The Jewish Folksong Suite for String Quartet (4th Edition now available!)
by Matt Springer

10 pieces for string quartet based on Jewish folk music

When the host of the holiday party asks if your string quartet can play some Jewish music, now you can say yes!  This suite of traditional and popular Jewish string quartet melodies can be performed in its entirety or as individual movements for wedding receptions, parties, and other events that could benefit from Jewish string quartet music.  Some of these arrangements have a traditional Jewish sound, while others are more freely adapted interpretations of the melodies.  The suite includes two traditional Chanukah songs.  The movements range in difficulty level from intermediate to advanced. 

There are a few errors in the 1996 first edition; please see the Performance Resources section below

I recently learned that the 2011 printing has several printing and pagination problems.  If you purchased the 2011 version as one stapled book containing all four parts, or having two swapped pages, please contact me.

The Suite has been re-released in 2015 as a Khach-22 production.

Purchasing info Streaming audio Performance resources Program notes

1st Edition (1996)

4th Edition (2015)

2nd Edition (2007, reprinted 2011)


- The 2011 printing has page 23 of the violin 1 part (the last page of Chanukah, Oh Chanukah) erroneously placed after the first page of the violin 2 part, and some of the sets are single books paginated in a way that makes it difficult to separate into the four parts.  If you purchased this version, please contact me.  I have taken over production of the Suite and have just released the 2015 4th Edition.  I regret any trouble that this may have caused for people.

- If you have the 1st Edition (brown cover), I urge you to check the Performance Resources section below for descriptions of the errors, some of which really make a difference to how it is intended to sound.

- During 2012, I've been perusing YouTube occasionally and have been flattered and honored to see videos of performances from this suite surfacing around the world (usually Hava Nagila or Chanukah, Oh Chanukah, which start with the same cadenza).  Everyone has a different interpretation and it's quite interesting to see what people do with it.  I wholeheartedly support the individual variation (although please check out the Performance Resources section below because a few of my own typos are being reflected in people's performances, like the very first note of the piece...).  Some of the really nice clips I've seen are from Quarteto in4 in Brazil, an absolutely wild performance by Quinteto de Cuerda de Moscu in Spain (with added bass), and probably the most amazing performance of this piece I'll ever see, with only three players: the de la Motte family (ages 5-9).

- Strings Magazine ran an article about this suite, with a focus on Chanukah, Oh Chanukah (Movement 10), in its December 2006 issue.

- A performance of Hevenu Shalom Alechem (Movement 3) was included in the 2004 CD "A Butterfly in Time" by the Chamber Music Society of Mississauga (Ontario, Canada).  It's a lovely CD in which a violin narrates the story of its life over several centuries. 

- An abbreviated version of Jerusalem of Gold (Movement 8) and all of Hevenu Shalom Alechem (Movement 3) were performed by the Staropramen String Quartet on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" on April 12, 2003.

Purchasing sheet music

The sheet music was originally published by Tara Publications in 1996 (brown cover), and the 2nd Edition was published in 2007 (white/black/yellow cover) with a 3rd printing in 2011. These editions were distributed to music stores through the Hal Leonard Publishing Company and some vendors may still have them.  Please beware of the defective 2011 printing; if you purchase from a source other than those listed here, please ask them to check the printing date.  If they have the 2011 version, please ask them to contact me.  (We hope to ultimately reach all distributors with news about the defects.)

Current situation: The printed music for the 2015 4th Edition (white/copper/blue cover) is only available from the Shar sheet music catalogue and from Johnson String Instrument (on either of those sites, search for Springer).  I plan to offer a downloadable option in the future. 

Streaming audio of individual movements

For high-speed connections, use the mp3 links (may require you to download the free Quicktime Player; button at right)

For dial-up connections, you may need to use the RealAudio links (requires the free Real Media Player)   (trouble getting the RealAudio music to play?)

From live performance:  Matt Springer and Pamina Kim, violins;
Gina Warnick, viola; Jay Lee, cello 

(On #4:  Matt Springer and Karen Tsuei, violins;
Monte Benaresh, viola; Alan Bien, cello)

1.   Hava Nagila (traditional) mp3 RealAudio
2.   Rock of Ages (traditional) mp3 RealAudio
3.   Hevenu Shalom Alechem (traditional) mp3 RealAudio
4.   Dona Dona (S. Secunda)   mp3 RealAudio
5.   Mayim, Mayim (E. Amiran)   mp3 RealAudio
6.   Oseh Shalom (N. Hirsch)    mp3 RealAudio
7.   Bashana Haba'a (N. Hirsch)     mp3 RealAudio
8.   Jerusalem of Gold (N. Shemer)   mp3 RealAudio
9.   En Kelohenu - Theme & Variations (traditional)        mp3 RealAudio
10. Chanukah, Oh Chanukah (traditional)   mp3 RealAudio

These recordings were derived primarily from the premiere performance of the Jewish Folksong Suite in 1994 at a public recital.  Despite the fact that it was not a professional performance, it is still a good source of interpretation for those who are not already familiar with the Jewish playing styles used in these pieces.  The recordings are for reference only and are not commercially available.



Performance resources (clarifications and tips!):

Problems with the 1st edition from 1996 (fixed in the 2007 2nd Edition and subsequent versions)

At the beginning of the first and last movements (Hava Nagila and Chanukah, Oh Chanukah), this is not written clearly in the 1st Edition parts; the 1st violin cadenza waits for the other instruments to play their downbeat, takes a breath, and then starts (check out the recording above).

Please note that in the 1st Edition, there is an ambiguity in the 2nd violin part in Movement 10 (Chanukah, Oh Chanukah) at the very end of the cadenza (measure 104).  My notation is not clear here; it is a B natural, which holds over from a B natural in the 1st violin cues. 

Similarly, in the 2nd violin part in Chanukah, Oh Chanukah at letter D, the B natural that was played for the previous 2 measures does indeed change to the B flat indicated by the key signature.  The player may be tempted to keep playing the B natural even though it is no longer notated.  This is important because it is what sets the natural minor for the final section, a change from the harmonic minor of the previous section.

Extra performance aid:  In Rock of Ages, the viola and cello parts of the last section (letter D to the end) are rather intricate and can be difficult to fit together successfully when sight-reading.  I have prepared a partial-page-sized two-part score for this section that is included in the 2nd Edition and can be downloaded, printed, cut out, and inserted into the 1st Edition viola and cello parts to make reading easier.  Get them here.

Really get into the string when playing!  Be gutsy!

Additional performance tips

      The Violin I cadenza that opens the first movement and both opens and closes the last movement must be played in a molto rubato, gutsy Jewish fashion.  The player should really “get into the string and go for it”; I know of no better way to put it.  You want guts rather than glamour, grit rather than refinement; strive not for a lovely tone but for a gypsy-ish, big, earthy sound that makes you feel like re-hairing your bow just a little bit more frequently.  It goes without saying that this is sul G as much as possible.  Note that the Violin I cadenza always starts about 1 second AFTER the other instruments begin their held chord. 

      At the beginning of the first movement, Hava Nagila, when the main theme starts after the cadenza, please pay close attention to the metronome markings.  The cadenza has slowed down considerably at the end leading into the first measure of “um-chuck” rhythm at an extremely slow and heavy pace, pesante.  The melody begins this way, almost unbelievably slow, but the accelerando over the first four measures of the melody is of extreme magnitude and the tempo is quite brisk by the end of the accelerando.  This anticipation is one of the aspects of this style of music that makes it so fun.

      The ninth movement, the Theme and Variations on Én Kélohénu, could use some explanation, as it is by far the longest and most complex of the movements.  This movement was written to give the suite more “meat” for concert purposes; it probably would not be suitable for receptions and parties.  However, I enjoyed writing it, and I hope that you give it a try!

      Despite the seasonal nature of Chanukah, Oh Chanukah, I have found that it is very well received at all times of year and I encourage people to play it whenever they feel like it.  For a bit of fun, try to find the Dona Dona theme in the middle of Chanukah, Oh Chanukah; it’s in there and works quite well.  At the end of this movement, the opening cadenza returns in the form of a dialogue between Violin I and Violin II.  Violin I should speak, and Violin II should answer, in a way reminiscent of Orthodox prayer.  Violin II also waits a breath after Violin I finishes a phrase before coming in; it should be a dialogue between two distinct parts, rather than a continuous melodic line.  My suggestion for the very last note of the piece is to play it with one long glorious down-bow and end with a flourish, rather than the down-bow/up-bow frequently used in symphonies.

Program notes:

During December of 1990, I was playing a string quartet job for the Stanford Symphony Orchestra at a "Holiday" Party.  We were playing a large number of Christmas carols, and several people came up at various times and asked if we had any non-Christmas holiday music.  Despite the fact that all four of us happened to be of Jewish background, we had nothing but Christmas carols to offer.  This frustrating experience prompted me to go out and look for string quartet arrangements of Jewish folksongs or of music for Chanukah.  When I failed to find any Jewish string quartet arrangements, and then was forced to stop playing all instruments for about a month because of wrist problems, I decided to arrange a couple of Jewish folksongs for string quartet and insert them into the orchestra's "gig books."

These actually worked out quite well, and every so often for the next several years I would suddenly be seized with the urge to arrange another Jewish folksong.  Four years later, I finished the project in the form of a suite of ten pieces, and premiered and recorded it on November 6, 1994 at Stanford University.  For the most part, the pieces consist of the traditional and popular Jewish melodies that I remember from my childhood, with my own harmonies, counter-melodies, and variations.  The suite is meant to be played either in its entirety as a concert piece or as individual pieces befitting the occasion.  Even though I am not religious, this music is very much a part of me and an important symbol of the Jewish culture and heritage that I have retained.  The suite consists of the following pieces:

(1) Hava Nagila.  The suite begins with a violin cadenza built on an original, yet very stereotypically Jewish theme, which gradually changes and becomes recognizable as the melody of Hava Nagila.  This, to me, is the obvious piece to begin with for the suite.  Everyone recognizes the melody of this traditional song (I was surprised to discover that the words were written by Idleson during this century, although the melody is older).  I have given it a rather standard treatment, although it gets quite frantic towards the end.

(2) Rock Of Ages (Maoz Tzur).  There are several songs with the title of "Rock of Ages".  This is a traditional Chanukah melody that was played by a music-box/menorah that my family had when I was little.  This arrangement brings a new meaning to Jewish fellowship in that the violist and cellist must become psychic-siblings in order to play the last section.

(3) Hévénu Shalom Aléchem.  This is a very popular traditional song about fellowship.  It goes by quite quickly, but leaves a lasting impression.

(4) Dona Dona.  This beautiful song, written by Sholem Secunda in the middle of this century, is about a calf being led to be slaughtered at the marketplace.  It also has a connection to the Holocaust of World War II.  I had originally left out a part of the melody that seemed to exist only in some versions, feeling that the string quartet version worked better without it.  After the premier, however, I discovered that the missing melody was not optional, and I revised this movement in 1996 before the suite was published.  Because I revised the movement after I had already recorded the suite, I have since recorded the revised movement and shamelessly inserted it before the applause of the older recording, for consistency.  Remember the theme; it'll come back later.

(5) Mayim, Mayim.  This is the traditional music by Emanuel Amiran that is played for the Israeli folkdance of the same name, which means "Water, Water."  I've tried to make all of the instruments "say" "Mayim, Mayim, Mayim, Mayim" in the music; see if you can catch it.

(6) Ose Shalom.  Nurit Hirsch's modern melody is the popular choice for this traditional prayer.  The melody is usually handled in a less-march-like fashion, but I have done it this way for variety.  For those of you who are well-versed in music theory, note that it was during the arranging of this piece that I decided I liked suspensions, and I went all out.

(7) Bashana Haba'a.  This is another melody by Hirsch, and it used to be one of my favorite Jewish melodies when I was a child.  This arrangement gives the violist a bit of a work-out.  I had asked the violist who first read through it with me after I arranged it if it was an impossible viola part, and he assured me that it was merely obnoxious, not impossible.  So I left it in.

(8) Jerusalem of Gold (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav).  Because Naomi Shemer's song constantly shifts between major and minor keys even in the middle of a phrase, it is possible to interpret it in a variety of emotional ways.  Since it is about a city that means so much to so many people and yet is constantly a source of war and conflict, I have chosen to arrange it in a poignant and sad way.  I have taken great liberties of interpretation at the end, trying to make it especially poignant; however, the last note is in the major key--an ending of hope.  By the way, since the 1st violinist gets more than his/her share of "the good parts" in the suite, the first third of this arrangement belongs exclusively to the other three players.

(9) Én Kélohénu.  I remember this traditional melody well as being one of my favorites when I was a child, and I really wanted to arrange it.  The problem was that I didn't feel that there was all that much I could do with it; if I treated it like my other arrangements it would only be about 30 seconds long.  So, I decided to experiment and compose an honest-to-goodness theme and variations based on the melody.  As a result, it is by far the longest and most difficult of the movements, and would probably not be fitting for gigs, but it is an important part of the suite.  The variations are (I) theme, (II) 1st variation, (III) symphonic variation, (IV) surprise, (V) Viennese waltz, (VI) serenity and sadness, (VII) soft and frantic, (VIII) saltando, and (IX) march.  The third variation is an example of the convergent evolution that tends to occur while I arrange ("That variation sounds just like Beethoven's 9th Symphony...Why, it IS Beethoven's 9th Symphony!").

(10) Chanukah, Oh Chanukah.  The last movement in the suite begins with the same cadenza that began the first movement, although this time the melody gradually changes into this traditional Chanukah song.  I've intentionally treated this piece similarly to the first one, using it to round out the suite.  Once again, the 1st violin part gets frantic at the end.  As I was arranging it, it struck me that the Dona Dona melody is the perfect counter-melody to Chanukah, Oh Chanukah if played at the right place in the music, so see if you can pick it out.  At the end of the piece, the 1st violin cadenza returns briefly, this time as a duet with the 2nd violin, in which I have tried to musically depict an ancient, characteristic Jewish prayer style where one person chants a phrase and everyone else chimes in.  The Chanukah, Oh Chanukah melody returns briefly, followed by a mad rush to the finish.

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