Jewish liturgical music

Jewish liturgical music, the music used in the religious services of the Jews.

The Bible and the Talmud record that spontaneous music making was common among the ancient Jews on all important occasions, religious and secular. Hebrew music was both instrumental and vocal. Singing was marked by responsorial, antiphonal, and refrain forms, and singing and dancing were accompanied by instruments. The first instruments mentioned in the Bible are the kinnor, evidently a lyre similar to the kithara, and the ugab, possibly a vertical flute. Other instruments, more of ceremonial than of musical value, included the hasosra, a trumpet, and the shofar, a ram's or goat's horn, the least musical of all and the only one still in use.

When the kingdom of Israel was established, music was developed systematically. The part played by music in the Temple was essential and highly developed. New instruments were the nevel, a harp; the halil, possibly a double oboe; the asor, a 10-stringed instrument probably like a psaltery; and the magrepha, an instrument of powerful sound, used to signal the beginning of the service. Various types of cymbals originally used in the Temple were prohibited after its restoration. Ritual music was at first only cantillation, i.e., recitative chanting, of the prose books of the Bible. Later the prayers and biblical poetry were chanted, presumably in a modal system similar to the ragas of Hindu music or the maqamat of Arab music, i.e., melodies with improvisations.

After the destruction of Jerusalem under Roman rule in A.D. 70, much of the chant was preserved among congregations of Middle Eastern Jews and arguably remains intact today, but the instrumental music was lost when the dispersed peoples, as an act of mourning, ceased playing instruments. A system of mnemonic hand signs for traditional chant had been developed in the Temple, and after the Dispersion this became the basis for the development of a system of notation. In the 9th cent., Aaron ben Asher of Tiberias perfected the te'amim, or neginoth, a system of accent signs. His notation superseded all other systems and influenced the development of the earliest Christian neumes, which became a precise system, while the te'amim retained their vague character (see musical notation).

With the growth in importance of the synagogue came the rise of the chazan, or cantor. Among the Sephardic Jews in Arab-dominated Spain Arab music had great influence and was introduced into the synagogue. Later the Ashkenazim (Jewish communities that had their original European base in Germany) accepted some of the melodic forms of German folk song and Italian court song; this adaptation was more or less successfully opposed by traditionalists who reintroduced elements from the song of the Middle Eastern Jews. The post-Renaissance cantors developed a distinct type of coloratura, which was popular in 17th-century Europe.

In the early 19th cent., instruments were introduced into some German synagogues, and other changes resulted from adaptations of Christian music. In the reform movement of the 19th cent., the cantor was eliminated, the organ was employed, and Jewish hymns were written in the vernacular and often set to tunes of Protestant hymns. Reaction against this movement brought a more moderate reform in which the Viennese cantor Salomon Sulzer (1804–90) was an outstanding figure. Sulzer aimed to restore the traditional cantillation, but without improvisation, and to make use of new music composed for the synagogue. He used the organ and included hymns in the vernacular. Sulzer's compositions, together with those of Louis Lewandowski (1821–94), another great reformer and the leading cantor of his day in Berlin, form the basis of much modern synagogue music.

In Eastern Europe, Hasidic influence was beginning in the late 18th cent. Two major Eastern European composers of traditional music were the Russian cantors Eliezer Gerowitch (1844–1914) and David Nowakowsky (1849–1921). In the United States, the reform synagogues make extensive use of hymns, mixed choirs and soloists, and organ compositions. There is a cantor in modern orthodox and conservative services but the organ is used only in some conservative services. Several 20th-century musicians, notably Ernest Bloch and Gershon Ephros, have composed new works for the reformed and traditional services, respectively.

See A. Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1967); A. M. Rothmüller, The Music of the Jews (tr. 1954, rev. ed. 1967); A. Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (1969); E. Werner, A Voice Still Heard (1976).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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