A new exponent of the Hebrew chant


Towards the revaluation of the Cantorial Art


Divinity and Music


A new exponent of the
Hebrew chant


The Shema and its
musical setting


A New Exponent of the Hebrew Chant 


The genuine Hebrew chant is probably as ancient as the first Temple, through whose halls it reverberated for centuries, or,at any rate, the second Temple, in whose days Jewish liturgical music received a definite form and fixed impress. Its general and external traits are known to us from biblical, apocryphal and patristic sources, but its inner structure and articulation, its peculiar characteristics and nuances, owing to the volatile nature of song and chiefly lack of notation, are veiled in total obscurity, from which it may never emerge. We know from casual remarks in medieval rabbinic literature that during the centuries that followed the destruction of the second Temple, indeed throughout the crepuscular and oppressive Middle Ages, the Hebrew chant continued its precarious existence in the Diaspora, where somehow it always managed to be a living and potent force. But owing to its foreign milieu and uncongenial surroundings its further development was no longer natural and unhampered. It necessarily became contaminated and ingrained with the autochtonous melos of each of the lands of the Jewish exile, forming different and bewildering varieties of the same chant, with the inevitable result that their genuineness began to be called into doubt. Thus we find, for instance, a  Babylonian, Yemenite, Sefardic (Spanish-Portuguese), and Ashkenazic (German) chant, each one exhibiting different characteristics, though agreeing with one another in essentials, such as minor mode, limited range, augmented intervals, etc. These varieties of the Hebrew chant accumulated and increased in the course of centuries, causing a good deal of confusion and making it extremely difficult to shift them to their original source through disentangling them from their recent excrescences. Indeed, for a time it looked as if such shifting would never take place.

However, the Hebrew chant found a redeemer in the person of Professor Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, who from his early youth made it his task to collect and classify all the disjecta, membra, of the Hebrew chant floating about in various corners of the habitable globe, for the purpose of enabling a thorough analysis as to their component parts and establishing once for all the original kernel of the pristine Hebrew chant. A thorough Hebrew training in Russian yeshibahs and a well-balanced musical education in German conservatories served as an appropriate preparation for this delicate and difficult task, which ordinarily would require a board of editors for its consumation. With a vigor and zest characteristic of obsessed idealists, Idelsohn set about collecting and systematizing all the liturgical songs and melodies of the Jews in various parts of the world and incorporating them in a Melodienschatz or thesaurus of Hebrew songs. To accomplish this task he naturally gravitated towards Palestine, the meeting point of Jews from every part of the world, where Orient meets Occident and all religious rites and liturgical modes are domiciled in peaceful propinquity in various synagogues and houses of prayer. After years of hard toil and indefatigable labor he produced his planned Thesaurus in ten large-sized volumes, covering the songs of the Yemenite, Babylonian, Persian, Syrian, Moroccan, Sefardic, Provencal, Ashkenazic and Polish Jews. The Thesaurus is a monumental work, a veritable kol-bo, not alone a treasure-house of tunes and melodies accompanied by an analytical commentary, but also a mine of information on the history and folklore of the various Jews, both in the Orient and Occident, shedding lustrous light on many dark nooks in their tortuous life and precarious existence. Further, adumbrating the Hebrew texts it contains a mass of philological observations and grammatical notes which are of considerable value to an understanding of Hebrew phonetics and tbe history of development of the Hebrew language during the Middle Ages. In this work, a monumentum aere perennius, Idelsohn has tapped many hitherto unexplored sources and demonstrated beyond doubt his brilliance and resourcefulness, not alone as a skilled musicologue but also as an excellent Hebrew scholar.

Idelsohn has done many other useful things, but his fame will ultimately rest on this great Thesaurus, which, apart from its usefulness as a treasury of all the Jewish tunes in existence, provides a key to the solution of the elusive enigma which constitutes the ancient Hebrew chant. For one of the questions agitating musical students thoroughout the ages was: What was really the nature of the Temple chant in pre-Christian times? It has been presumed, not without sufficient reason, that the Gregorian chant of the early Middle Ages with its system of authentic and plagal modes was the natural heir of the Temple chant, whose most characteristic features passed with the Judeo-Christians into the early Christian Church, and that consequently to get an idea of the Temple chant one must go back to the very early Gregorian chant, specimens of which have been preserved in some European libraries. This view has been presented in recent years most elaborately by Peter Wagner in his ‘Einfiuhrung in die Gregorianische Melodien’ (Leipzig 1911-1921). But tangible evidence for this assumption was lacking on the Jewish side as long as the musical material was floating in the air and was not reduced to the scientific system of notation. Idelsohn’s work has brought us appreciably nearer the solution of this problem, for with the vast material of the multi-tomed Thesaurus before them, musicologues will be in a position to compare more thoroughly the Hebrew scales with the Gregorian modes and form an unbiassed opinion concerning the dependence of one upon the other. In fact, Idelsohn himself, in a number of articles in musical journals, began instituting such inquiries and researches of a comparative nature, dealing at one time very cogently with parallels between Gregorian and Hebrew Oriental modes. He pointed out the method of tackling this elusive problem, and no doubt musical students everywhere will follow his safe lead in the hope of arriving at some definite solution of this problem.

The great value of the Thesaurus as building material has already been demonstrated beyond any doubt, for on its multiform contents are based two excellent works by Idelsohn himself, one on Jewish music and another on Jewish liturgy (‘Jewish Music in its Historical Development,’ New York 1929; and ‘Jewish Liturgy and its Development,’ New York 1932). It is safe to say that without the preliminary work of the Thesaurus these two standard books could never have been written, certainly not with that plethora of detail and authoritative deductions which mark every chapter of those books. For, it should be emphasized time and again, through his exhaustive labors and painstaking researches, Idelsohn has recreated for us the continuous uninterrupted tradition of the Hebrew chant and given us a history of its tortuous and labyrinthine development throughout the ages. I also know of several doctoral dissertations at great European Universities based on the inexhaustible material of Idelsohn’s Thesaurus. Once more an ancient proverb is verified: “When kings build the carters are kept busy”. Note also this, that henceforth general histories of music, which often used to ignore the checkered development of Jewish music, will have to take account of it through Idelsohn’s work, as indeed they have already begun to do so.

Of course, Idelsohn’s work, like all human endeavor, has its concomitant faults and discrepancies which often are unavoidable (“Perfection is death or atrophy of knowledge” was a famous saying of Wilamowitz- Möllendorf), but one must admit it has the irrefutable merit of making a wealth of hidden material accessible to the scholar for further investigation and elucidation. Besides, a modicum of mistakes or oversights should be condoned in the work of a man who, like Idelsohn, was a pioneer in his field and had to build a grandiose structure with raw material and unhewn stones. The previous researches of De Rossi, Sulzer, Lewandowski, and Naumbourg, may have been of some help to him in treating of the occidental chant, but they could offer him very little aid in the treatment of Oriental chant, which, by the way, was based on the viva voce and was entirely new. Hence Idelson’s researches may very justly be compared with those of Tiersot in France, Boeme in Germany, and Chapell in England, all of whom addressed themselves to the people, the primary and most reliable source, in collecting their song material.

Idelsohn’s merit consists not only in collecting and systematizing the Hebrew chant, but also in creating a new Hebrew terminology for musical concepts, which the modern Hebrew language was sorely in need of. A striking instance is the word ‘Ratul’ for recitative, which Idelsohn legitimately derived from the cognate Arabic language.

It should be stated that in addition to his historical-analytical work, as exemplified in his Thesaurus, Idelsohn, as a cantor of repute, has published also some services for practical use in the synagogue, and that the most interesting impression  one gets from these services is that Idelsohn is an indefatigable champion of a pure Hebrew chant purged of all foreign excrescences and trivial abellimenti of centuries of abuse. His chief aim appears  to be to restore to the liturgical chant its pristine simplicity and original flavor, and hence he properly resorts for his motives to ancient Oriental  modes, which are largely based on the ta’amim musical notation of the Bible.

May he be granted good health and abundant energy to enable him to continue his useful inqiries and fructifying researches into the nature and history of the Hebrew chant.