Robert Lachmann, The “Oriental Music” Broadcasts, 1936–1937: A Musical Ethnography of Mandatory Palestine. Edited by Ruth F. Davis. Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, Inc, 2013. ISBN 978-0-89579-776-6.

Reviewed by Michael A. Figueroa

Robert Lachmann_The Oriental Music Broadcasts_ImageOver the past fifteen years, there has been something of a fascination with the life and career of Robert Lachmann (1892–1939), the German Jewish comparative musicologist who made the first attempt to formalize the study of “Oriental music” at the fledgling Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Mandatory Palestine. From Ruth Katz’s 2003 monograph, “The Lachmann Problem”: An Unsung Chapter in Comparative Musicology— a “docudrama” about “a lone scholar having to missionize for his profession in an alien culture and in an impossible organizational context” (Katz 2003: 16)—to Jumana Manna’s 2015 documentary film A Magical Substance Flows Into Me—which criticizes the scholar’s efforts to collect/catalog musical traditions among ethnic groups in Palestine (review by this author here)—Lachmann’s legacy has been open to interpretation for a variety of intellectual and political projects in the twenty-first century.

Ruth Davis has been a consistent part of the field’s longstanding engagement with Lachmann’s legacy. In the volume under review, entitled The “Oriental Music” Broadcasts, 1936–1937: A Musical Ethnography of Mandatory Palestine (Middleton, WI: A-R Editions, “Recent Researches in the Oral Traditions of Music” series, 2013), she presents an edition of Lachmann’s twelve lectures on “Oriental Music” delivered for the Palestine Broadcasting Service between November 1936 and April 1937. The lectures cover liturgical, paraliturgical, ritual, and entertainment/art music made by Arab (urban and rural), Bedouin, Samaritan, Coptic, Yemenite, and Kurdish communities. The range of traditions is quite broad and provides an important glimpse into the cultural and religious diversity of 1930s Palestine—precisely the programmatic purpose of Lachmann’s lectures, which in Davis’s words was “promoting traditional music as a means of understanding the Other” (6, n.7).

In addition to this project, Davis has spent several years following up on Lachmann’s fabled, short-lived research on music among Jews from the island of Djerba, Tunisia. Davis’s deep familiarity with both Lachmann’s story and the music he researched becomes apparent immediately in the 2013 edition. From the outset of the “Preface,” she contextualizes her own research within institutional world and personal figures that orbit around Lachmann, from the Jewish Music Research Centre at the National Library of Israel (itself a modern, although Jewish music-focused, manifestation of Lachmann’s proposed archive, which never materialized within his lifetime) to Lachmann’s own surviving family, including his nephew Sir Peter Lachmann who was at the time of publication Davis’s colleague at Cambridge University and who provided her with the complete lecture scripts, which appear in this volume for the first time in their entirety. To be sure, Ruth Katz published Lachmann’s lectures in “unedited, incomplete” form (Davis 2013: xxxii n.1) as an appendix to her 2003 volume (Katz 2003: 328–78), but Davis is the first to do so with the benefit of working from the complete original scripts.

Beyond presenting them completely, Davis has painstakingly transcribed and edited Lachmann’s lectures and accompanied them with musical transcriptions of musicians’ performances and thorough annotation in “Editor’s Commentary” essays for each lecture. These essays are extraordinarily rich in their contextualization of each lecture’s musical, ethnomusicological, and historical substance. For example, in her commentary to Program 6 (56–58), Davis discusses Lachmann’s relationship with the Samaritan community and his contribution to the study of their music by placing it between the research conducted among that community by A.Z. Idelsohn in the 1910s and Johanna Spector in the late 1940s and later. Here, the reader encounters a brief but thoughtful account of Lachmann’s contributions to a scholarly conversation but also his limitations as a scholar. He is, in Davis’s narrative, ever human and embedded in his historical and professional worlds.

Davis’s tone throughout her commentaries is similarly judicious. Much of her prose is focused on synthesizing and abstracting from Lachmann’s own statements to connect them with more contemporary scholarship, which itself ranges widely. For example, in a single footnote in her commentary on Program 4, “Liturgical Songs of the Kurdish Jews” (31, n. 15), she cites Leo Treitler on melodic and syntactical functions in Western Christian chant and Kristina Nelson and Michael Frischkopf on Qur’anic recitation (all three scholars represent different academic disciplines: historical musicology, Arabic studies, and anthropology, respectively). And in characteristic fashion, throughout the volume, Davis demonstrates a profound comfort in writing about modal, rhythmic, instrumental, ritual, and textual details of musical performance in a way that connects these details to the broader historical narrative that is her task in the volume. Davis’s balance of analytical depth and accessible presentation is a task that few scholars are equipped to carry out within such a broad field.

If I might make one small criticism, it is of the author’s excessive use of footnotes. Many of the footnotes in her commentaries on Lachmann’s lecture programs would have been appropriate for inclusion in the main text, as they contain substantial information—be it cultural, historical, linguistic, or otherwise—that is sometimes essential for understanding the analysis. To play on a well-worn metaphor, in some cases the footnotes seem to be the icebergs and statements in the body text merely their tips; this sometimes makes for a schizophrenic reading experience in which one must move across two separate texts (main and note) for the full picture. Critically, however, the content is there and available for continued reference once the reader locates herself in its split organization.

Accompanying Davis’s analyses are musical transcriptions (in Western notation, in keeping with Lachmann’s own practice; see xxxviii–lv) and textual transliterations and translations (credited to various people other than Davis) of the musical performances. Perhaps most significantly, the volume includes a set of two compact discs containing digitized and edited recordings of approximately half (twenty-two of forty-three) of the included musical performances—some live, some pre-recorded, perhaps from earlier radio transmissions (see xxxvi)—from the original lecture programs. These restorations are remarkably clean given the poor state of some of the original formats, and their inclusion is invaluable to Davis’s and Lachmann’s projects, for they provide a rare historical audibility to the region’s distinct musical diversity. Finally, a set of nine black-and-white plates, including personal photographs, scanned correspondence, a map of 1935 Jerusalem, and photographs of recorded discs, render visible Lachmann’s life and work as it relates to the “Oriental Music” lectures.

Owing to the comprehensiveness of Davis’s commentaries and the abovementioned multimedia apparatus, there are several fields of music scholars who would find this volume to be a valuable contribution: scholars of Jewish music, scholars of Arab and Middle Eastern music, and, more generally, those interested in the history of ethnomusicology and comparative musicology and their institutionalization. It might also be said that the edited lecture texts and Davis’s commentaries would be useful for music and non-music scholars alike who study the role of music in intercultural understanding, as the volume presents a vivid portrait of a 1930s historical subject, a secular Jewish Arabist, attempting to grapple with the changing political and cultural landscape wrought by the dynamics of interwar modernity. Davis’s edition of Lachmann’s work is thus a contribution of critical importance well beyond the interests of scholars focused on Robert Lachmann himself.

Reference Cited

Katz, Ruth. 2003. “The Lachmann Problem”: An Unsung Chapter in Comparative Musicology. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press.


Michael A. Figueroa, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill