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Sacred Subversion: What Do We Listen To When We Listen to Jewish Music

In the past weeks, we have approached the topic of “Jewish music” according to two parallel paths.

On one hand, we took the very expression, “Jewish music,” as a cultural construct. And we studied who, at different times in history (beginning in the early-modern period, in Europe), has expressed an interest in defining, and therefore “studying,” music in a Jewish context.

We have explored nine or ten competing notions of “Jewish music” that have emerged since the 16th century. These notions include antiquity (the idea that walking into a synagogue is similar to visiting a musical-liturgical “Jurassic Park” of sorts, in which all texts and melodies come by default from the ancient world), nationalism, hybridity, revival, and so on. A hopefully useful summary appeared on our whiteboard, so here it is:

Cultural Agendas and "Jewish Music"

These are notions that compete in defining “Jewish music” in our society. We “hear” them when we hear “Jewish music” and they define the music we listen to for us.

On the other hand, we also analyzed various modes of Jewish musical interaction, focusing on ritual performance in the synagogue. Several concepts have emerged. They are somewhat abstract, since we wanted to look at general forms of interaction, and not at the specificity of each musical “tradition” in the global Diaspora. But they also include some of the most basic form of vocal expression known to humankind:

  1. listen to a solo voice, or sing as a group;
  2. sing, then repeat (responsorial practice) or sing, then sing something different (antiphonal practice);
  3. apply strictly regulated formulas to voicing texts, or leave it up to modal improvisation to do the job, or divide your text sentences in 2-part (or 3-part) units, or associate a text with a “tune” of your choosing…

Here, too, the whiteboard kept a trace of our class conversations:

Music in the Synagogue

Finally, we established the top aspects we are looking for (or listening for) in our study.

Focus on Jewish Music

The last list establishes the “top three” aspects of musical interaction we are focusing on in our study of Jewish liturgy as performance.

  1. We are definitely interested in the materials of music, in what music is made of. We use terms like melody, rhythm, harmony, mode to do this. We also look at “native” (or “pertinent”) terms, used by Jewish musical practitioners, such as nusach (an Ashkenazi notion connected to modality and improvisational formulas, which has been extended beyond the strict realm of Ashkenazi music itself) and maqam (referring to the use of the Arabic and Turkish modal systems within many Jewish communities from the world of Islam).
  2. And we are equally interested in “performative dynamics.” By carefully watching “who” does “what” in the context of Jewish liturgy (who sings what prayers, and who doesn’t; who chooses the music materials; who participates and when, and to what extent, etc.), we connect our close analysis of musical interactions with the symbolic roles of synagogue life as we have examined in previous weeks. What real say does a hazzan (cantor) have over the choice of musical materials? Can a Rabbi stop the singing of a prayer to a popular tune he or she deems inappropriate? Can others also do that?
  3. Finally, we closely watch the multi-faceted relationship that music, as a predominantly oral tradition, entertains with the texts of the liturgy. Are texts and musical materials in perfect alignment with one another? (Some texts are typically associated with multiple melodies: do they all perfectly “fit” with them?). And when they are not, which aspects prevails? Are texts extended or shortened to preserve musical integrity, or, vice-versa, is music adapted to the meter and the length of a particular text? When the melody of a popular song is adapted to a Hebrew prayer text, which of the two will be the object of compromise? Will popular culture prevail over Hebrew liturgy, or not?

In considering these top three aspects of musical interaction within Jewish liturgy, we are thus interested in understanding up close how music acts as a vehicle to express ideas, interpretations, emotions, and more, outside the boundaries of verbal communication. Then, we want to connect music to body language (and ritual objects), and look for how they interact in expressing culture beyond its normative boundaries.

In essence, we are interested in liturgical performance as a platform for the expression of subversive behavior, right at the center of the “sacred.”

Jewish Music: Ten Competing Notions

Let’s scan through ten (at times competing) notions of “Jewish Music” that have emerged during the last, well, 500 years.

Background information for this is in the articles by Philip Bohlman and Edwin Seroussi listed here, and in the Syllabus (they were last week’s assignments, so I’m absolutely positive that everyone has already read them carefully). These studies are also reflected in this week’s reading, and especially the “Jewish Music” entry in Oxford Music Online, which opens with the following statements.

‘Jewish music’ as a concept emerged among Jewish scholars and musicians only in the mid-19th century with the rise of modern national consciousness among European Jews, and since then all attempts to define it have faced many difficulties. The term ‘Jewish music’ in its nation-oriented sense was first coined by German or German-trained Jewish scholars, among whom the most influential in this respect was A.Z. Idelsohn (1882–1938), whose book Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929) was a landmark in its field that is still widely consulted today . Idelsohn was the first scholar to incorporate the Jewish ‘Orient’ into his research, and thus his work presents the first ecumenical, though still fragmentary, description of the variety of surviving Jewish musical cultures set within a single historical narrative. In his work Idelsohn pursued a particular ideological agenda: he adopted the idea of the underlying cultural unity of the Jewish people despite their millenary dispersion among the nations, and promoted the view that the music of the various Jewish communities in the present expresses aspects of that unity. Moreover, Idelsohn’s work implied a unilinear history of Jewish music dating back to the Temple in biblical Jerusalem. This approach was perpetuated in later attempts to write a comprehensive overview of Jewish music from a historical perspective (e.g. Avenary, 1971–2). Despite its problematic nature, the concept of ‘Jewish music’ in its Idelsohnian sense is a figure of speech widely employed today, being used in many different contexts of musical activity: recorded popular music, art music composition, printed anthologies, scholarly research and so on. The use of this term to refer both to the traditional music of all Jewish communities, past and present, and to new contemporary music created by Jews with ethnic or national agendas is thus convenient, as long as its historical background and ideological connotations are borne in mind.

Below, I’m scanning through some of the connections that “Jewish music” elicits. I’m not pretending to be exhaustive, and I’m also having some fun in choosing related visual and musical examples to make my points.

1. Jewish music as “Musica Haebreorum”: the notion of a “music of the Hebrews (the Jews)” really begins with Christian Humanists and their heirs.

An example I particularly like (also because it has been eminently understudied, so far), and that one can read online, is from Ercole Bottrigari, Il trimerone de’ fondamenti armonici, ouero lo essercitio musicale, giornata terza, 1599 (Source: Bologna, Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale, MS B44, 1-23): Bottrigari specifically addresses “il Canto degli Hebrej” (the song of the Jews) and the musical rendition of the “masoretic accents” that govern the singing of the Hebrew Bible in synagogue liturgy. (Image source).

Il Canto degli Hebrej in E. Bottrigari, Trimerone (1599)

2. Jewish (musical) antiquity. But whose antiquity really is it?
Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello, and many many more after him, searched for “Jewish musical antiquity.” (You can read more about this topic here).
See a contemporary incarnation of the belief in Jewish musical antiquity by Jordi Savall-Hespèrion XXI, Lavava y suspirava (romance) (Anónimo Sefardí):

3. The Wissenschaft des Judentums (19th cent.) and the invention of “Jewish Music” as a Jewish notion

An interesting byproduct of 19th-century Jewish scholarship was been the construction of the “Italian Jewish Renaissance” as a golden age of musical production, and of Jewish music as “art music.” Listen below to Salamone Rossi, ‘al naharot bavel (Psalm 137), by The Prophets of the Perfect Fifth (I profeti della quinta)

4. Jewish music as “Music of the Jewish People” (with the related notions of Nationalism & Identity), as found in the “St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music” and in related Zionist musical agendas.
Lazare Saminsky (Odessa 1882- NY 1959), composed Conte Hebräique (Hebrew Fairy Tale) in Palestine in 1919, en route from Russia to America (via the UK).

5. Jewish music as “Judaism in Music” (an expression made quite popular by Richard Wagner) brings with it a certain passion for singling out “the Jewish elements” in the music of eminent composers of Jewish descent. This is a trademark of many 20th-century scholarly contribution to the field.
An excellent summary on the relationship between Wagner and modern Jewish sensibilities can be found in the form of a satire in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Season 2, Episode 3: Trick or Treat (October 7, 2001) (note when Larry David whistles “Springtime from Hitler” from the Producers). Link courtesy of my friend Kathleen Wiens (UCLA).

6. Jewish music as “Degenerated Music” and the passion of making lists of “Jewish” composers, compositions, etc., so that music can be purified from their influence.
Well, these are the Nazis… See them enjoying their right to free speech in John Landis, The Blues Brothers (USA 1980):

A book published in Nazi Germany, listing Jewish music professionals, is included in the music holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, and will be accessible to interested students as soon as these holdings are transferred to our new facility.

7. Jewish music as lost (or suppressed) music: in the view of post-Holocaust cultural agendas, any sample of Jewish culture is worthy of attention, and the enormity of the historical legacy of the Holocaust trumps any aesthetic consideration.
Watch, for example, this news report on Francesco Lotoro’s KZ Musik project, conducted with the support of the European Union:

8. Jewish music as revival. In her essay, Sounds of Sensibility (1998), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett outlines several implications related to the (American) revival of “Klezmer” music.
In his fascinating eulogy of Adrienne Cooper (1946-2011), one of the protagonists of the American revival of Ashkenazi culture, Canadian writer, Michael Wex, thus articulated the special relationship that late 20th-century Jewish revivalists had with tradition:

[Adrienne Cooper] had a talent for subversion along with an innate sense of decorum that let her reverse a tradition, turn it inside out, before any of its guardians had actually noticed.

The New-York band, Klezmatics, turned the socialist song, Ale brider into an anthem for Queer rights. Here, they sing it together with Israeli folk music (and protest song) icon, Chava Alberstein, in Berlin, Germany:

9. Jewish music as “soul” and “fusion” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “masses”).
An example by Argentinian-Israeli musician, Giora Feidman:

10. Jewish music as “world music” (or, how to market Jewish culture to the “elites”)
An example by Moroccan-Israeli cantor and singer, Emil Zrihan:

Disclaimer: This entry is cross-posted here.