Music and the Cantorial Art

The connection between music and cantorial art is unbreakable. Cantorial music is a powerful tool for spiritual bonding, cultural identity, and artistic expression in the Jewish tradition. Jewish prayer services have developed various melodies, chants, and singing techniques for centuries. This connection between music and cantorial art highlights the ability of music to connect with the human mind and soul, revealing the intricate relationship between artistry and neuroscience. Recently, I listened to two interesting CBC radio programs that explored different aspects of music’s influence on our lives. One program focused on Frank Zappa’s groundbreaking compositions, while the other showcased Yo-Yo Ma’s moving performances. This exploration made me realize music’s profound impact on our emotions, spirituality, and connection to cultural and religious traditions. From the melodic chants of the Torah to the transformative power of Jewish music explored in Joey Weisenberg’s ‘The Torah of Music,’ it became evident that music serves as a universal language that speaks to the core of our humanity, touching us in ways both tangible and transcendent.

Zappa’s Challenge

Frank Zappa aptly challenged the notion of rigid musical rules. Zappa’s ability to translate the sounds of the twentieth century into resonant musical expressions struck a chord with the essence of our reality. Despite my unfamiliarity with Zappa, his compositions revealed a profound connection to the tapestry of life.

“If you believe there are rules to writing music that can’t be broken… you’re going to be a boring composer.”

Ma’s Melodic Comfort

Meanwhile, Ma’s live cello performances during the pandemic highlighted music’s comforting and guiding role in navigating life’s transitions. As Ma played, the physical vibrations of sound became a palpable force, deeply ‘touching’ us.”

The Torah’s Melodic Chants

Music is a powerful art form that can capture the essence of life through sound, emotion, nuance, and meaning. The importance of music is also reflected in the Torah, where each word is accompanied by a specific musical score. When the Torah is chanted during congregational readings, the prescribed notation enhances the meaning of the text in a way that neither the melody nor the text alone can achieve. This underscores the inseparability of the ‘Oral Torah’ and the written Torah, emphasizing the need to study and understand them together to gain complete clarity of meaning.

Joey Weisenberg’s book, ‘The Torah of Music,’ comprehensively explores Jewish music. The book draws from Midrashic, Mishnaic, and contemporary texts to offer a deeper understanding of the significance of music in Jewish culture.

“I wrote this book as a chizuk or strengthening of the spirit for musicians, community leaders, and others who, like myself, would like to learn more about the story of music as a Jewish spiritual practice and play some part in its unfolding narrative… I’ve found that singing has transcended barriers in the Jewish world, and increasingly outside of the Jewish world as well. Across all lines, music speaks and resonates and connects and deepens our human experience.

Music is a wordless prayer that opens up our imagination of the divine source of all life. Music, the most immaterial and ephemeral and yet most eternal of all the art forms, represents our connection to the Divine, to each other, to everything. We can’t see music, and we can’t grasp it in our hands, but yet we can feel it working through us and in the world. As our musical dreams go to work, we might similarly be able to imagine encountering the Divine “The Holy Blessedness that is over and above all blessings and songs.” (The Torah of Music)

Immersing in Cantorial Artistry:

I participated in the 2020 European Cantors’ Convention, which gave me a unique opportunity to immerse myself in the Jewish musical landscape. The Jewish Music Institute (JMI) of London organized the event, showcasing Cantors’ exceptional artistry and leaving a lasting impression on me.

During one of the tutorials, led by Cantor Daniel Mutlu from Central Synagogue in Manhattan, he began with the poignant phrase “es amo search shalom” (His nation he will bless with peace). The session seamlessly transitioned into the familiar hymn “l’cha dodi,” a respectful welcome to the Sabbath Queen. The Sabbath Queen is the feminine manifestation of God, Shechinah, and is an integral part of the Friday night service.

Svetlana Kurdish, a female Cantor from Germany, presented a prayer at an open-mic concert that invoked divine protection from the perils of the night. The composition was created by the famous choirmaster Louis Lewandowski for his Berlin synagogue in the 19th century and originally featured a choir and an organ. Although this piece may not be well-known or frequently played today, its enduring beauty continues to captivate audiences.

In a concert commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 26, 2020, Chazzan Asher Heinowitz from Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem performed a Yiddish lullaby with great sensitivity and poignancy.

Shlof-zhe mir shoyn, Yankele, mayn sheyner,
Sleep already, my Yankele, my pretty,
Di Eygelekh, di shvartsinke makh tsu,
the eyes, those darkish eyes. do close
A yingele vos hot shoyn ale tseyndelekh,
a little boy who already has all his teeth
Muz nokh di mame zingen ay-lyu-lyu?
the mother still has to sing ay-lyu-lyu
A yingele, vos hot shoyn ale tseyndelekh,
a little boy who already has all his teeth
Un vert mit mazl bald in kheyder geyn,
and with any luck will soon be going to heder-school
Un lernen vet er khumesh un gemoro,
and will be learning khumesh-bible and gemoro-talmud
Zol veynen ven di mame vigt im on?
Still cries when mother rocks his cradle
A yingele, vos lernen vet gemoro,
a little boy who will be soon learning  Humash and Gemoro – Bible and Talmud
Ot shteyt der tate, kvelt un hert zikh tsu,
as his father swells with pride listening to him recite
A yingele vos vakst a talmid khokhem
a little boy becoming a talmid khokhem-a clever student 
Lozt gantse nekht der mamen nisht tsuru?
Still does not leave his mother any peace all night.

Vel kosten noch fil Mame’s treeren
It will cost your mother still many a tear
Bis vonen felt a mensch arof fun dir
Before you will become a “mentsch” – an upstanding adult!

Music is a powerful force connecting us to each other and the divine. It can unite cultural differences and lift our spirits. My experiences with Jewish musical traditions, such as attending the European Cantors’ Convention, have reminded me of this. Music can bring together different aspects of our lives, providing comfort, inspiration, and a glimpse into the beauty of existence. Music speaks truths beyond language and logic through its melodies and harmonies, inviting us to listen deeply and embrace the symphony of life with open hearts and receptive souls.

One thought on “Music and the Cantorial Art

  1. Thank you Abigail for this beautiful, engaging and enriching blog. Certainly I would be interested in a documentary on the cantor’s art, showcasing the convention. Congratulations on this lovely work!

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