Jablonski, Marek (Michael)


(iii) The 17th and 18th centuries



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(iii) The 17th and 18th centuries.


During the 17th and 18th centuries, various statements appeared in rabbinical literature protesting against several new cantorial practices (Idelsohn, 1925; Werner, 1976, pp.112–17). Most poignant is a series of complaints stated in the anonymous late 17th-century pamphlet Tokhekhah meġulah (‘Open Reprimands’). The author laments the cantor's ignorance of rabbinical literature, their unfamiliarity with the prayer book, their bad articulation of Hebrew and mannerisms that made a mockery out of prayer. Among the latter he cites the habits of placing their hands on their jaws, temples or throat while singing, introducing nonsense syllables into the prayers, tearing words apart, extending and embellishing non-texted melodies at the expense of essential prayer texts (which they tend to rush through), introducing many non-Jewish melodies into the services; and singing the most sacred qaddish to potpourris of trite melodies. The amount and nature of these protests indicate that a new style of cantorial singing emerged during this period.

Idelsohn used the term ‘ars nova’ for the new cantorial style (1929/R, pp.162, 204, 210; no connection with the 14th-century French polyphonic style is intended) and maintained that it developed as a result of contacts with Italian musicians who travelled throughout Germany. The extent of the influence of the European Baroque style on Ashkenazi synagogue music awaits further research, but it is plausible that the tendency among Baroque singers and instrumentalists to adorn melodies with many embellishments re-enforced and enriched the improvisatory art of the Ashkenazi hazzanim.

The exact nature of the new style in its inception is not clear. Judging from current Orthodox cantorial practice, it can be assumed that much of the improvisation was based on embellishing the old nusah tunes by adding melodic tropes to existing centonized melodies, and that the additional melodic segments were sung without words or to nonsense syllables. Patterns and larger segments of successful improvisations were probably repeated, then memorized and disseminated to other cantors. From the rabbinical complaints it is clear that the new pieces included fashionable tunes of secular, often non-Jewish, sources.

Evidence of the later phase of the new style derives from manuscripts of cantorial music, which first appeared in the mid-18th century; the earliest extant is the 1744 compendium by the hazzan Juda Elias of Hanover. Most important are the manuscripts of the Berlin hazzan Aron Beer (1738–1821), which include the oldest surviving notation of Kol nidrei and over 1200 other pieces by various hazzanim of the time (Adler, 1989; Idelsohn, HoM, vi, 1932/R); other sources are descriptions of Jewish customs by non-Jews, for example, Johann Jakob Schudt's Jüdische Merckwürdigkeiten (Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1714–18).

Four features may be mentioned as typical of this phase in the development of Western Ashkenazi synagogue music: the emergence of the ‘cantorial fantasia’; the introduction of fashionable Rococo tunes into synagogue worship; the extensive use of meshorerim (vocal accompanists to the hazzan); and the attempt to introduce instrumental music.

The ‘cantorial fantasia’ (Avenary, 1968) is a peculiar enlargement of the mi-sinai melodies. A typical fantasia begins with a long, textless introduction with Baroque melodic sequences, broken chords and the like; it continues by alternating texted segments of the mi-sinai melody with vocal textless interpolations. The range of the cantor's line is often wide and may exceed two octaves, but the melody is often divided between the hazzan and his assistants. An example is the setting of ‘Aleinu leshabbeah for the High Holy Days by Joseph Goldstein (c1795; ed. Idelsohn, HoM, vi, 1932/R, no.21; ex.11).

Performing the fantasias and other genres, the hazzanim were accompanied by meshorerim (‘singers’) who often served as their apprentices. Usually a hazzan would be helped by a young boy (Yiddish zinger'l) and a bass-singer, but in some larger communities the meshorerim group consisted of a small ensemble of men and boys. Literary descriptions of the singing of the hazzan-bass-zinger'l trio, as well as various indications in the cantorial manuscripts, suggest a distinct style that included drone accompaniments, short responses, typical solos for bass and treble, and parallel motion in 3rds or 6ths between two of the singers. The group often imitated musical instruments and occasionally enhanced their appearance with facial grimaces and hand motions. A thorough reconstruction of their style still awaits research (for an attempt, see Katz, 1995). After the Emancipation, the trio gradually disappeared and synagogue choirs replaced the meshorerim. In eastern Europe, the old style lingered on to the end of the 19th century and some remnants of it may still be heard in synagogue choirs of east European origin.

Another important development was the introduction of fashionable secular tunes in imitation of Rococo instrumental music. The cantorial manuscripts abound in minuets, sicilianas, Waldhorns (horn signals and fanfares), ‘Margos’ (perhaps marches) and other popular tunes, mostly in binary form. Usually written without text, they were intended to be sung to the rhymes of piyyutim, such as Lekha dodi on Friday night or Melekh ‘elyon at Rosh Hashanah (ex.12). They also served as introductions to prayers and were sung to nonsense syllables.

During the 18th century, attempts were made to introduce musical instruments into some Ashkenazi synagogues. Under the influence of the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah, synagogues in Prague and south Germany celebrated the welcoming of the Sabbath with instrumental music on Friday afternoons until sundown. For this purpose they even introduced organs into the synagogue, long before the reforms of the 19th century. This short-lived practice ended in about 1793 (Ellenson, 1995).

The east European Ashkenazim did not usually share the development in the central European style. Jews in Poland, Russian and the Baltic countries were less interested in songs of praise and more in supplication-recitatives that would express their plight and allow them to explore the emotional delights of Slavic-influenced modality. They preferred hazzanim with sweet tenor or high lyric-baritone voices and with fast, florid coloratura. The model hazzan could express the emotional meaning of the prayers through clever use of modal patterns (Yiddish zogekhts) and move the congregation to tears. Hence their predilection for supplicatory or penitential texts. The earliest records of this style seem to be the early 19th-century notations by Hirsch Weintraub (1811–82) of the highly ornate recitatives of his father, Solomon Kashtan (1781–1829; ex.13).

Like their Western counterparts, the Eastern hazzanim were often accompanied by meshorerim, and many made their livelihood by wandering with their choristers from one shtetl (Jewish village) to another. Towards the end of the 18th century, east European hazzanim emigrated to central Europe and exerted some influence over the musical style of the Western Ashkenazi synagogues.

From the second half of the 18th century, east European liturgical and paraliturgical music was enriched by the hasidim. The hasidic movement was founded by the Ba‘al Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezor, 1698–1760), who sought to bring personal and communal salvation to the Jews by worshipping God and performing His commandments with joy and enthusiasm. Music and dance were two of the most important means for achieving the right state of mind for proper worship and therefore the leaders of the hasidic movement encouraged musical creativity and allowed the introduction of new tunes to selected prayers. Some of the leaders served as precentors in their synagogues and various hasidic melodies are attributed to them.

On the basis of the kabbalistic mysticism, the hasidim believed that all music emerged from a divine source and was originally sacred, yet much of the music in the world was defiled through improper use, either by setting it to profane words or by performing it in unholy places and impious circumstances. It was the duty of the pious hasid to redeem melodies from their defilement by using them in holiness. Therefore the hasidim borrowed melodies from secular and non-Jewish sources and incorporated them in their sacred services and ceremonies. Thus, the east European Jewish musical heritage was enriched with Polish mazurkas, Russian kozatchocks, Ukrainian and Romanian shepherd songs and various marches and waltzes. All the new melodic acquisitions underwent subtle modifications to adapt them to hasidic culture. The hasidim were often criticized for their eclecticism and sometimes for their bad taste, but for them salvation overrode aesthetics.

During the 19th century, hasidic leaders (Yiddish rebbes or tsadíkim) established courts and the hasidim flocked there to receive the blessing and advice of the rebbe. These courts soon became centres of musical activity and creation. Some of the rebbes were gifted musicians and composed melodies for their disciples, others maintained menagenim (court musicians) who composed the melodies on behalf of the leaders. New tunes were created for every Holy Day and were considered important spiritual messages. The melodies were not written, but transmitted orally from the rebbe's court to the hasidim in their various towns and villages.

While some tunes were used during synagogue services, most of them were sung at hasidic paraliturgical functions, mainly at the communal gatherings around the rebbe's table – the tish. Some of the tunes were settings of prayers and biblical verses, others had words in Yiddish, Ukrainian or other east European languages, but most of the tunes were sung to nonsense syllables such as ‘ya-ba-bam’, ‘tiri-rai-dai-da’ and the like. The hasidim amassed an enormous repertory of borrowed and newly composed melodies in a great variety of genres and styles that have yet to be classified. These range from simple dance tunes (Yiddish hopkelekh) of one phrase repeated endlessly, to complex melodies with many sections. Most important are the slow tunes known in Yiddish as nigunei dvéikus (Heb. devequt), whose purpose is to raise the soul to its divine source (ex.14).

The hasidic movement, which still flourishes in Israel, the USA and elsewhere, preserves its original musical tradition albeit with modifications. Many famous cantors in eastern Europe and elsewhere came from hasidic families and incorporated hasidic tunes into their liturgical improvisations and compositions.

Cantorial improvisations both East and West, as well as original hasidic melodies, are based on modes known as shteyger (Yiddish, from Ger. ‘Steiger’) or gust. While the Western hazzanim utilized the modes based on natural minor or Mixolydian scales, the Eastern hazzanim preferred those with scales that had the interval of the augmented 2nd. Despite various endeavours to describe some of the shteygers, a comprehensive theory of the Ashkenazi synagogue modes is still lacking. Attempts to discuss the modes were first made during the second half of the 19th century, among the most important is Josef Singer's essay Die Tonarten des traditionellen Synagogengesang (Vienna, 1886), which tried to relate the scales of the cantorial modes to those of the church modes. This approach, considered a breakthrough at its time, was severely criticized by Idelsohn for neglecting the Eastern aspects of the shteyger, namely its motivic and functional components. Idelsohn and later musicologists tried to discuss the modes in a manner similar to the description of the Arabic maqāmāt, taking into consideration the salient motifs, partial and final cadences, recitation tones, the liturgical functions and even the ethos of the mode (e.g. Idelsohn, 1939; Cohon, 1950; Avenary, 1971–2; and Levine, 1980, and 1989. Avenary, 1971 raises questions about the ethos aspect of the modes.)

Theoretical discussions usually describe three main modes and a few subsidiary ones, all named after the initial words of relevant prayers. The principal shteygers are maġen avot, adonai malakh (or adoshem malakh) and ahavah rabbah (ex.15). The simplest (and the oldest, according to Idelsohn, 1933) is maġen avot, which is based on a natural minor scale, sometimes with a lower (Phrygian) 2nd at the cadences. The mode is said to reflect the peaceful atmosphere of the Friday night evening service. More complicated is adonai malakh, which assumed different structures in the Eastern and the Western traditions. In its fullest Eastern form it is based on a peculiar scale built on a series of conjunct equal tetrachords of 1–1–1/2 tones. Cantors regard it as representing glory and majesty and they frequently blend it with the European major scale. The most complex of the three is ahavah rabbah. Used mainly by Eastern hazzanim, it is said to be an excellent means of expressing agitated emotions, both joyful and sad. Its most developed form is built on what might be described as an modified Phrygian scale with an augmented 2nd between the second and third degrees. The sixth degree below the tonic is always raised. Frequent excursions are made through the fourth degree (which serves as a temporary tonic) to the minor, adonai malakh and major modes; a further excursion is sometimes made to the relative major of the minor mode (Laki-Frigyesi, 1982–3).

The most frequently described subsidiary modes are the yishtabbah shteyger, which is based on a natural minor scale similar to maġen avot but with different motifs and with excursions on the fourth degree similar to those in the ahavah rabbah mode; and the mi shebberakh (or av harahamim) shteyger, which is based on the so-called Ukrainian-Dorian scale, that is, the Dorian scale with a raised 4th degree (Idelsohn, 1929/R, pp.184–92). Digressions to this shteyger serve to enrich the other modes.

Jewish music, §III, 3: Liturgical and paraliturgical: Ashkenazi



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