The Enigmatic Researcher of the Magic of Music

Robert Lachmann – Between Orientalism and the East

Dr. Gila Flam
Robert Lachmann with his secretary (Jerusalem, ca. 1936)

The weather-beaten stone marker atop grave number 15, row 3, sub-section 8 of the Jerusalem community plot of the Mount of Olives cemetery appears neglected, as if it has not been visited for many years. The gravestone contains just three words: “Dr. Robert Lachmann.” The records of Chevra Kadisha list the name of the deceased as “Robert Lachmann”, date of birth: unknown; parents’ names: unknown; date of death: 20th of Iyar, 5699, May 9th, 1939.

Who was Dr. Robert Lachmann, who passed away in 1939?

Born in Berlin in 1892, Robert Lachmann was the second of three sons born to Dr. Georg Lachmann, a Jewish scholar who taught at the Humanistic Gymnasium in Berlin, and Jenny Hendler-Lachmann, who was born and raised in London and graduated from Queen’s College.

Lachmann studied violin and languages, English and French at the universities in Berlin and London and took lessons in Arabic with Prof. Mittwoch.  During the First World War he served as a translator for prisoners of war from North Africa and India at Wunsdorf, where he was first introduced to and became fascinated by Arabic and other non-European music. This work made him decide to do more research of Arabic music and culture. Following the completion of his master’s degree in musicology, at the University of Berlin (Humboldt University) he decided to focus on the music of Tunisia, and thus he became one of the pioneers of the study of Arabic and Eastern music.


Robert Lachmann with his secretary (Jerusalem, ca. 1936)

Lachmann was one of the founders of the field of comparative musicology that later evolved in the United States into what was called “ethnomusicology.” But even this term does not fully convey the scope of the field or the materials studied in it. Indeed, non-European music was initially at the forefront of comparative music research, which began in post-WWI Germany and the Weimar period. The idea was to find that which was common among different forms of music, as well as what was different – the ancient roots of each form of music. This kind of research was best conducted when it was possible to record and play back the music from recordings, and to isolate and analyze elements from the various musical languages. Lachmann and his colleagues were of course also aware of music’s social, psychological and magical contexts.

As mentioned, Lachmann was born in Berlin and lived there until 1935. He completed his doctoral dissertation in 1922 and published articles on the music of Haydn and Schubert. However, his most significant work as a comparative musicologist was presented in his book Musik des Orients and an expansive article on the music of non-European civilizations, which he published in 1929. That same year, Lachmann decided to leave the Jewish community as he considered himself a Universalist and felt that his relationship with the community was nothing more than a troublesome nuisance. It was around this time that he began writing his memoirs about his military service as an interpreter in a prisoner of war camp during WWI, which are today preserved in the Sound Archive in Berlin.

With the rise of the Nazis to power, and despite being an assimilated, educated Jew, who lacked any strong connection with Jewish culture, he was fired from his post as a librarian of the Berlin State Library  in 1933 and was left with no source of income. His options were to immigrate either to the United States, as many musicologists did or to Palestine. He chose Palestine—not because of any Zionist or Jewish sentiment—but because he was a scholar of Eastern music who saw the many possibilities to continue his research in the Land of Israel/ Palestine, with its many cultures, especially in Jerusalem, as well as its proximity to Egypt and other Arab countries.

Ruth Katz, who studied the life and activities of Robert Lachmann, claims that Lachmann was “uprooted,” and believed only in research, choosing Jerusalem for that reason.

Postcard to Robert Lachmann. The delivery address on the postcard has been corrected to “Beit Turgeman”]


Lachmann spent over three years packing up his library and archive in anticipation of his move to Mandatory Palestine. Even after immigrating, he traveled to Berlin several times, copying recordings on wax cylinders, including recordings by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, copies of which had reached Berlin from Vienna.


Wax cylinders alongside a machine that records and plays them – the Edison phonograph in the National Library’s Sound Archive


Among Lachmann’s recordings which he made in Jerusalem on tin records, which mainly consist of Eastern music, was one song, a German children’s song, which Lachmann himself sang and whistled:

Vöglein im hohen Baum (Bird in the Treetop)

Vöglein im hohen Baum
Klein ist´s, ihr seht es kaum
tausend zugleich
Wenn ihr vorüber geht
wenn ihr die Farben seht
freuet ihr euch


Click here to read the complete text in German


Recording no. 1, Vöglein im hohen Baum


Before immigrating to Palestine and prior to the Nazi’s rise to power, Lachmann presented his research on Arabic music at the World Conference for Arabic music in Cairo in 1932. He met many Jewish musicians there, including Jewish Iraqi musician and composer Ezra Aharon, who represented the music of his country on behalf of the king of Iraq. Ezra Aharon immigrated to Palestine in 1934 and became one of Lachmann’s principal subjects of research and a major figure in Eastern music circles in Jerusalem and the rest of the country. Palestine Radio began its broadcasts in 1936 with a musical segment featuring Ezra Aharon playing the oud. He established the Arab Music Orchestra and composed many songs and compositions. Ezra Aharon, like Lachmann, did not think that his immigration to Palestine would prevent him from ever returning to Iraq, but political and military developments would soon reshape the region.

Before leaving Berlin  Lachmann sought to establish a research center for Oriental-Eastern music and contacted representatives of the Hebrew University. He received a reply from the president of the university, Dr. Yehuda Leib Magnes, who invited him in 1935 to establish an archive for Eastern music. The intention was to establish a sound archive that would record and analyze recordings, with a studio, recording equipment and a sound technician.

And so, in 1936, Lachmann arrived in Palestine with a British government certificate, bringing with him copies of recordings made in Tunisia which had been stored in the Berlin sound archive. These were recordings made by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, “the father of Jewish musicology” who had resided in Jerusalem from 1907 to 1921. He also brought copies of other recordings he had made, and records of Oriental music from both the Near and Far East that he had acquired for the archive. In addition he obtained funding to employ a sound technician who would work alongside him. This man went by the name of Walter Schor.


Robert Lachmann in a recording session

Lachmann’s work continued for about three years. The university had difficulty dealing with his personality as well as his research and goals. The budget he was allocated was renewed annually, until the end of 1938, when he was informed that funding would be cut off.

The Hebrew University, founded in 1925, did not understand the importance of Lachmann’s research and although when he arrived in the country he began to study Jewish music as well, the university’s administration did not see any point in the continuation of his research at the time

Once in the Land of Israel, Lachmann made some 800 recordings of Eastern music on tin records. The subjects of the recordings as he described them in his notes were: “Samaritan Music”–233 records; “Jewish Music: Kurds”–12 records, “Yemenites”–75 records, “Western”–51 records, “Other Communities”– 25 records, “Contemporary (Popular) Music”–34 records, “Arabic Music”: “Bedouins”–23 records, “Rural”–119 records, “Religious Music”–39 “Women and Children”–9 “Eastern Urban Music”–92 records, “Christians”–42 records, “Gypsies”–6 records, “Others”–9 records, Total: 769 records.

Tin records recorded by Robert Lachmann


Recording no. 2 – The song “Yefe Nof” performed by Ezra Aharon (vocals and oud)


Recording no. 3 – Musical piece performed with the oud


In 1936 and 1937, Lachmann was invited to present a series of lectures on the radio in English. The musical demonstrations were taken from the tin recordings, and he hoped that in this way, he would help spread Eastern music along with his teachings, as well as obtain additional funding for his work.


Recording no. 4 – Lachmann at the end of his series speaks about his financial crisis


For years, all of Lachmann’s recordings were preserved by his student Dr. Edith (Esther) Gerson-Kiwi. She continued his work and maintained the Eastern music collection until the establishment of the National Sound Archive by Prof. Israel Adler as part of the National Library in 1965. For years, Gerson-Kiwi refused to hand over Lachmann’s material, until finally in the 1980s she transferred Lachmann’s recordings and her own to the Sound Archive. The archive containing Lachmann’s writings, notes and letters is in the Music Department and is accessible to researchers and visitors under the catalog number MUS26.

One could say that Lachmann was the spiritual founder of the National Sound Archive of the National Library. Generations of ethnomusicologists have continued on his path, with many continuing to study the musical field Lachmann devoted himself to—the music of the East.

Lachmann studied Hebrew and was interested in the tradition of Jewish musical performance—the pronunciations, liturgical hymns (piyutim) and women’s songs. He was especially interested in the songs of the Samaritans which had an ancient and magical sound.

Among his writings are handwritten pages in vowelized Hebrew, of lectures he transcribed into Hebrew for himself about the foundations of Jewish music, which, it can be assumed, he read aloud. Interestingly, he never recorded himself speaking in Hebrew.

He writes in “Lecture no. 1: the Foundations of Jewish Music – Reading the Bible A (Mus 26 C 19)”:


Handwritten page by Lachmann of his vowelized Hebrew lectures with notes in German


My lectures will deal with the music of Eastern Jews. Although it is not my intention to bore my listeners with details about the traditions of the various communities, I think it would be more useful to address the main elements of this music. Perhaps my listeners are hoping for a short, definitive answer to a favorite question: what is Jewish music? However, one of the aims of my lectures is to try to prove to them that there is no short, conclusive answer to this query.

I will not give them a definitive answer because the subject has not yet been thoroughly investigated. Jewish music consists of parts that have not yet been clarified, such as the cantillations and songs of Kurdish Jews, and perhaps the most interesting, the cantillations   of the Karaites, and more. Before researching these, it is impossible to come to an absolute conclusion. There are certainly people for whom it is sufficient in this regard to rely on their beliefs and feelings and not on facts for the sake of drawing conclusions. But as we have decided, we must rely more on facts than on beliefs and feelings.

And secondly, I cannot give a concise answer to the question of the essence of Jewish music. Jewish music has undergone many changes and influences. Apart from that, each of its forms has its own social circumstances and musical principles and all will need to be addressed.

If we want to talk about Jewish music we must first of all think of the Bible.  Indeed, the cantillation of the Bible is unique and there are doubts about whether it can be called music at all … there was and still is a tendency among the Eastern nations to see music as a force which can have a negative influence on the human spirit…


Lachmann goes on to discuss Samaritan music, which he views as ancient and having a magical power which he apparently did not find in Jewish music. He continues:

According to the magical approach, one can influence the natural spirits with certain special actions. Among these, the most important is the uttering of magical incantations. These chants are spoken by healer-shamans who are responsible for the health of the society and its success in the hunt as well as all important social issues in general. But in their belief, he [the shaman] is not the active force in all of these situations. He is just the vessel being used by the spirits to achieve the necessary magic. It is understandable then that the conjurer cannot utter the magical sayings in his natural voice.

This disguising of the voice is found also among the Samaritans and the wonderful impression left on the listeners from their style is achieved by the disguised voice. In other words, there are remnants of the magical approach in the Samaritan cantillation. Moreover, Samaritan cantillation is the only cantillation among the Near Eastern churches that preserves these clear remnants.

The next lectures will be devoted to the following topics: Foundations of Jewish Music 2 [Cantillating the Bible]; Foundations of Jewish Music 3 [Traditional Secular Music of Eastern Jews]; Foundations of Jewish Music 4 [Contemporary Jewish Music, the Definition of Jewish Music].

We learn from a newspaper article that Lachmann lectured on Eastern music in various circles, and these audiences also found it difficult to understand the broad contexts connecting Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and Eastern Jewish music.

Lachmann died of an illness on May 9th, 1939. A telegram was sent to his brother in London from the university’s president Dr. Yehuda Leib Magnes. Walter Schor disappeared without a trace and conspiracy theories still abound about his actions in Palestine among those who knew him. Some say that he was accused of espionage. Lachmann was 46 years old at the time of his death. His research and recordings tell the story of Jerusalem and its voices. The establishment of the Archive of Eastern Music was ahead of its time but left its mark and has influenced the research and collection of Jewish and Israeli music in the Land of Israel and the State of Israel to this day. Robert Lachmann, an intellectual Jew, rooted in German culture, a lover of Eastern culture, a believer in science, died poor and alone and was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. From there he looks on and listens to the old and new voices of the East and of the Sound Archive of the National Library.


For further reading:

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


And for further listening:

Robert Lachmann, The “Oriental Music” Broadcasts 1936-1937: A Musical Ethnography of Mandatory Palestine Edited by Ruth Davis, A-R Editions, Inc. Middleton, Wisconsin, 2013.

Ruth Katz

For restorations of Lachmann’s tin record recordings click here.


If you liked this article, try these:

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Bringing Darkness to Light: Singing Hanukkah Songs Through the Holocaust

The Majesty and the Mystery of Kol Nidre


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