hm_lft.jpg (571 bytes) History of Jewish Music

History of Music Church Music
Musicians Musical Terms

1. A Great Musical Tradition

2. The Synagogue and its Music

3. The Chazzan (or Cantor) and his Cantillation

4. An Italian Development of the Sixteenth Century

5. The Partial Reintroduction of Instrumental Music

6. The Ninteenth- and Twentieth-century Reform Movement

7. Jewish Popular Song

8. Some Modern Investigations and Opinions

1. A Great Musical Tradition. The difficult task of sketching the musical development of various European countries in such articles of this volume as those upon England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia &c., is far exceeded by that of sketching the musical development of a race boasting a recorded history of nearly 4,000 years and of dwelling-places covering a large part of the habitable globe.

At every stage of that history we come upon references to musical activities. In the Patriarchal period we find Laban reproaching Jacob on his departure with ‘Wherefore didst thou . . . not tell me, that I might have sent thee away with mirth, and with songs, with tabret and with harp’.

The Hebrews’ escape from the Egyptians is celebrated by the vividly descriptive Song of Moses, sung by the children of Israel to the accompaniment of Miriam’s dancing and timbrel playing, upon the shore of the Red Sea.

In the struggle for the Promised Land the walls of Jericho fall to the strains of the priests’ martial music.

When that land is occupied we read of much music. Saul’s distemper is soothed by performance upon the harp. And the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord is ‘brought up with shouting, and with sound of the cornet, and with trumpets, and with cymbals, making a noise with psalteries and harps’, David ‘dancing and playing’ before it. (For the priestly trumpet and Shofar see p. 542, pl. 97. 4.)

In the Temple of Solomon ‘The Levites which were the singers . . . being arrayed in fine linen, having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets’ (cf. Psalm).

Throughout the ancient history of the Jewish people, then (and the Talmud is just as eloquent on the subject as the Bible), we find music mentioned with a frequency that perhaps exceeds that of its mention in the history of any other people. Every sort of popular rejoicing is accompanied and with it are celebrated coronations and royal marriages; the company of the prophets march together to the sound of a psaltery, a tabret, a pipe, and a harp, and it is to the playing of a minstrel that the hand of the Lord comes upon Elisha so that the future becomes clear to his eyes.

When the ten tribes that revolted and formed the Kingdom of Israel disappear into the Assyrian captivity, never more to find their way back to the pages of history, the two that formed the Kingdom of Judah and remain in our sight are seen to retain their love of music. They too, at last succumb to an invader, and in their Babylonian captivity the pathetic image in which their grief is imperishably preserved to us is that of a cessation of music – ‘We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof . . . . How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land ?’

When at last they are allowed to return, the rebuilding of the Temple of Jerusalem is undertaken.‘The singers’ are restored to the functions their forefathers had exercised, and at the laying of the foundations it is recorded that there were present, ‘the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph with cymbals, to praise the Lord after the ordinance of David the King of Israel, and they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord’.

The importance of the existence of a large class of professional musicians in any nation is evident: fixed scales, tunes, rhythms, &c., thus tend to be developed. Under King David, out of 38,000 Levites, 4,000 were appointed as musicians. Flavius Josephus talks of 500,000 musicians in Palestine, this is an obvious exaggeration, but it serves to indicate the importance of music under the old regime.

2. The Synagogue and its Music. It is now, apparently, that the institution of the Synagogue system comes about (though some trace its beginnings earlier), so that those who cannot take part more than the statutory three times a year in regular and frequent local worship. Every village has its synagogue, and a ritual is laid down which, after the destruction of Jerusalem under the Roman rule in a.d. 70 (p. 542, pl. 97. 2), is to develop the vocal part of the Jewish musical traditions in all the Mediterranean lands and, at the greater dispersal that followed, to carry it into every part of the civilized world. But a dispersed Jewry was a sorrowing Jewry, and in the synagogues that were now to be found almost everywhere in the known world an abstention from instrumental music served as a lasting reminder of the glories of the Temple worship of the past which should, it was confidently believed, after a period of patient waiting some day be renewed.

3. The Chazzan (or Cantor) and his Cantillation. The reading of the scriptures by Cantillation was a great feature of synagogue worship. Those books which it is obligatory to read publicly had acquired traditional tunes of a highly decorative character, in free rhythm and on a system strongly resembling that of the modes used in Christian worship (see Modes) and, indeed, including most of these; different modes were used for different occasions and were deemed to express different characteristic moods, much as with the Greeks. When Jesus went into the synagogue and publicly read the prophecies of Isaiah (Luke iv) he probably used cantillation of this character.

It is, by the way, significant that the singing of the Book of Esther, which had pathetic significance for a race everywhere persecuted, from an originally simple system of tune became greatly enriched, it offers an example of a tendency that was very general amongst the Ashkenazic Jews (i.e. those with their original headquarters in Germany, as distinct from the Sephardic Jews, those with their original headquarters in Spain and Portugal) to accumulate popular tunes of the peoples amongst whom they lived, incorporating them in their synagogal cantillation so that they became part of the tradition.

This cantillation was the duty of the Chazzan (or Hazzan) of a synagogue, at first a mere beadle who added ritual chanting to other communal duties such as that of the ritual slaughtering for the community.

The position of the chazzan tended in time to become musically important; a fine tenor (or tenorized baritone) voice, the ability to use it effectively, and a large and attractive repertory of cantillation (traditional, semi-traditional, and for some of the scripture passages and prayers original or quasi-original) would win a high reputation and lead to a position of standing in the community. In eastern Europe, where the Jews multiplied exceedingly and lived apart from the Gentiles, the singing of the chazzanim (plural of chazzan) supplied the place of concert and opera. The faculty of melodic improvisation often became wonderfully developed, as did the art of florid coloratura (q.v.).

At times of persecution many chazzanim adopted a wandering life and became almost as minstrels, going from one Jewish community to another and seeking popularity and a livelihood. At the present time there are a few chazzanim (or cantors) whose names are everywhere known and who travel a good deal in the practice of their sacred art. In the eighteenth century a practice obtained of reinforcing the services of the chazzan by the appointment of two assistants a bass and a descant (alto or soprano); apparently they sang in turn-melodically, therefore, not harmonically.

The traditional cantillations for the reading of the Law have always required to be completely memorized, as no signs are permitted in the Scrolls containing it, those of the Prophets, however, are sung from a printed book, bearing signs which are in many cases very strikingly similar to the Neumes from which our staff notation developed (see Notation 2). When Christian plainsong and Jewish cantillation are compared some resemblances can be seen, and, moreover, a few passages in common. It would seem probable, therefore that the early Christians took over into their new worship some part of their old Jewish musical tradition.

Cantillation is in some measure used in the Jewish home on the first two nights of the Passover, when the story of the redemption from Egypt is sung from the Haggadah (the book of prayers and songs for these two nights) by the master of the house, with the participation of his family.

4. An Italian Development of the Sixteenth Century. A very interesting development of synagogue music took place in the late sixteenth century in Italy, where a number of Jewish musicians came to hold high favour amongst the Gentile community. One of these Salomone de’ Rossi, who was engaged at the court of Mantua from 1587 to 1628, not only published many books of madrigals and canzonets and did notable work in the development of instrumental music but also set psalms in the contrapuntal style in four to eight voices issuing them in Hebrew for use in the synagogue. There is nothing Jewish about this work; it is purely Italian; apparently it did not remain very long in use, but it had some indirect influence upon German developments. The use of a choral setting was, of course, at that period a great innovation An Italian rabbi and scholar, of the same period, Leone Modena, was a great champion of the idea of the modernization of the synagogue service. It is notable that the Italian composer Marcello, in making his famous settings of fifty psalms (1724-7), used over a dozen tunes from the Ashkenazic and Sephardic synagogues in Venice (they are not tunes of long tradition however, but rather Jewish borrowings from other sources)

5. The Partial Reintroduction of Instrumental Music. Allusion has been made above to the prohibition of instrumental music in the synagogues. The second Temple (completed 516 B.C.) had possessed a very large organ (Magrepha) of the type of the Hydraulus (q.v.). Apart from the desire to reserve instrumental music until the return to Zion, those who controlled the worship in the synagogues had two other motives in refraining from the introduction of organs-the fact of their association with Christian worship, and the fact that no Jew could lawfully perform on an instrument on the Sabbath. Various reform movements have, however, brought organs into synagogues, the last-mentioned difficulty being sometimes overcome by the use of Gentile organists. A new synagogue built in Prague in 1594 (i.e. at the same period as the Italian innovations above mentioned) was equipped with both an organ and an orchestra, and its Friday (i.e. Sabbath Eve) services were elaborated by the addition of something like a concerto. Such concerts were then introduced into most of the nine synagogues of that city: they eventually fell off because the performers formed the habit of overrunning the time and so violating the sanctity of the Sabbath.

In the eighteenth century a number of German synagogues introduced instrumental music. There seems to have been a considerable cultivation of instrumental music amongst the Jewish communities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In reading the lives of the Russian composers, from Glinka onwards, we often find mention of the attraction towards music they experienced in youth as the result of hearing the private orchestras of Jewish musicians attached to the country houses of the Russian aristocracy.

6. The Ninteenth- and Twentieth-century Reform Movement. The very definite Reform Movement that began in 1810 at Seesen in Westphalia led to a considerable introduction of the organ into worship. Reform synagogues sprang up in which reading was substituted for cantillation, whilst choral setting of some parts of the service, with organ accompaniment, further approximated the musical conditions to those prevailing in Christian churches.

Amongst prominent leaders in the Reform Movement was Sulzer of Vienna (1804-90), much praised by Liszt, who used to go to hear him sing. It was his policy to preserve the ancient music, to do away with second-rate accretions of later centuries, and to add good modern music. Almost every modernized synagogue in central Europe accepted his reforms and modelled its music on that of the synagogue in Vienna of which he was chazzan. He brought dignity back to the service, but the music he composed was German rather than Jewish.

Another great reformer was Louis Lewandowski (1821-94) of Berlin, who arranged services for the entire year to organ accompaniment and in his turn was looked on as the head of the profession of chazzan. His compositions are somewhat more Jewish than Sulzer’s and, with Sulzer’s, are now regularly used in both the Orthodox and the Reform synagogues. Amongst the numerous other composer-chazzanim are Mombach (1813-80), whose works are popular in England and elsewhere, and Wasserzug (1822-82), who in Poland introduced choral singing in place of cantillation (for an English Jewish composer see Salaman).

The movement has gone very far in the United States, where there are many Reform synagogues (generally called ‘Temples’) with prayers and hymns in English, an abandonment of cantillation, mixed choirs (often largely of Gentiles), with anthems and solos taken from the Old Testament part of the Christian musical repertory, and organs with Gentile organists. The chazzan, has in these places receded into the background or altogether disappeared. The orthodox synagogues of course, retain the chazzan and the traditional song, but the conditions of life (constant influx of new members of the Jewish community, of all European languages and of all social grades and degrees of education, &c.) have made conformity to any one settled convention almost impossible.

Jewish communities, then, throughout the world, are today divided into Orthodox and Progressive (or Reform) bodies, and the presence or absence of an organ in the synagogue may be looked upon as the most obvious symbolical and distinguishing sign.

7. Jewish Popular Song. Some brief allusion must, of course, be made to Jewish popular song.

It would appear that in t he earlier periods music and poetry were, with the Jews, very closely allied. In the childhood of Hebrew poetry (as, possibly, in the childhood of the poetry of every race) all poems were chanted. The oldest and the greatest book of songs now in use anywhere in the world is, of course, that of which some brief particulars will be found in the article Psalm.

Jewry has naturally, in its long career in so many parts of the world, accumulated a great body of folk song, though it has probably lost again much more than it has retained. The poems of Hebrew song have in general, but not exclusively, a religious and ethical tendency, as many early spiritual leaders were opposed to secular song and, also, the suffering of continual persecution was not favourable to a spirit of lightheartedness. There are many songs on the Elijah motif, songs in praise of the Sabbath, and domestic songs for religious festivals and weddings. Their tunes often show evidence of great age and an oriental origin. An early collection of such songs is that of Israel Najara, called Zemiroth Israel (’Hymns of Israel’), published at Safed (North Palestine) in 1587 and reissued a few years later in Venice: this had great popularity in the Near East. Najara borrowed a good many tunes from various Eastern nations and composed a few. The melodies of the collections must be called oriental rather than specifically Jewish.

The Jews of Ashkenaz, from the sixteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, accumulated a song literature of their own. They were confined to their ghettos and thus cut off from entertainment, and song met a social need: largely, however, they used not original tunes but tunes borrowed either from the synagogue or from the German popular song repertory. The influence of the prohibition of owning land and of confinement to the ghetto is seen in the fact that the words of the song never show, as those of other races do, a love of country life (in this differinB from some of the Psalms and Palestinian folk song).

The eastern Jews used songs of a more genuinely Jewish cast. It is notable that the songs of the Ashkenazim strongly favour the major mode and those of the Sephardim, and also of the Jews of the East, a mode with two augmented seconds – between either second and third or third and fourth degrees, and between sixth and seventh. The Sephardic Jews in North Africa, the Balkans, Turkey, and elsewhere have songs in Ladino (a Spanish Yiddish) recalling the centuries spent in Spain before the catastrophe of the expulsion in 1492.

From the early years of the great dispersion of the Jews under Titus until the middle of the nineteenth century a profession of Badchonim or jester-singers, existed in central Europe, and in eastern Europe it lasted still later. From the fifteenth century, travelling Jewish bands playing at Christian festivals have been common-though harassed with many governmental restrictions.

The subject of Jewish song is an immense one and any summary of it is difficult to achieve.

8. Some Modern Investigations and Opinions. The first writer to make any serious attempt to describe accurately the ancient Hebrew music was Forkel, in his History of Music (1788). The earliest rational description of the ancient instruments was that of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (grandfather of the composer), in his great German translation of the Pentateuch (1783); there is a good description of them in the Jewish Encyclopedia. One of the best recent authorities appears to have been A. Z. Idelsohn, who made long research in many countries, in 1914 he began publication (in German, Hebrew, and English editions) of a great thesaurus of Hebrew-Oriental melodies, and in 1929 published a very careful and detailed study, Jewish Music in its Historical Development to which (as also to the several long articles in the Jewish Encyclopedia, and to other works) the present brief sketch is indebted.

Another learned investigator is Dr. Solomon Rosowsky of the Hebrew University at Jerusalem; he has especially devoted himself to research as to the traditional systems of cantillation as represented by the signs attached to the words in the Hebrew Bible.

Cantor Mayerowitsch contributed valuable musical matter to the (Hebrew-English) edition of the Pentateuch prepared by J. H. Hertz, late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire.

Wagner wrote a brief thesis entitled Judaism in Music, attempting to show that the creation of any true European art is impossible to the Jew because, being an alien to Europe, European music was alien to him. Ernest Newman has judiciously summed up criticism of this work in the view that ‘Wagner’s argument is throughout a mixture of mis-statement and overstatement’, and has countered the doctrine by pointing out that ‘few Englishmen have handled their language so imaginatively so beautifully, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’, three-quarters Italian; by affirming that ‘if Heine and Lassalle are not to be recognized as masters of idiomatic German it is difficult to know where to look for that commodity’; and by pointing out that ‘all our Welsh, Scottish, and native Irish poets, novelists and thinkers would, on the lines of Wagner’s argument, be incapable of making a true artwork in the English language’. Wagner, he reminds us, disliked the compositions of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer and ‘the plain truth is that the circumstance of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer being Jews counted for a good deal in Wagner’s pseudo-demonstration of the incapacity of the Jew to write great music’.

There have been attempts to prove that Wagner himself was of partly Jewish origin, but they have not been convincing.

Some remarks upon the sufferings of Jewish musicians in Germany from 1933 to 1945 will be found under Germany 9.

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