan dat koning David daadwerkelijk heeft bestaan, maar dat (net als bijvoorbeeld bij Koning Arthur) veel van de verhalen over zijn leven eerder tot de mythen behoren en niet als harde geschiedschrijving moeten worden beschouwd. Iedereen weet dat de bijbel niet door de historici is geschreven. So what? Er bestaat nog zoiets als geloof. Als geruststellend sprookje, Zeker in onze warrige tijden hebben we het nodig.

Koning David was, behalve een brave man, stoute echtgenoot en een harpist ook een geniale dichter. Zijn psalmen behoren nog steeds tot het mooiste dat de dichtkunst ooit heeft opgeleverd. Zijn invloed op de kunst en zeker op muziek was en is immens is. Zijn psalmen zijn dan ook door verschillende componisten op muziek gezet, denk aan o.a. Bach, Allegri, Schütz, Strawinski, Kodaly…. Een van de redenen dat ik mij weer eens in David ging verdiepen. Of hij wel of niet bestaan heeft doet het er niet toe. Inspiratie heeft geen wetenschappelijke bewijzen nodig en kunst hoeft niet getoetst worden aan feiten.
Een kleine (met een nadruk op ‘kleine’!) selectie van wat er allemaal te vinden is. De volgorde is willekeurig.

Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), King David Playing the Harp (1611), Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Holland

Michael Levy vraagt zich af: hoe zou zijn harp geklonken hebben? Hij postte een ‘live’ uitvoering van het traditionele Hebreeuwse lied “Zemer Atik” (track 5 van zijn album uit 2008, “King David’s Lyre; Echoes of Ancient Israel”):

Zoltan Kodaly, Psalmus Hungaricus:

Schumanns Davidsbündlertänze gespeeld door Andras Schiff:

Paul Schoenfield en zijn prachtige altvioolconcert ‘King David dancing before the ark’:

Sarah Connolly zingt King David van Herbert Howells:

King David’s Suite van Lionel Hampton, opgenomen in München ter gelegenheid van Munich Summer Piano Festival in 1994. Het St. Petersburg State Orchestra staat onder leiding van Alexander Tschernuschenko, Lionel Hampton speelt vibrafoon:

Franz Liszt, Psalms of David:

Igor Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms uitgevoerd door het Radio Filharmonisch Orkest en Groot Omroepkoor:

Krzysztof Penderecki, Psalm of David opgenomen in Carnegie Hall:



David symphony for Harp (act I, scene V) Sara Águeda, arpa doppia

Aria van David

Carl Nielsen, de hele opera:

Paul Ben-Haim, Sweet Psalmist of Israel. David before Saul:


Jonathan was de zoon van Saul, koning van Israël, afkomstig van de stam Benjamin en David kwam van de stam Juda. Ooit de rivalen voor de kroon werden ze vrienden en waarschijnlijk meer, maar de Bijbel geeft de werkelijke aard van de relatie tussen David en Jonathan niet expliciet weer. In de traditionele interpretatie van hun vriendschap wordt er nadruk gelegd op de platonische liefde, een voorbeeld van ‘homosocialiteit’. Iets wat later werd omschreven als een sterke persoonlijke vriendschappen tussen mannen. Tegenwoordig wordt er vaak de nadruk gelegd op wat sommigen zien als homo-erotiek in het verhaal

David et Jonathas van Charpentier, opname uit Ais-en-Provence:

Trudy Labij: ‘Wat ik nou toch heb gelezen’ uit de musical Foxtrot (4), 1977:




Gerrit van Honthorst (1590-1656), King David Playing the Harp (1611), Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Holland

A question of conscience: is there such a thing as Jewish music? If so, what is it? Is it klezmer?  The Chassidic Nigunim? The Spanish romanceros, the Yiddish songs, the synagogal chants, the psalms? And: can classical music be Jewish? Is it up to the composer? Is the music Jewish if the composer is Jewish? Or is it due to the themes used by him/her? A small quest.

Music played an important role in the lives of the ancient Hebrews. Just like most peoples of the East they were very musical and music, dance and singing were of great importance to them: both in daily life and in the synagogal services. They also played different instruments: for example, one of the women of Solomon brought more than a thousand different musical instruments from Egypt.

After the destruction of The Temple all instruments disappeared from the synagogues- except for the sjofar – and only in the 19th century did they return there. Unfortunately there is little written music from before the year 1700. However, in 1917 the oldest known music manuscript to date was found – it dates from around ±  1100.



The best-known prayer from the Jewish liturgy is undoubtedly Kol Nidre: a request for forgiveness and for the annulment of all vows made to God and to oneself during the past year. The prayer was said to have originated before the destruction of the Temple, but there are also legends that put the origin of the prayer in the hands of the Marranos (Spanish Jews, who converted to the Catholic faith under the pressure of the Inquisition, but remained Jewish at heart).

It is certain that Rabbi Jehuda Gaon already introduced Col Nidre in his synagogue in Sura in 720. It is also a fact that the melody, as we know it, has some affinity with a well-known Catalan song. Over the years it has been arranged by several cantors, the most famous version dates from 1871 and was made by Abraham Baer.

The melody became a source of inspiration for many composers: the best known of them is the work for cello and orchestra by Max Bruch.

The motifs of Kol Nidre can also be found in Paul Dessau’s symphony and in the fifth movement of the String Quartet Op. 131 by Ludwig van Beethoven. And then we should not forget Arnold Schönberg’s “Kol Nidre” for speaking voice, choir and orchestra. He composed it in 1939, commissioned by one of the Jewish organizations.


Jewish folk music cannot be grouped together under one denominator and has many traditions: after their dispersion Jews ended up in different parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. The greatest development of their own culture manifested itself strangely enough in places where Jews had the least freedom. Jewish folk music was actually music from the ghetto. Where Jews lived in reasonable freedom, their own “self” faded away.

In the countries around the Mediterranean Sea lived the so-called Sephardim (from Sfarad, Hebrew for Spain). They sang their romanceros in Ladino, a kind of corrupted Spanish. After their expulsion from Spain and later Portugal, they were influenced by the music of their new host country.

Below: ‘Por Que Llorax Blanca Nina’, a Sephardic song from Sarajevo.

In countries such as Poland and Russia, Jews lived in a constant fear of persecution that often degenerated into pogroms. Chassidism emerged as a kind of “counter-reaction”, a movement based on mysticism, spiritualism and magical doctrines. It proclaimed the joy of life, a kind of bliss, which could be achieved through music, dance and singing. Only in this way could direct contact with God be achieved. Hasidic music was strongly influenced by Polish, Russian and Ukrainian folklore. With later also the music of vaudevilles and the waltzes of Strauss. However, the character of the works remained Jewish.

Bratslav nigun – Jewish tune of Bratslav (by Vinnytsia), Ukraine:

In turn, the Chassidic melodies have had an enormous influence on classical composers: just think of Baal Shem by Ernest Bloch or Trois chansons hebraïques by Ravel.

Below: Isaac Stern plays ‘Baal Shem’ by Bloch:



Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.

Arnold Schoenberg firmly believed that Joseph Achron was the most underrated composer of his generation. Schoenberg praised his originality and claimed Achron’s music was destined for eternity. Yet, despite his enthusiastic praise, Joseph Achron never became a household name. Violin buffs no doubt know his Hebrew Melody, a much loved encore of many violinists, starting with Heifetz.

Hebrew Melody is inspired by a theme Achron heard as a young boy in a synagogue in Warsaw. It is one of his earliest compositions,  dating from 1911, and his first ‘Jewish’ work.  In the year he composed it Achron joined the Society for Jewish Folk Music. His career as a composer properly started in the twenties of the last century.  In Saint Petersburg, Achron joined the composers of the New Jewish School. Several years later he moved to Berlin, where he got acquainted with the works of the French impressionists, and the Second Viennese School.

In 1924 he made a trip of several months to Palestine. He not only performed there, but also collected a huge variety of folk music. The notes he took during this trip were later used for several of his compositions. In his Violin Concerto No. 1,  Op. 60 (1925) several Yemenite themes can be heard. In the 1930s he fled, like Schoenberg, Korngold and many other Jewish composers from Europe, to Hollywood, where he died in 1943.

Jossif Hassid plays Jewish Melody by Achron:


As early as the end of the nineteenth century a ‘Jewish national school of music’ was established in Petersburg (and later in Moscow). The composers united in it tried to compose music that would be faithful to their Jewish roots. Their music was anchored in the Jewish traditions of a mainly Hasidic nigun (melody).

The movement was not limited to Russia, think of the Swiss Ernest Bloch and the Italian Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco who, in search of their roots, developed a completely individual, ‘Jewish style of composing’.


Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Synagogal songs were a source of inspiration for Sacred Service by Bloch, Sacred Service for the Sabbath Eve by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Service Sacré pour le samedi matin by Darius Milhaud and The Song of Songs by Lucas Foss.


Darius Milhaud

Below Darius Milhaud: Service Sacré pour le Samedi Matin:

Castelnuovo-Tedesco also used the old Hebrew poetry of the poet Moses-Ibn-Ezra, which he used for his song cycle The Divan of Moses Ibn Ezra:

In the USA it was (among others) Leonard Bernstein, who very deliberately used Jewish themes in his music (Third symphony, Dybbuk Suite, A Jewish Legacy).

Less well known are Paul Schoenfield and his beautiful viola concerto King David Dancing Before the Ark:

And Marvin David Levy who used Sephardic motifs in his cantata Canto de los Marranos:

The Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov (1960, La Plata) combines Jewish liturgical music and klezmer with the tangos of Astor Piazzolla in his compositions, both classical and film music. He often works with the clarinettist David Krakauer and for the Kronos Quartet he has composed a very intriguing work The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind:



Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s once brilliant career took a dive after the official party paper criticized one of his operas in 1936. Shostakovich responded with his powerful Fifth Symphony.

The reason why the non-Jewish Shostakovich used Jewish elements in his music is not entirely clear, but at least it produced beautiful music. He wrote his piano trio op.67 as early as 1944. At the first performance, the last movement, the ‘Jewish part’, had to be repeated. It was also the last time it was played during Stalinism.

Piano trio op.67, Recorded in Prag 1946, with David Oistrakh, violine, Milos Sadlo, violoncello and Dmitri Shostakovich, piano

In 1948 he composed a song cycle for soprano, mezzo-soprano and tenor From Jewish Folk Poetry – recorded many times and (rightly!) very popular.

Old Melodia recording of the cycle:

In 1962 he composed the 13th symphony Babi Yar, after a poem by Yevgeny Yevchenko. Babi Yar is the name of a ravine in Kiev, where in 1941 more than 100,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

In 1990, the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music Foundation was established to record all the treasures of Jewish music composed in the course of American history. The archive now consists of more than 700 recorded musical works, divided into 20 themes.

The CDs are distributed worldwide by the budget label Naxos. No one interested in the (history of) Jewish music should ignore them.

* This sentence is mentioned on the memorial stone, placed at the Muiderberg cemetery, in memory of the conductor Sam Englander, murdered by the Nazis, and his Amsterdam Jewish Choir of the Great Synagogue.

Translated with