In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hebrew Literature and Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Jewish Studies Hebrew Literature and Music
Michal Ben-Horin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0196


Literature and music have a long entwined history. Since antiquity, music and poetry (a crystalized form of “literature” or the “poetic”) have been regarded as “twin sisters,” constituting a productive source of creation and inspiration. In the Romantic era (especially German Romanticism) this affinity reached one of its peaks, as demonstrated in the emergence of symbiotic musical-poetic forms and modes of aesthetic expression. From the perspective of cultural history, however, the scope of this relationship is even wider and can be traced back to the overlap between language and music. The compatibility of music and poetry has produced a range of scholarship elaborated in various traditions of knowledge and research disciplines, including semiotics, poetics, aesthetics, musicology, cultural studies, and critical theory. It is well known that sound is a central component of both musical and verbal sign systems. What happens to this sound, however, when we read a story? Moreover, whereas the connection between sounds and poems seems obvious, as shown in the field of research called prosody, which explores various phenomena such as rhythm and alliteration, metric and intonation, the connection between sounds and prose fiction is less obvious. This article focuses on a body of works—theoretical, methodological, and textual—dedicated to the exploration of literature and music relationships in general, in order to understand the relationship between Hebrew literature (including poetry, but mainly prose fiction) and music in particular. Compared to other national literatures such as French, English, and above all German, the scholarly study of Hebrew literature and music is relatively young. Central domains of this study are the employment of sound and acoustic components (i.e., prosody), the incorporation of musical intertexts (i.e., texts that are connected to the realm of music, such as musical terminology, descriptions of music playing, allusions to musical repertoire and themes), and the shaping of analogies between musical forms and narrative structures (i.e., the sonata form or the counterpoint). Hebrew literature also has a history, of course, from the Bible and other ancient texts, to medieval Hebrew poetry, and up to modern Hebrew and contemporary Israeli literature. Viewing these poetic traditions through the specific lens of language/literature and music relationships, an emerging field of study dealing with representations of music in modern Hebrew and Israeli prose fiction will be discussed, alongside scholarship on the relationship between Hebrew poetry and music.

General Overviews

The scholarship on the affinity between music and Jewish thought in general, and Hebrew literature in particular, is relatively young. Schwartz 2013 mentions the need for further investigation and elaboration of different aspects in the field. One can discuss the stages of this research and ongoing developments within various methodological and theoretical contexts, which examine language and music relationships: structural and post-structural, semiotic, psychoanalytical, gender and critical theory. A more specific study of the relationship between literature and music emerged in the 20th century, mainly in the work Brown 1948, whose author mapped the field influences of music on literature, influences of literature on music, and intersection of the two systems. Following him, Scher 1968 engaged with the representations of music in German narrative fiction, which was highly inspired by Wagner (Wagner 2019) and Nietzsche (Nietzsche 1999). Such studies are relevant to the inquiry into music and Hebrew literature, ranging from the Bible, the Oral Law, the Kabbalah, and medieval Jewish exegeses, up to the writing of modern poets, authors, and thinkers. This scholarly stream includes Harshav 1971, which explores prosodic elements in Hebrew poetry from the ancient and medieval piyut (liturgical poem) to modern poetry, as well as more recent studies on music and Jewish/Hebrew poetics: Tsur 1992 on Hebrew poets, Idel 1982 on Jewish mysticism, Smith 2010 on Hassidic texts, Levin 1998 on Hebrew national poetry, HaCohen 2006 on Israeli songs, and Balaban and Wagner 2014 on Hebrew narrative fiction.

  • Balaban, Yael, and Naphtali Wagner. “Musical Moments in Literature.” Dappim: Research in Literature 19 (2014): 300–350.

    This essay offers a wide range of typologies concerning musical manifestations in literary works, including an introduction to theoretical perspectives on literary-music studies. In Hebrew.

  • Brown, Calvin S. Music and Literature: A Comparison of the Arts. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1948.

    A seminal study in the field of music and literature relationships dealing with several central domains: the influence of music on literature, literature in vocal music, the effects of literature on program music, and musical manifestations in literature.

  • HaCohen, Ruth Pinczower. “‘To Hear Singing and Prayer’: The Move from Words to Music and from Music to Words in Israeli Song Culture.” Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature 20 (2006): 13–37.

    HaCohen employs musicological theories in a cultural analysis of the Israeli song. In Hebrew.

  • Harshav, Benjamin (Hrushovski). “The Hebrew Rhyme from Piyut Until Today.” Ha-Sifrut/Literature: Theory - Poetics - Hebrew and Comparative Literature 2.4 (1971): 721–749.

    This essay discusses the structural component of music-poetry relationships and lucidly presents the basic principles of Hebrew rhyme from medieval Hebrew poetry to Israeli poetry in the second half of the 20th century. In Hebrew.

  • Idel, Moshe. “Music and Prophetic Kabbalah.” Yuval 4 (1982): 150–169.

    A comprehensive definition of the musical manifestations in the literature of the Kabbalah, and the role of acoustic and sound components in the prophetic repertoire in particular.

  • Levin, Israel. Violin and Jackals: Disaster, Exile, Revenge and Redemption in Hebrew National Poetry. Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1998.

    A comprehensive survey of the large range of case studies that demonstrate the role musical intertextuality plays in the shaping of national consciousness through classic and modern Hebrew poetry.

  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” In The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Edited by Raymond Geuss and Roland Speirs. Translated by Roland Speirs, 1–116. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    Nietzsche’s essential essay traces, from a philological and philosophical perspective, the cultural history of the relationships between image/word and sound, literature and music as they are reflected in theatrical works from classical tragedy to Wagner’s modern music dramas. Originally published 1872.

  • Scher, Steven P. Verbal Music in German Literature. London and New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1968.

    A pioneering work on portrayals of music in German novels.

  • Schwartz, Dov. Music in Jewish Thought. Ramat Gan, Israel: Bar Ilan University Press, 2013.

    A panoramic survey and insightful exploration of the historical and cultural forms of music’s embodiments and applications in various periods and schools of Jewish thought, including literature in Hebrew, and an analysis of religious Zionist literature. In Hebew.

  • Smith, Chani Haran. Tuning the Soul: Music as a Spiritual Process in the Teachings of Rabbi Naḥman of Bratzlav. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004183810.i-232

    As part of the discussion of Hassidic niggun in Jewish mysticism, this research centers on the distinctive role of music in the repertoire of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.

  • Tsur, Reuven. What Makes Sound Patterns Expressive? The Poetic Mode of Speech Perception. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822378365

    A thorough investigation into the expressive effect of sound patterns in poems, combining literary theory, linguistics, and psychological approaches.

  • Wagner, Richard. “Opera and Drama.” Translated by William Ashton Ellis. 2019.

    In this programmatic text, Wagner clarifies the intense relationship between sounds and words, music and verbal text, which is fundamental to his perception of the music drama and the opera of the future. Originally published 1852.

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