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Fromm’s Yemenite Cycle stems from his first visit to Israel, in the autumn of 1960. In addition to renewing his acquaintance with many friends and colleagues who had emigrated there from Germany and Austria during the 1930s—such composers as Joseph Tal [Gruenthal] and Paul Ben-Haim [Frankenburger], who were by then in the forefront of the Israeli music world—Fromm had the opportunity to hear a good deal of sacred as well as secular Near Eastern, Arabic, and North African Jewish folk music for the first time. As was true for even well-educated and Judaically cultured American and European Jews at that time, particularly those not specifically or professionally immersed in Israeli culture through Zionist activities, those foreign sounds and exotic flavors were a revelation to him, and those discoveries both intrigued him and broadened his consciousness of Jewish musical tradition and expression. Despite the fact that these traditions had flourished for a long time in their respective lands of origin, it is primarily owing to the emergence of modern Israel and the ingathering (kibbutz galu’yyot) there of communities that many of these oriental Jewish repertoires first came to the attention of the West—apart from a handful of scholars. (The wealth of commercial recordings that reflect musical traditions of the many oriental Jewish communities in Israel—ethnomusicological documents as well as popular and even entertainment-oriented arrangements—had yet to become readily available in the United States.)
Fromm was drawn in particular to the modalities, rhythms, and other features of Yemenite Jewish folksong, some of which—although various Yemenite tunes had been adopted by the early settlers in Palestine—had become an integral part of the overall Israeli folksong culture ever since the wholesale resettlement of Yemenite Jewry in Israel beginning in 1949–50.
Shortly after his return from that trip to Israel, Fromm wrote this group of settings of traditional folksongs. He preceded them by a brief instrumental introduction, which incorporates perceived Near Eastern clichés but not any specific traditional folk material. Only two of the four sung melodies and two of the texts are actually of Yemenite provenance, but the title is used liberally to suggest the overall Near Eastern character of all four songs. Except for the concluding one, Shalom l’vo shabbat, the tunes are left intact in the vocal lines, without imposed variations, alterations, or extensions. But the accompaniment—which Fromm assigned to modern instruments that have, or are believed to have, ancient counterparts or forerunners in biblical references and archaeological-organological findings—follows his usual neoclassical style.
The text of Yom ze l’yisra’el belongs to the category of songs known as z’mirot shel shabbat—songs that traditionally are sung at the Sabbath table before, during, and after each of the three festive meals on Friday night and Saturday. Most of those texts date to within a century of the Middle Ages, while a few have earlier roots. But each has accumulated countless tunes among the numerous Jewish geographical, regional, and cultural traditions. The poem Yom ze l’yisra’el was for a long time attributed to ARIzal, the acronym for Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (1534–1572), an important Kabbalist whose name is contained in the acrostic—even though most of his poetry is in Aramaic rather than Hebrew. Recent scholarship, however, has confirmed not only an earlier suspicion that not all stanzas are by Luria, but also that the entire poem was written instead by Yitzhak Hendeli, a 16th-century poet living in Crimea. Obviously the same name in the acrostic could account for some of the previous confusion. Moreover, the eminent Israeli musicologist and acknowledged authority on Sephardi music, Edwin Seroussi, has found the poem to be modeled on a secular Spanish poetic form of that period. This particular musical version is an anonymous Yemenite tune, a variant of which appears in the monumental Thesaurus of Hebrew-Oriental Melodies by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, in the volume devoted to Yemenite tunes. There, however, it is attached to the words of an unrelated and obscure Sabbath song.
Bammidbar is Fromm’s title for the song Lammidbar sa’enu, the words of which were written by Alexander Penn (1906–1972) to an anonymous Arabic folk tune. Fromm treats it canonically, with the flute and harp in imitation of the basic rhythm of the vocal line.
Zamm’ri li is an anonymous Yemenite Hebrew folksong that first appeared in print in Mishirei ha’aretz (From Songs of the Land), a rare collection published in 1932 by the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund). Adapted by Menashe Ravina [Rabinovitz], the song expresses the longing for return to the ancient homeland.
Shalom l’vo shabbat is a Yemenite ode to the Sabbath and its aura of peace and respite from weekday cares and concerns. The words are frequently attributed to the 17th-century Yemenite Hebrew poet Shalem Shabazi, but contemporary Israeli scholars maintain that the author was Se’adyah, a 16th-century Yemenite poet whose name appears in the acrostic. The melody here is also an anonymous Yemenite tune, which is printed in this same variant in Idelsohn’s Thesaurus. The text was adapted to this melody originally by Sara Levi-Tannai, a choreographer who was born in Jerusalem to Yemenite parents. In 1949 she founded the world-famous Inbal Dance Theater, which is devoted especially to Yemenite folklore in song and dance. Fromm has added phrases to the original vocal line before the final strophe, where he calls for the simple recitation of the word shabbat. And the rhythm has been altered in the counterpoint between the vocal and instrumental lines. Yemenite Cycle received its premiere at one of Fromm’s annual music festivals at Temple Israel in Boston.