Part 1


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


Examples 1

Examples 2

Examples 3

Examples 4

Examples 5


I am very grateful to my good friend, one of the most prominent musicologists in Britain, and very fine accompanist, Dr Alexander Knapp, for allowing me to reproduce the following series of three articles that appeared in editions 26,27 and 28 of the Cantors’ review (1981, 1982).

This commentary makes no pretensions to original research or discovery; it is rather an attempt to paint a panoramic picture of the Ashkenazi Prayer-Modes and to provide a practical framework for discussion, utilizing the findings of modern scholarship in this field, but avoiding the presentation of esoteric minutiae of primarily academic interest. The modes in question are used for the recitation of essentially ‘extra-Biblical’ texts, and form a significant and substantial part of Nusach Hat’fillah in Minhag Ashkenaz, deriving in most cases from earlier Biblical Modes and their cantillation motifs, and generating subsequent Fixed Chants such as ‘Missinai Tunes’. Space precludes any but the most superficial reference to manifestations other than the Prayer-Modes themselves.The form of part I of this article is as follows:I: Definitions of the Jewish Prayer-Mode as a concept, and comparisons with other Western and Middle Eastern musical systems.
II: General description of Jewish Prayer-Modes.
III: Brief historical survey of the Ashkenazi modal system and analyses thereof.I: Definitions of the Jewish Prayer-Mode as a concept, and comparisons with other Western and Middle Eastern  musical systemsAshkenazi Jews use various generic terms to describe the framework for recitativic improvisations based upon a remarkable vocal tradition that has been developing ever since the early centuries of the Diaspora.

The expression Nusach was first used in a musical context in the mid-19th century; indeed most present-day scholars prefer to avoid this word since it is comparatively vague and carries connotations of taste and style. Gust also refers essentially to taste or style, though it has come to mean also a musical formula analogous, perhaps, to a recurrent melodic pattern. This term, derived from the Italian gusto,may have been borrowed by Chazanim from the world of European Art-music during the 18th century.

The etymology of the Yiddish word Steiger (Shtayger,Shtejger, etc.) is not fully understood. It may descend from the Indo-European root stigh: to step, or from the Greeksteikhein: to walk or climb. In Middle-High German a Steigeris one who climbs steps or stairs; and the noun Stiegdonates a ‘characteristic scale’. Despite these various descriptions of bodily action, the Yiddish is closer in meaning to the Latin abstract word for ‘manner’: modus.  First mentioned in a publication by Chazan Isaak Lachman in 1880, Steiger has been described by Professor Eric Werner as ‘a loose and imprecise term in the professional language of Chazanim, indicating a mode of prayer or its intonation’.

In order to avoid any possible misunderstanding with regard to proposed definitions, it will surely seem simplest to revert to the unambiguous English word ‘mode.’ However, it is essential, at the very outset, to establish the difference between ‘scale’ on the one hand and ‘mode’ on the other. A scale is a predetermined series of adjacent tones assembled in rising or falling order of pitch. The position of the intervals between each pitch decides the character of the scale (e.g. pentatonic, whole-tone, major, minor, chromatic, microtonal). The most commonly used scales in Western Art-music (at least until the advent of the 20th century) may be traced back to Ancient Greek Tetrachords(units of four adjacent notes) which were juxtaposed either ‘conjunctively’ – i.e. where the top note of the lower tetrachord functioned also as the bottom note of the upper tetrachord (e.g. CDEF FGAB, thus creating a heptachord), or ‘disjunctively’ – i.e. where an interval separated the two tetrachords (e.g. CDEF GABC, thus creating an octave). Familiar Greek terminologies (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, etc.) were applied by the early Church Fathers in later centuries to the Ecclesiastical modes ofGregorian Chant, though their nomenclature became thoroughly confused.

It has been fashionable to apply the same terminology to Jewish modes in an attempt to clarify their structure. Though this procedure may have helped to identify general areas of modality, it has also met with serious obstacles. Close examination of traditional Jewish motifs as a whole, and Ashkenazi motifs in particular, reveals that only a small proportion of the total are tetrachordal in character; indeed it would appear that the motifs themselves came first, only much later crystallizing into artificial or ‘synthetic’ scale patterns, possibly for the purposes of rapid recall and categorization in the minds of Chazanim and others who learned music in the oral rather than written tradition. (See Example 1)

It is for this reason that I have, for example, designated the scale used in Hashem Moloch, ‘quasi-Mixolydian’; for the only characteristics it shares with its Ecclesiastical counterpart are the order of tones and semitones separating the lower tonic from the upper tonic when all the notes of the mode are juxtaposed synthetically. By way of another example, the scale used for Ahavoh Rabboh has no parallel among the Gregorian modes; however, its nearest equivalent is the Phrygian mode, hence the semi-colloquial Yiddish term Freigish. Nowhere among traditional cantorial motifs does one find Hashem Moloch or Ahavoh Rabboh in the form of a straightforward scale in the way that major or minor scales per se do appear in the Piano Sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, for example. Therefore, we must venture further afield in our quest for viable analogues.

The Arabic term Maqam (pl. Maqamat) originally referred to a stage or rostrum set apart for singers who were engaged to perform before the Caliph. Only subsequently was it applied to the specifically Middle Eastern structure of the actual music sung or played. (The Indian Raga is a similar conception). There are over 100 Arabic Maqamat, each of which can be reduced to a ‘synthetic’ scale; and though many share the same scale, conspicuous differentiation lies in their individual melodic patterns, pitches, overall gamut, beginning-reciting-ending notes, cadences, rhythmic motifs, moods, etc. Each Maqam is authoritative and bound by tradition; and although the quality of the performer is assessed according to his prowess in imaginatively embellishing and juxtaposing motifs, he must not replace, deviate from, or omit, the basic melodic formulae.

In a similar manner, the Chazan is a ‘composer-performer’. From a vast treasury of rhythmically supple motifs – some simple, others intricate, each having its special function and significance – he will draw out those that are appropriate to the liturgical occasion, and modify them suitably according to prevalent taste and expectation. Upon his improvisatory expertise, as well as his vocal dexterity and mellifluity, will rest his reputation among the congregational conoscenti.

We may define Jewish Prayer-Modes, then, as frameworks within which stocks of traditional melodic patterns in established forms exist as ‘raw materials’; these ‘building bricks’ or ‘skeletons’ are skilfully clothed by ornamentation, generated in countless permutations, and extended into highly sophisticated musical sentences. The boundaries are set by unwritten rules reflecting centuries of oral transmission, performance practice, trial and ultimate acceptance. Here, as in all cultures, discipline is the key factor in true freedom of expression. Therefore, we should regard with caution the conscious introduction, into traditional Chazonus, of almost anarchic virtuosity for its own sake, as examplified by snatches of Italian opera and Slavic dances, as well as renditions fortissimo, prestissimo, in altissimo, often at complete variance with the meaning of the text.

II: General description of the Jewish Prayer-Modes

The Prayer-Modes differ from each other in tonality and in component motifs, but are identical in operating as frameworks for beginning-joining- separating-ending melodic complexes. The characteristics of each mode will be determined by all these factors, and others such as, for example, the frequency with which certain notes recur, the way in which phrases are linked, the degree of encroachment of ethnic or regional preferences (e.g. Classical Arabic or Classical European conventions) in the manner of performance, improvisation, voice production, and function in the liturgy. The Prayer-Modes lend themselves to free recitativic treatment, closely following the syntax, rhythm, accent and sentiment of the text to which they are set.

Some commentators assert that these modes apply simply to the various specific sections of the annual liturgical cycle; others aver that they are also vehicles for mood, atmosphere, emotion and intent, in a way that resembles a musical philosophy that grew from the European Baroque, known as the ‘Theory of Affects’ (Affektenlehre) according to which every mood may be represented by a suitable musical formula. (This concept was expanded by Kretzschmar in the 20th century into the science of Hermeneutics). A remnant of this approach to music may be examplified, in Western music, by the ‘happiness’ of the major key contrasting with the ‘sadness’ of the minor – generalisations that, of course, do not apply universally in the West. It would be most misleading to impose such characteristics upon Jewish Prayer-Modes. Indeed, the reverse interpretation sometimes applies in the Middle East, and therefore, by extension, in Jewish music too – one objection among many to the bland and over-simplified description of Jewish Prayer-Modes as ‘major’ or ‘minor’. Where such acculturation with Western norms has in fact gained a foothold in the synagogue (e.g. choral compositions set in 19th century harmony) much of the original ‘Semitic-Oriental’ flavour has been lost.

III: Brief Historical Survey of the Ashkenazi Modal System and Analyses thereof

The Prayer-Modes are common to all three branches of Jewry: Oriental, Sephardi and Ashkenazi. As presently conceived, most of them date back at least as far as the 8th century C.E. in the East Mediterranean and Babylonian regions. The most wholly unacculturated traits of Jewish liturgical music have been preserved in the synagogues of the Oriental communities; there however, as also to an extent in Sephardi communities, musical evolution has been comparatively slow – or even static – over numerous generations, partly because of the emphasis placed upon congregational participation. Per contra among the Ashkenazim, where the Chazan has been the leader and guiding force behind the music of the kehilloh since the early years of the Diaspora, the greatest development and diversity – especially between c.900 and c. 1450 C.E. in France and South West Germany – are to be observed. (Indeed, there are several Ashkenazi modes that do not occur at all in Sephardi or Oriental traditions). The influence of Italian synagogue song must be mentioned in this context, since among the earliest Jewish settlers in North and West Europe were to be found numerous Italian Rabbis and Cantors (not least among whom featured the illustrious Kalonymos family).

In the Middle Ages the River Danube formed an unofficial border between the Western and Eastern Ashkenazim. Persecution in Germany during the 15th century drove Jews eastward into Slavic countries where they mingled with Jews from the Balkans and the Middle East; in the 17th century persecution in Eastern Europe drove them westward. Thus cross-fertilization, peregrination, acculturation and misery catalysed the richest and most eloquent musical and liturgical outpourings.

Mystery surrounds the date, place, and circumstances of the naming of the Prayer-Modes. What is clear is that the prayers after which they were named were already well established in the synagogue liturgy during the first centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple. However, the earliest written sources containing these names in association with Gust or Steiger appear to be the popular Hebrew and Yiddish literature of 19th-century Eastern Europe.

All attempts to classify the Ashkenazi Prayer-Modes date from the mid-late 19th century. Abraham Baer was the first to notate systematically all the recitatives in the German and Polish manner for the entire liturgical calendar. Josef Singer, Chief Cantor in Vienna, was the first to try to organise the Steiger into a comprehensive system; his researches were continued and deepened by Aron Friedmann. However these and other theoreticians of the time seemed more interested in constructing ‘scales’ and comparing them with Gregorian Chant (to which scalic systems can be applied to an extent). Although this approach continues in certain circles to the present day, the birth of ‘comparative musicology’ (later renamed ‘ethnomusicology’) at the turn of this century caused a marked shift of attention towards distinctive and recurrent melody patterns; and it is according to this procedure that the analyses in Part 2 are to be conducted.