Choose a track to play
00:00 / 00:00

In 1947, when Kurt Weill’s orchestral arrangement of Hatikva received its world premiere in New York, it was still—as it had been for decades—the anthem of the modern Zionist movement, expressing the hope and determination of a dispersed people for a permanent national home in Palestine. Less than six months later, it had become the de facto national anthem of the new sovereign State of Israel.

Its words were first penned in 1877–78, originally as Tikvatenu (Our Hope), by Naphtali Herz Imber (1856–1909). Imber was a so-called ḥalutz (pioneer settler in Palestine) poet of the First Aliya—the initial wave of Zionist immigration and settlement (1882–1903), mostly from the Russian Empire and other parts of eastern and east Central Europe. He was born in Galicia, and in 1882 he came to Palestine, staying there for six years before traveling extensively and settling eventually in America, where he lived out the remainder of his days.

Imber is known to have written at least the first draft of Tikvatenu while living in Jassy [Iaşi], Romania, and he is thought to have been inspired by news of the founding of the city of Petach Tikva (lit., gateway of hope) in Palestine. A literary parallel to the poem’s theme of persistent national hope may be found in the words to an earlier Polish patriot song—“Poland is not yet lost while we still live”—which later became independent republican Poland’s national anthem during the brief interwar period, and it has been suspected that those words might have served as a thematic source for Imber.

Soon after his arrival in Palestine, Imber shared his poem with farmers and other residents when he was living at the settlement Rishon L’tziyon, where he is said to have created additional stanzas, sometimes spontaneously at readings. Eventually the poem contained nine stanzas with a refrain (od lo avda tikvatenu...), only the first two of which are retained in the present incarnation, the anthem Hatikva. His final revised draft was accomplished in Jerusalem, probably in 1884.

Imber included Tikvatenu in his collection of poetry, Barkai (Dawn), which he published in Palestine in 1886. Each poem or song text (without specific corresponding music) in that volume was dedicated to a particular Palestinian settlement. An annotation to Tikvatenu indicates that it was composed “at the request of one of the known nationalists.” A report in the Hebrew newspaper Hamelitz, published in Russia, referred enthusiastically to the collection, boasting that in only those few years of resettlement the people had already acquired a song repertoire, and quoting in particular from Tikvatenu.

The history, chronology, and morphology of Hatikva have been traced with authority—and its stages of development established—by two Israelis: the amateur musicologist Eliyahu Hacohen, and the composer, scholar, and critic Menashe Ravina, who in turn drew partly upon a 1941 article by David Idelovitch, as well as from Imber’s own documents and other sources. Working independently, they seem to have come to the same basic conclusions. Leon Igli, a musician and settler in Zikhron Ya’akov who had studied at the conservatory in St. Petersburg, has been identified as the first to set Tikvatenu to music—devising a musical version in 1882 that apparently ignored the strophic structure of the poem and provided instead a through-composed version without musical repetition from one stanza to the next. In that form it proved difficult to sing communally, and it did not take off—despite token prizes offered to children who could learn it.

Numerous ungrounded assumptions and misunderstandings have surrounded the origins, derivations, and developments of the song we now know as Hatikva. The marriage between the present tune and Imber’s poem appears to have begun in 1888. That version of the song was quickly and permanently established—with the subsequent variations one could expect from any song that relied for its dissemination on oral transmission. Among the settlers in Palestine who sang it during the First and Second Aliya periods, it was assumed to be an anonymous folksong, and there appears to have been little concern about its lineage. By the time of the yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine under the British Mandate) and the Third and Fourth Aliya periods, when a portion of the population had some familiarity with European classical music repertoire, an assumption seems to have persisted in some quarters that the melody had been taken directly from the signature melodic material in the Bohemian composer Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic tone poem The Moldau, which was written in 1874—one of six constituent tone poems or movements of his larger orchestral work Má vlast (My Fatherland). (To this day, Jews are fond of “recognizing Hatikva” upon hearing The Moldau performed, and one can still hear the proudly voiced but naïve suspicion that Smetana might have borrowed his tune from the Jewish anthem—which, of course, could not have been the case.)

But the similarity between the two melodies applies only to the first two-part phrase of Hatikva, and it involves simply an ascending-descending pattern along the first six tones of the minor scale—with distinct rhythmic and ornamental divergences. That shared melodic pattern, however, may have its roots in Central European musical folklore sources—a common melodic skeleton or archetype that may be considered a member of what ethnomusicologists cite as a “tune family”—in this case comprising numerous incarnations throughout Europe that have been found in major as well as minor scale guises. The succeeding part of Hatikva (the refrain in the original multi-stanza poem), however, beginning with the words od lo avda, constitutes a complete departure from Smetana’s melody.

Others have been convinced that the Hatikva melody was derived from the Sephardi tune for the liturgical poem tal (dew), as it is sung in the Amsterdam|Western Sephardi Tradition. In that case, some of the shared skeletal features do extend into the refrain or second part of Hatikva, but only through its first phase. (See "There is a Mystic Tie That Joins" from the Union Hymnal Selections in Volume 1.)

The seminal Jewish music scholar and acknowledged pioneer in the field of Jewish musicology, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882–1938), who settled in Jerusalem in 1906 and remained in Palestine until 1921, undertook a now-famous comparative consideration of the Hatikva tune in the context of perceived parallels. Obviously unaware of information that generated Ravina’s and Hacohen’s much later findings, he treated Hatikva strictly as an anonymous, unidentifiable, and evolved folk tune, whose application to Imber’s poem—so he assumed—had been a consequence of folkloric evolution or spontaneous phenomena rather than the conscious effort of an individual. Idelsohn compared Hatikva not only with the aforementioned melodies of The Moldau and the Sephardi tal version, but also with a Spanish canción, a Polish folksong, a German folksong, two Basque melodies, and a well-known version of the hymn yigdal that was current in England as well as in other Ashkenazi communities. The common thread among most of those examples, however, still applies only to the first part of Hatikva. Nonetheless, Idelsohn suggested that the basic outline of the melody constitutes in the aggregate a single “wandering tune” that had traveled throughout western as well as eastern and east Central Europe, and even beyond. In that context, one could cite other cases that escaped Idelsohn, but in which any listener might legitimately and instantly recognize the first part of the Hatikva tune: a Giovanni Battista Viotti violin concerto, for example; or the Anglican hymn for the Holy Eucharist, “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” which is identified in the 1982 authorized hymnal for the Anglican liturgy as a 17th-century French carol and in some details bears closer resemblance to Hatikva than do other proposed examples and does span Hatikva’s full octave range.

The pursuit of such “tune detection” between or among unrelated musical works or sources, although sometimes musicologically fruitful, can also be a risky undertaking without more evidence than two similar phrases. As the erudite composer and pedagogue Hugo Weisgall was fond of reminding would-be musical detectives, “There are, after all, only twelve notes available to us in Western music.” One may need more hard information than the audible similarity of two phrases in two distinct works to establish that anything more than coincidence is at play; and this may apply even if those two phrases are identical. Moreover, the fact that innocent listeners may be instantly reminded of a particular tune upon hearing its echo in an unrelated piece may be owed more to emotional associations than to the actual melodic history. (Dare we assert that a certain passage in Brahms’s D-minor piano concerto indicates that he was even aware of the American song “Home on the Range”? Or that Verdi knew “The Yellow Rose of Texas” when he wrote La forza del destino or the Ashkenazi Hanukka tune for the hymn ma’oz tzur when he composed Don Carlo?)

In any case, even granting the likelihood that a skeletal tune archetype underlies a part of the Hatikva melody, it is because of the research of Ravina and Hacohen that we can now know the specific identity of the entire tune from which this version was drawn—as well as the circumstances surrounding its adaptation and application to Imber’s words. It is Samuel Cohen, another First Aliya settler in Palestine from Moldavia and a native of Ungeny, on the Romanian-Bessarabian border, who is now credited with the deliberate adaptation of a popular Moldavian-Romanian folk tune to which Romanian lyrics had been applied at some point prior to 1888 by G. Popovitz. The song, about a farmer carting his oxen to market, was known by then as Carul cu boi (Wagon and Oxen). Cohen, however, referred to it as Hois! Cea! (Right! Left!), the words of the refrain. (The song appears to have acquired at least one known early-20th-century parody variant, also in Romanian, which refers to a way of life enjoyed before the advent of motorcars.)

Already attracted to the poem Tikvatenu while still in Romania, when in 1887 his brother sent him a copy of Imber’s poetry collection, Cohen fashioned the musical adaptation the next year, shortly after he arrived as a settler in Rishon L’tziyon, basing his version almost note for note on Carul cu boi as he had heard it sung by peasants and farmers in Moldavia-Romania. His new setting caught on almost immediately and was spread among the various settlements. But it did not remain associated with Cohen, and it soon took on, through its singing at meetings and other gatherings among the Jews in Palestine, the persona of folk property—a supposedly anonymous expression of Zionist aspirations. Insofar as we know, the earliest printed version of Hatikva with this melody dates to 1895, in Breslau.

Many of the more than thirty known variations, adjustments, and alterations that Hatikva has undergone since Cohen’s initial adaptation—with regard to music as well as text—have occurred as unintended results of oral transmission and tradition. Other changes have been deliberate, in view of altered situations or out of literary considerations. There have also been unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the punctuation and accentuation of the words with the standards of modern Hebrew. But it is a mistake to assume, as many critics have done, that the admittedly incorrect syllabic stresses in the accepted version are due solely to the poem’s Ashkenazi Hebrew. Many of those stresses reflect incorrect Ashkenazi pronunciation and are not merely a matter of Ashkenazi as opposed to Sephardi or modern rules (tikvatenu, for example, where the suffix occurs on the downbeat). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even many of the most learned, enlightened, and modern-oriented Ashkenazi synagogue and song composers (and cantors, for that matter) allowed purely musical considerations to govern and did not always concern themselves with correct syllabic stress, even when they would not have pronounced the same words incorrectly in spoken Hebrew. And the entire history of Hebrew contrafacts and other tune adaptations to Hebrew texts is fraught with cases of disregard for intelligent syllabic accentuation. The same fault, however, can be found in English and American music—not only in folk and popular song, but also in works by some of the most celebrated composers: Handel, for example, in his oratorios; or Gilbert and Sullivan, who thought nothing of shamelessly forcing words and entire sentences into melodies whose rhythm is at complete odds with their prosody—poetic license notwithstanding. But, like those examples, Hatikva simply would not stand up to syllabic correction and still retain its emotional power.

Contrary to popular assumption—which is enshrined as fact in many written accounts—there is no record that Hatikva (or Tikvatenu, as it was then known) actually was sung at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 or at the three subsequent congresses, although there is evidence that it was sung at a meeting in Vienna in 1896 in the presence of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. In fact, during that time frame there were two announcements of competitions for the creation or suggestion of a Zionist anthem—one in the German Jewish journal Die Welt in 1898, and another at the Fourth Zionist Congress (1900) in London. Neither effort produced any submission that was deemed sufficiently meritorious. It is only at the Fifth Zionist Congress (Basel, 1901) that we know for certain that this song was sung, at the conclusion of one of the sessions. And at the Sixth Zionist Congress (1903) in Basel—the so-called Uganda Conference, at which the British Empire’s offer of that African territory as a Jewish national home in place of Palestine, transmitted by Theodor Herzl himself, was roundly rejected with booing—dissenting factions appear to have sung it collectively, as if accepting it as an expression of common ground. The enthusiastic singing of Hatikva by the entire assemblage at the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905 is said to have confirmed its status as the anthem of the Zionist movement, and it was sung at all subsequent congresses as well as at most regional and local meetings and rallies from then on. Yet its formal adoption as the official anthem—despite its earlier proposal by David Wolffsohn—did not occur until the Eighteenth Zionist Congress in Prague (1933), by which time the title Tikvatenu had given way permanently to Hatikva. “The congress declares,” reads the resolution presented there by Leo Motzkin, “that following many years of tradition, the blue and white flag is the flag of the Histadrut Hatzionit (Zionist Federation, i.e., the Zionist movement), and its anthem Hatikva is the national anthem of the Jewish people.”

Hatikva also was sung unofficially as the de facto anthem of Jewish Palestine under the British Mandate—from the end of the First World War until 1947. Moreover, for many Jews in the Diaspora who were not necessarily committed members of Zionist organizations or active in Zionist circles but were nonetheless not opposed to the Zionist principles and ideals, Hatikva gradually became a sort of hymn of Jewish national solidarity, sometimes even on a politically neutral plane, and it came to be sung frequently at general Jewish functions, gatherings, and even services. And cantors in Europe would frequently insert the tune into passages of the liturgy that refer to messianic redemption, return to Zion, and other similar sentiments.

At the ceremony surrounding the formal declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948, Hatikva was sung by the assembly at the opening of the proceedings and played at the conclusion by members of the Palestine Symphony (now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). Since then it has been the national anthem of the sovereign state, although that official status was not conferred on it formally by the Knesset until 2004! (That after-the-fact situation is not unique to Israel. “The Star Spangled Banner,” although it functioned unofficially as an American national anthem for years before its official adoption, was not formally declared as such by Congress until 1931. Other contenders for that role included “America the Beautiful” and, in some quarters, Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.”)

The revision of the refrain in Naphtali Imber’s published version of the poem to the present form of the text is credited to a teacher in Rishon L’tziyon who, in 1905, according to Hacohen’s chronology, emended the phrases hatikva hanoshana (the ancient hope) to read hatikva bat sh’not alpayim (the hope of two millennia), and lashuv l’eretz avoteinu l’ir bo david ḥona (to return to the land of our fathers, to the city where David dwelt) to read lih’yot am ḥofshi b’artzenu eretz tziyon viy’rushalayim (to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem). These emendations quickly became effective in Palestine, while the earlier words continued to linger for some time in the Diaspora.

In the decades preceding statehood and even afterward, not all Zionist factions, and not even all residents of Jewish Palestine and then Israel, have endorsed the designation of Hatikva as the Jewish national anthem. Over the years, more than a dozen musical as well as text alternatives (including another poem by Imber) have been suggested, out of political and religious as well as aesthetic considerations. During the period of the Second Aliya (1904–14), Teḥezakna (Birkhat am), a poem by Ḥayyim Naḥmun Bialik, Israel’s national poet, was sung to a marchlike tune reminiscent of some Russian revolutionary songs, and it became a popular rival candidate in Palestine for the Zionist anthem. For a while, newspapers there engaged in a running debate about the relative merits of Teḥezakna and Hatikva. (Bialik himself seems not to have been involved in the controversy, and apparently he refused to join Teḥezakna advocates in standing when that song was sung.) In the Diaspora during those years and even beyond, Teḥezakna often spontaneously followed the singing of Hatikva.

On the other hand, there were objections to the melody at various times and from various quarters on the grounds that it was a foreign tune—i.e., not Jewish in origin or initial function—and that an original tune, created expressly for this purpose, would be more appropriate. Indeed, some new melodies were composed to the same poem, but they failed to dislodge Cohen’s adaptation and they became consigned to obscurity. Other objections even concerned the minor mode of Hatikva, on the erroneous assumption that the uplifting patriotic spirit of a national anthem requires major.

Some religious Zionist groups, already disaffected by the secular nature of the Zionist movement, lobbied for a biblical text. They usually proposed Psalm 126, shir hama’alot b’shuv adonai et shivat tziyon (A song of ascents: When God brought back those who returned to Zion ...), which refers to the restoration following the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian captivity. For religious Zionists, that would at least have provided the desired acknowledgment of a Divine parameter to the modern Zionist enterprise. A musical version of it by Hazzan Pinchas Minkowski was often advocated. Some poets and composers wrote new songs altogether in the hope of acceptance as replacements. And after the Six-Day War, in 1967, an extreme left-wing Knesset member, Uri Avenary—foreshadowing a kind of post-1990s Western “political correctness”—renewed his objection to Hatikva on the grounds that its Jewish particularity and emphasis unfairly excluded non-Jewish residents and citizens of the Jewish state. He introduced a bill to replace it with Naomi Shemer’s suddenly famous song Y’rushalayim shel zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), which, although composed a few weeks before the war in an unrelated context, had been adopted virtually overnight as an ode to Israel’s swift victory and its reversal of Jordan’s nineteen-year occupation of the eastern part of Jerusalem—including the site of the remaining retaining wall of the Temple, and the ancient walled city ir david, the City of David. (On her deathbed, in 2005, Shemer revealed that her melody had been based subconsciously on an old anonymous Basque lullaby, although she had altered eight of its tones—a not insignificant departure.) Avenary’s bill was never put to a vote.

The event that occasioned Weill’s Hatikva orchestration was a dinner and private concert at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel on November 25, 1947, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky’s baton in honor of Chaim Weizmann’s seventy-third birthday and to raise funds for his pet project in Palestine: the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, founded in 1944.

Weizmann was a renowned British chemist—born in Russian Poland—whose scientific discoveries had aided munitions productions by the Allies in the First World War and whose influence in England played a role in the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. He had been president of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) since 1920, and by 1947 he was the acknowledged elder statesman of modern mainstream Zionism. Although it was far from certain that evening, he was soon to become the newborn State of Israel’s first president.

Weizmann was especially committed to the dual role of pure science and practical scientific research vis-á-vis international understanding, and to the connection between science and statesmanship. He envisioned the institute as a means to advancement and prosperity for the entire Near East, and for forging links between its scientists and those of the Western world. “Science can be a most potent force toward achieving the unity of mankind,” he observed in his address that evening, expressing the hope that the institute would play a part “with all other men of good will and scholarship among all nations and creeds toward the shaping of a new age of knowledge, justice and peace.” By then the institute already counted among its patrons Albert Einstein; former New York governor Herbert H. Lehman; broadcast mogul William S. Paley; and Henry Morgenthau, Jr., former secretary of the treasury (under President Franklin D. Roosevelt), who introduced Weizmann as no less than the “spiritual leader of the Jewish people.” The event succeeded in raising an estimated half million dollars for the institute. But the tribute also turned into something of a quasi-political rally for Weizmann (or had it been so designed?), not only with Morgenthau’s introduction, but also when the chairman of the reception committee referred to him presciently but prematurely as “the first president of the new Jewish state” and was applauded enthusiastically by the assemblage of two thousand people.

There was an especially heady atmosphere at that dinner and concert, which occurred at an auspicious moment in Jewish history. The fledgling United Nations was in session in New York that very week, and on its agenda were the twin issues of the partition of Palestine and Jewish statehood. The previous day, at the meeting of the U.N.’s Palestine Committee at Lake Success, the partition proposal had lost by a single vote. But the full United Nations was yet to vote, and that night the future of the state hung in the balance as the Boston Symphony followed “The Star Spangled Banner” with Weill’s brand new Hatikva score. “I would not like to prophesy,” Weizmann told the audience, “but maybe tomorrow night the nations of the world will cast their vote in favor of a Jewish state. I hope that tomorrow we will at last stop dreaming.” Indeed, by November 29, 1947, his hope had become prediction.

In the spring of 1947, Weill had visited his parents in Palestine, where they had emigrated from Germany in 1936. He had met Weizmann at his house there, introduced by the American Zionist leader Meyer Weisgal. Weisgal had conceived and produced Weill’s The Eternal Road a decade earlier in New York—receiving one of the first donations for its production fund from Weizmann as his friend as well as his personal representative in the United States—and had since become an ardent admirer of Weill’s gifts. As the plan for the November testimonial event took shape, Weizmann personally requested that Weill be invited to create an orchestral arrangement of Hatikva for the occasion, clearly in expectation that it would eventually become Israel’s national anthem.

Weisgal, the executive vice chairman of the American Friends of the Weizmann Institute of Science, was entrusted with the necessary communications with Weill. In one letter, he transmitted Koussevitzky’s permission to use “percussions [sic] as much as you want.” In Weizmann’s post-event letter of thanks to Weill, he expressed the wish that his arrangement would be “adopted by the Jewish state to be played on the occasion of the first opening of Parliament.” (It was not. The standard harmonization and orchestration in Israel was made in 1948 for the Israel Philharmonic by the Italian conductor Bernardino Molinari. Other Israeli composers, such as Paul Ben-Haim, have made orchestrations as well.)

There was probably more than would have met most eyes to Weizmann’s invitation and to Weill’s quick acceptance in the midst of time-consuming commitments to other projects. For it is not generally known that during the preceding decade, Weill had become intrigued with the Zionist cause. Although, as a work aimed at broad public appeal, The Eternal Road was clothed in biblical guises and perhaps even the veil of its Jewish playwright’s (Franz Werfel) personal Roman Catholic and Evangelical leanings, the production—from Weill’s and Weisgal’s perspectives—had been at its core a Zionist expression. To the age-old plight and problem of eternal forced Jewish wandering and persecution, it suggested the Zionist solution in its dialogue and in its conclusion—when the entire cast proceeds upward to its land (aliya?), accompanied by the singing of Psalm 126, Shir hama’alot (in English translation). Composing that work had probably sparked Weill’s own reawakening to his Jewish identity in the context of modern secular Zionism. And he appears to have become increasingly committed to Zionist sympathies—not least through his subsequent association with the outspoken Revisionist Zionist adherent, writer, and playwright Ben Hecht. His two subsequent propaganda-oriented Jewish pageants with Hecht, We Will Never Die (1943) and A Flag Is Born (1946), promoted belligerent courses of action that Weizmann and the mainstream Zionism leadership did not endorse, even on behalf of Jewish survival and Zionist aims. A Flag Is Born was presented by the American League for a Free Palestine, Peter Bergson’s American fund-raising front for the Irgun; and the Revisionist-affiliated Committee for a Jewish Army in Palestine was associated with both pageants. A Flag Is Born had advocated wresting Palestine from the British by Jewish military force if necessary. Now, however, with the British at least outwardly ready to accept the partition plan and to vacate the region, the possibility of statehood seemed closer and more real than ever. So it would have been natural for Weill to welcome the opportunity for this role, small as it was, in tribute to the man who might actually become the first president of the sovereign state.

Inexplicably, Weill’s Hatikva arrangement is not really an accompaniment conducive to communal singing. It seems more like a purely orchestral version—perhaps a brief overture or interlude based on Hatikva—which is how it has been recorded here. The introductory passage gives no clear indication of when the anthem should begin. The melody line becomes buried or otherwise obscured by the harmony in some places. And there is an unexplained “surprise” interlude before the repetition of the final phrase, which will throw off anyone not expecting it.

Granted, the printed program refers to the “playing” (i.e., not singing) of Hatikva (followed by Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, and Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Eroica Symphony). And Weisgal had provided the text of the program page to Weill in advance for his approval, which might unintentionally have misled him. Yet surely Weill would have known that upon hearing the first strains of Hatikva, all assembled there would have jumped spontaneously to their feet and begun singing the anthem. (Actually, since it followed the American national anthem, they would already have been standing.) Could this have been a recycled, if minimally tweaked or expanded, instrumental piece from A Flag Is Born? Perhaps an interlude or an accompaniment to some form of choreography? Until all of the musical materials from that pageant can be located, assembled, and scrutinized, that can at best be a supported guess. And so the mystery remains.

By: Neil W. Levin