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Songs of Land: Seven Hebrew Songs

The Hebrew folk song has numerous sources of influence, such as the Bible’s Te’amim (trope) and Arabian music, to name a few. Many of the Israeli folk tunes were written by either Israeli (Palestine) born composers, or, for the most part, by newcomer Zionists from Russia and Poland. The music is spiced with quasi-Arabian microtonal flavor, as much as the piano can allow, meaning semi-tonal emphasis, both melodically, and in the frame of the Phrygian mode. Many of the songs share a modal style, with sections using drone or ostinato devices rather than distinctive Western harmonic progression. It is also likely for one to come across the melodic interval of an augmented second (Eb to F#, for example), shared frequently by both the Bible’s Te’amim and Arabian music. However, some of the songs and their writers still draw from classical, European traditions as a source of inspiration. In the scope of the set Song of Land: Seven Israeli Songs, composer Alexander Argov is the distinguished representative of the European musical tradition.


More than twenty “favorite” popular Hebrew songs were performed by contralto Mira Zakai in a 1988 concert, celebrating Israel’s 40th anniversary. Composer-arranger-pianist Menachem Wiesenberg was asked to set new artistic arrangements to the songs.

Wiesenberg’s works span varied musical fields, from popular music to art song, jazz, choral and orchestral writing. Following his graduation from the Tel-Aviv Academy of Music, he did his Masters at the Julliard School of Music.

Béla Bartók has stated that “The creative imagination required for the writing of a good arrangement does not fall in the least from that needed for the writing of an original work.” Approached by the task of arranging the Hebrew songs, Wiesenberg attested, “In the spirit of these words and with profound respect.” He said, “In my arrangements I tried to preserve the freshness and spontaneity so characteristic of the folksongs and yet at the same time, give them the scope of art songs presenting as if seen from a fresh and personal point of view.”[1]

Tonight’s seven song selections represent three genres in Israeli folk songs: desert songs (1, 5), biblical songs (3, 4) and songs of mourning (2, 6, 7).

[1] Menechem Wiesenberg, arranger, Twelve Songs of Land, arranged for soprano and piano (Tel-Aviv: Israeli Music institute, 1988), p. 3.


Composer David Zehavi (1910–1975) was born in Jaffa. At the age of twenty, he was among the founders of his Kibbutz, Na’an. In 1927, Zehavi browsed through “Moledet,” a youth magazine, and read the poem Caravan. He made few changes to the text, and made it the first song he ever composed.[1] Caravan is not written in a strophic way, but rather is through composed, though, in this case, without a real change in the atmosphere nor the content of the different verses.[2] The basic pattern— ascending three-note upbeat, then a long note— gives the song a sense of steady movement, portraying the caravan moving slowly through the desert. Pay attention to Wiesenberg’s creativity, citing a renowned orchestral piece in the piano part.


1. Orkha Bamidbar (Caravan) Jacob Fichman/ David Zehavi

To the right and the left there is only sand

The desert yellows and there’s no trail,

A caravan passes, moving silently

As a wondrous mirage.

And a paced sound goes up and down,

Camels move in a sad landscape

Lin-lan, lin-lan, the song of wandering

Silent and heavy, silent and wandering

[1] Gil Aldema, Nathan Shachar, editors. Pupil’s Songbook: Lyrics, Music and Background, vol. II (Tel-Aviv: Mifaley Tarbut Wechinuch Ltd., 1995), p. 220. [2] Herzel Shmueli: The Israeli Song: Style, Structure and Lyrics (Tel-Aviv: Mifaley Tarbut Wechinuch Ltd., 1971), p. 66.


David Zehavi: Orkha Bamidbar (Caravan), Arr. Menachem Wiesenberg, Trans. Ron Merhavi World Premiere of Double Bass version

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Thomas Bandy – Piano

Ron Merhavi's Third Dissertation Recital; Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 27.10.2004


Moscow-born Alexander (“Sasha”) Argov (1914–1995) was one of Israel’s prolific songwriters, with an output of over 1,200 songs, musicals and films. His songs carry unique original melodic lines and harmonic complexity.

Poet Rachel Bluwstein (1890–1931) (also known as Rachel) came to Israel from Russia as a pioneer and lived in the first Kibbutz established in Israel, Dganya, located near the Sea of Galilee. She traveled to Toulouse to continue her agricultural studies, but these were caught in the midst of World War I. Unable to return to Palestine, Bluwstein moved back to Russia. In Odessa, while caring for refugee children, she caught tuberculosis. Rachel’s last years were spent between hospitals and her tiny Tel-Aviv apartment, struggling with her disease.[1]


2. Heye Na Tov Elay (Be Good To Me) Rachel Bluwstein/ Alexander Argov (arr. Argov)

My strength is dwindling

Be good to me, be good to me!

Be my narrow bridge

Above the abyss of my day’s grief

Be good to me, be good to me!

Be a soul for me,

Be a comfort to the heart.

Be a tree that shadows wilderness,

Be good to me!

The night is so long,

Dawn is far away,

Be my little light.

A sudden happiness.

Be my daily bread!

[1] For further information, visit The Jewish Agency for Israel, “Rachel,” URL: http://www.jafi.org.il/education/moriya/tiberia/rachel.html


Alexander (Sasha) Argov: Heye Na Tov Elay (Be Good To Me) Trans. Ron Merhavi

World Premiere of Double Bass version

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Thomas Bandy – Piano

Ron Merhavi's Third Dissertation Recital; Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 27.10.2004



Songs of Solomon is the main source for Hebrew songs based on biblical texts.[1] Also favored by classical composers, some of its verses have several composed versions.

The verse Ana Halakh Dodekh (Whither Your Beloved) will be performed tonight in two different tunes, by Emanuel Amiran and Gil Aldema, respectively.


Emanuel Amiran (1909–1993) came to Israel from Russia at the age of fifteen. He is best-known for his holiday songs, although his repertoire also includes music for the theater and film. Amiran is one of the designers of Israeli music education, serving as the first music-education head supervisor at the Ministry of Education of the young state of Israel (established 1948).

[1] Shmueli, p. 56.


Emanuel Amiran: Ana Halakh Dodekh (Whither Your Beloved), Arr. Menachem Wiesenberg, Trans. Ron Merhavi World Premiere of Double Bass version

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Thomas Bandy – Piano

Ron Merhavi's Third Dissertation Recital; Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 27.10.2004



Gil Aldema (1928–2014) was born in Givatayim (near Tel-Aviv). Upon graduating from Jerusalem Music Academy, he began working as a music teacher in Hadassim youth village, where he established a choir and an orchestra and composed his own first songs. Over the years, Aldema led from his accordion many evenings of Shira Betsibur (literally, singing in public) across Israel. Between 1957–1960, Aldema studied at the Mannes College of Music. Later on, working in the Israeli radio and television, he produced singing festivals and programs reviving old songs. Aldema is well known for his numerous Hebrew song choral arrangements. He was rewarded the 2004 Israel prize for his contribution to developing, designing and preserving the Hebrew song.


Aldema composed Ana Halakh Dodekh in 1955 as a pedagogical piece for his students at Hadassim; the different parts of the song emerge into one canon.

3+4 Ana Halakh Dodekh (Whither Your Beloved) Song of Solomon/ Music by Emanuel Amiran | Gil Aldema

“Whither Your Beloved gone

O fairest among women?

Whither has your beloved turned

That we may seek him with you?”

“My beloved has gone down to his garden

To the beds of spices.”


Gil Aldema: Ana Halakh Dodekh (Whither Your Beloved), Arr. Menachem Wiesenberg,

Trans. Ron Merhavi World Premiere of Double Bass version

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Thomas Bandy – piano

Ron Merhavi's Third Dissertation Recital; Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 27.10.2004



Naomi Shemer (1930–2004) was the prolific writer and composer of hundreds of songs. Described as “First Lady of Israeli Song” and “soundtrack of Israeli lives,” her songs are familiar to basically every Israeli, who sing and hear them as children and as grown-ups. Fitting the meter of the lyrics to the music in a rare match, Shemer’s songs capture the essence of the Israeli landscape and people. In a time when Israeli songs referred to the “we,“ Shemer additionally incorporated a personal voice within the unity of the group. Her song “Jerusalem of Gold” was chosen as the all-time favorite Israeli song, and was offered as an alternative to the Israeli national Anthem, Hatikvah. After Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Shemer translated Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! and composed it. Shemer was born in Kibbutz Kvutsat Kinneret, by the Sea of Galilee, where she was buried on June 27th, 2004, alongside her parents and the poet Rachel.


5. Kibuy Orot (Lights Out) Naomi Shemer/ Naomi Shemer

A long way the regiment has passed

Skipped over an abyss

And moved on –

A way without an end –

Till from the top of the rock

The sound of trumpet called:

Night has come to the desert

The smoke from the bonfires rise,

The moon above the prairies ignites

With a face like blood.


A soldier sings his song in the wind,

Against the mountain.

The regiment, exhausted,

Rests in the desert, sings,

And a drum answers back.

Till from the top…


Bring peace to our tents in the desert,

Our regiment skipped over the abyss

And moved on,

Its lines must be strengthened,

When from the top of the rock…


Naomi Shemer: Kibuy Orot (Lights Out), Arr. Menachem Wiesenberg, Trans. Ron Merhavi

World Premiere of Double Bass version

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Thomas Bandy – Piano

Ron Merhavi's Third Dissertation Recital; Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 27.10.2004



At the age of two, Nathan Yonathan (1923–2004) was brought with his parents from Kiev to Israel. He was a poet, translator and literature editor and teacher. Nathan Yehonathan’s elder son, Lior, lost his life in the Yom Kippur war (1973). Yearning for piece and the futility of war colored Nathan’s work.[1] His songs are rooted in the Israeli nature and landscape, on to which he often depicts human emotions. Song of Land is often being performed or heard on Israeli radio on grief days such as Memorial Day or Yom Kippur’s eve.


6. Shir Erets (Song of Land) Nathan Yonathan/ Alexander Argov

Land that feeds on its people

Flows with milk and honey and blue,

Sometimes even steals

The sheep of the meek.

Land of sweet clods

And all its beaches salty as tears,

And its lovers gave it

All they could give.

Again, the white squill flowers

There on the road, alone,

And the jasmine returns the scent

Of its lost fields of time.

Land of sweet clods…

Yellow ragworts return every spring

To cover all its wrinkles

And summer wind will caress with light

The sorrow of its stones.

Again, the autumn with the heavy clouds

Will cover with grey all its gardens,

And the winter

Its weeping eyelids will close.

Again the white squill…

Land of sweet clods…

[1] Ami Isseroff, “Nathan Yonathan: A poet of peace has died,” URL: http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000222.htm


Alexander (Sasha) Argov: Shir Erets (Song of Land), Arr. Menachem Wiesenberg, Trans. Ron Merhavi World Premiere of Double Bass version

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Thomas Bandy – Piano

Ron Merhavi's Third Dissertation Recital; Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 27.10.2004



Hanna Szenes (pronounced Senesh) (1921–1944) wrote the poem Eli, Eli while taking a stroll on the beach from her Kibbutz, Sdot Yam, to nearby Caesarea. The song’s title is also known as A Walk to Caesarea. Szenes was born in Budapest, and came to Israel at the age of eighteen. In 1943, she enlisted in an elite paratrooper unit of the British Army, in an attempt to liberate Jews in Hungary.[1] In June 1943 Szenes parachuted behind the enemy lines in Yugoslavia, crossing the Hungarian border with the aid of a partisan group. She was captured and tortured for months by both German Gestapo and Hungarian Police. Szenes would still not give in any information. After a short field trial, Szenes was executed in Budapest by a firing squad. Her remains, along of those of six other fellow paratroopers, were brought to the military cemetery in Jerusalem in 1950.


Composer David Zehavi attested that the melody “matured in me and came out in a single stroke of passion… not a single note corrected, nor changed.” Zehavi wrote to Szenes’ mother: “One of the most beautiful songs I have ever composed is A Walk to Caesarea, and to say the truth, while composing the song, in the course of its writing, my eyes shed tears.”[2] The song has a unique melodic contour. It is very rare to have a song open with an ascending octave (arranger Menachem Wiesenberg uses this element in the piano introduction as well). The octave leap is linked to the text by the ritual of prayer, addressing God in the sky. The peak point of the song is on “The shining sky.”

This song is likely to be performed at schools around the country during Holocaust Day.


7. Eli, Eli (My Lord, My Lord) Hanna Szenes/ David Zehavi

Eli, Eli!

Let there be no end

To the sand and the sea,

The water-murmur,

The shining sky,

The prayer of mankind.

[1] Baer in mind that Israel was under Mandatory British control until its independence in 1948. [2] Gil Aldema, Nathan Shachar, editors. Pupil’s Songbook: Lyrics, Music and Background, vol. I (Tel-Aviv: Mifaley Tarbut Wechinuch Ltd., 1995), p. 176.


David Zehavi: Eli, Eli (My Lord, My Lord), Arr. Menachem Wiesenberg, Trans. Ron Merhavi

World Premiere of Double Bass version

Ron Merhavi – Double Bass, Thomas Bandy – Piano

Ron Merhavi's Third Dissertation Recital; Britton Recital Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor 27.10.2004






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