Jablonski, Marek (Michael)

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6. Iraq (Babylonian).

The Jewish Babylonian tradition evolved in Babylonia (southern Mesopotamia; modern Iraq) following the destruction of the First Temple in 586 bce and the subsequent Jewish exile from the Kingdom of Judah (Palestine) to Babylon. It is thought that an earlier Jewish presence existed in northern Mesopotamia (now Iraqi Kurdistan) from about 720 bce, following the Assyrian exile of the population of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. There was a continuous Jewish presence in Babylon for over 2500 years, until the mass Jewish emigration to Israel in 1950–51, when the Iraqi government legally permitted Jews to leave the country permanently. Today, the Babylonian tradition continues mainly in Israel, England and North America, with diminishing communities in Iraq, India and East Asia.

The finest intellectual achievement of Babylonian Jewry was the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud (completed c6th–7th centuries ce), a religious and cultural work of enormous influence in Judaism, being the text adopted in preference to the Jerusalem Talmud and subsequently disseminated throughout the Jewish world. Babylonia was renowned for Jewish scholarship, its two principal academies, Sura and Pumbeditha, led by a succession of prominent geonim (sing. gaon: ‘excellency’). Iraq had already become the ‘foremost center of world Jewry two centuries before the Arab conquest’ of about 635 ce (Stillman, 1979, p.29). Baghdad, the new capital city founded in 762, maintained this leadership until the end of the geonic period (c11th century), when it ceased to be the spiritual and intellectual centre of world Jewry as communities in Egypt and the Iberian Peninsula gained prominence.

The Babylonian religious tradition (minhaġ babli) is Orthodox. Liturgical texts, which include prayers and hymns, are printed in prayer books or, in the case of public ‘reading’ (cantillation) of the Pentateuch and Prophets, handwritten on parchment scrolls. A few compilations of printed music notation exist in scholarly studies (Idelsohn, HoM, ii, 1922/R; Shiloah, 1983), but the musical performance remains an oral tradition, with the attendant variety in individual performances, coupled with a tenacity in maintaining its characteristic melodies across the boundaries of time and location.

Music in the Babylonian tradition generally corresponds to the norms of Arab music theory and performing practice. Liturgical music may be metred or unmetred. Biblical cantillation (ex.21) is unmetred and performed by a soloist – the cantor, another male member of the congregation or, occasionally, a young boy; in Eastern Jewish traditions it is customary for a boy, before he reaches the age of majority (13), to chant one of more portions from the week's reading of the Pentateuch and Prophets on the Sabbath. 13 modes were identified by Idelsohn (HoM, ii, 1922/R, pp.5–6) for the recitation of the Bible and prayers: Pentateuch, Prophets, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Qinot, Tefilla, Selihot (i) and Selihot (ii). Ex.21 is sung in the Arabic mode of segah with the distinctive three-quarter tone between its first and second degrees. The text includes the Masoretic accents (te‘amim), generally treated syllabically, with occasional melismas. The Hebrew transliteration shows the pronunciation typical of the Babylonian tradition, perhaps one of the most correct phonetically with regard to biblical Hebrew (for differing viewpoints, see Idelsohn, HoM, ii, 1992/R, pp.3, 31; and Shiloah – quoting Morag – 1983, p.10).

Chants, hymns and shbahoth (Judeo-Arabic: ‘praises’) – the Babylonian term for paraliturgical piyyutim (Avishur, 1990–91, p.127; Shiloah, 1983, p.7) – for Sabbaths, High Holy Days, penitential prayers (selihoth) and Festivals provide opportunities for enthusiastic congregational participation, whether the subject matter is laudatory or one of atonement. Chants (ex.22) are generally non-metrical, unrhymed texts comprising a sentence or short passage, which may be chanted by a soloist alone, by a soloist with congregational responses, or by the entire congregation throughout. The term ‘chant’ is used to cover a range of performance styles from ‘recitative’-like forms to those that employ a wider melodic span. Liturgical hymns (piyyutim; ex.23) generally have a regular metrical scheme and rhyme, and are set to metrical melodies. Hymns with a strongly melodic character are associated mainly with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most congregational items are metrical, with rhythmic melodies usually ranging between a 5th and an octave. The songs are not harmonized, but because of individual differences in speed, pitch (leading to an organum-like effect), vocal timbre and ornamentation, the overall sound is characteristically heterophonic. The paraliturgical genres (shbahoth) include the baqqashoth (‘petitions’) and pizmonim (‘adorations and praise’, ‘refrains’) and are sung to metric melodies (ex.24). Pethihoth (‘openings’, ‘introductions’) are also religious texts that can be sung in an improvisatory (non-metrical) style to introduce a shbah and set its melodic mode. In Iraq the abu shbahoth (Judeo-Arabic: ‘father [expert] of shbahoth) sang both in the synagogue and at celebrations outside; he was accompanied by two or three other men, one perhaps playing a frame or other kind of drum (except on a Sabbath or major feast). Shbahoth are also performed in the home as ‘table hymns’ for the Sabbath or a festive meal.

Jewish music, §III: Liturgical and paraliturgical

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