World-renowned musicologist, a pioneer in the research of the music of the Jewish communities in Israel, Edith Kiwi was born in Berlin on May 13, 1908. Her musical talents were recognized from her childhood, when her father, Dr. Rudolph Kiwi, a well-known physician in Berlin, supported her aspirations to become a concert pianist. From 1918 to 1925 she studied piano with Elizabeth Dounias-Sindermann and composition with Hans Mersmann at the famous Sternschen Conservatory in Berlin. She continued her studies at the Leipzig Musikhochschule and graduated in 1930 with a concert-pianist diploma.
During her studies in Leipzig she developed an interest in early music and gradually changed her vocation from practical musicianship to historical musicology. She began her musicological studies at the University of Freiburg under Wilibald Gurlitt and continued at the University of Leipzig under Theodore Kroyer. She also studied harpsichord with Gunter Ramin in Leipzig and with Wanda Landowska in Paris (1931). In 1933 she completed her doctoral studies in musicology at the University of Heidelberg under the great scholar Heinrich Besseler. Her doctoral dissertation Studien zur Geschichte des italienische Liedmadrigals im 16. Jh., Satzlehre u. Genealogie der Kanzonetten is a study of the Canzonetta style of Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi (ca. 1556–1622), a composer of Italian madrigals.
Due to the new Nazi decrees, she was unable to publish her dissertation as required by the university (it was published five years later in Würzburg) and fled Germany for Italy. She studied library science and musical paleography at the University of Bologna (dipl. 1934) and served as teacher and librarian at the Liceo Musicale Conte Viatelli.
In 1935 Edith Kiwi immigrated to Palestine, where she first settled in Tel Aviv and supported herself by playing the piano at a bar for British soldiers. A year later she moved to Jerusalem and married Kurt Gerson, a German-Jewish immigrant like herself, who worked as hydrologist for the Jewish Agency. During the years 1936–1939 she served as research assistant to the ethnomusicologist Dr. Robert Lachmann (1892–1939) at his Phonographic Archives for Oriental Music. Her work with Lachmann changed her musicological orientation and thereafter she devoted her entire research to the ethnic music of the oriental Jewish communities of Palestine and later of Israel. In 1942 she was admitted as teacher of music history at the Palestine Conservatory in Jerusalem, where she taught a survey course on oriental music.
With the encouragement of Professor Emil Hauser, the head of the Conservatory, Gerson-Kiwi established a collection of ethnological recordings named The Phonograph Archives of the Palestine Institute of Folklore and Ethnology. This institute was short-lived due to the difficult situation during the War of Independence, but Gerson-Kiwi’s collection was re-established in 1950 as the Archives for Oriental and Jewish Music. The Archives contained Gerson-Kiwi’s own recordings on vinyl discs, audiophonic wires and reel-to-reel tapes; it also housed some of Lachmann’s zinc-plate records. The AOJM was a one-person institution that suffered chronically from inadequate housing, lack of budget and unclear administrative relationships with the Hebrew University. But in spite of the adverse conditions, it functioned until 1982. Its main activities were conducted during the 1950s, at the time of the mass immigration of Middle Eastern Jews to Israel. Gerson-Kiwi was aware that the influx of Jews who were carriers of old traditions was a unique opportunity to continue Abrahm Zvi Idelsohn’s pioneer work in documenting the chants and melodies of the Yemenite, Kurdish, Persian, Eastern-Sephardi and Moroccan Jewish communities. Carrying with her a heavy recording machine, she went from one ma’abarah (immigrant camp) to another and insisted on recording members of the older generation. She was obsessed by the fear that when they died out the old traditions might be lost forever. During the late 1980s Gerson-Kiwi’s collection was transferred to the National Sound Archives of the Jewish National and University Library.
An avid collector of ethnic musical instruments, Gerson-Kiwi helped establish the instrument collection of the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. However, her private collection was donated to the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center, Tel Aviv.
From 1936 Gerson-Kiwi taught history of music and ethnomusicological subjects at various musical institutions in Israel and abroad, but only thirty years later—when departments of musicology were first established in Israel—was she able to fully realize her musicological skills. In 1965 she was appointed senior lecturer at the new Department of Musicology of the Hebrew University and a year later she assumed a similar position at the University of Tel Aviv. In 1969 she was appointed professor of musicology at the latter institution, where she taught until her retirement in 1976.
Gerson-Kiwi was one of the founders of Israeli musicology. Her enthusiasm and vision inspired the newer generation of ethnomusicologists, most of whom were her students .She represented Israel in various international music institutions, such as the International Musicological Society and the International Folk Music Council. She also served as chairperson of the Israeli Musicological Society. In 1970 she received the Engel Prize of the Tel Aviv Municipality for her scholarly work in Jewish music. On the twentieth anniversary of her work there, the Faculty of Visual Arts of Tel Aviv University published Essays in Honor of Edith Gerson-Kiwi as Orbis Musicae vol. 9 (1986). Gerson-Kiwi died in Jerusalem on July 15, 1992.
Gerson-Kiwi’s writings consist of numerous articles in Hebrew, English, German and Italian. They cover a great variety of topics relating to the music of the Eastern Jewish communities of Israel and to pan-Asiatic concepts of music. Her ideas were influenced by those of the founders of comparative musicology and ethnomusicology such as Erich von Hornbostel and Curt Sachs, but at the same time her thoughts reveal her scholarly independence and show her artistic sensitivity.
Mehkarim ethnomusikologim al edot Yisrael, edited by Ofer Turiel. Tel Aviv: 1972; Migrations and Mutations of the Music in East and West: Selected Writings. Tel Aviv: 1980. Both selections include bibliographies of her writings.
“Robert Lachmann: His Achievement and His Legacy.” Yuval: Studies of the Jewish Music Research Centre 3 (1974): 100–108.
Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 4. Kassel: 1955; Elias, William Y. New Grove Dictionary of Music, vol. 7. London: 1980; Schleifer, Eliyahu. The World of Music (International Institute of Traditional Music), vol. 35 (1): 1993; Seroussi, Edwin. Musica Judaica 12 (5754/1991–1992); Hirshberg, Jehoash. Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880–1948. Oxford: 1995, 202–203; Katz, Ruth. “The Lachmann Problem”: An Unsung Chapter in Comparative Musicology. Jerusalem: 2003.
How to cite this page
Schleifer, Eliyahu. "Edith Gerson-Kiwi." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 19, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gerson-kiwi-edith>.