Music and the Cantorial Art

Music is intrinsically meaningful to the human race because of its deep connections with the brain.

This realization dawned upon me during enlightening encounters with two captivating CBC radio programs.

The first was a three-part series about the creation of Frank Zappa’s music, where he 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.

The second revelation came through a CBC radio interview with Yo-Yo Ma, emphasizing music’s profound impact. 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.

In its essence, music embodies the very sound of life, infusing emotion, nuance, and meaning. This truth is echoed in the Torah, where a prescribed musical score accompanies each word. The chanting of the Torah during congregational readings follows a defined notation, enhancing the text’s meaning in a way that neither the melody nor the text alone can achieve. This mirrors the inseparability of the “Oral Torah” and the written Torah, underlining the necessity of studying and understanding them together for complete clarity of meaning.

Joey Weisenberg’s book, “The Torah of Music,” comprehensively explores Jewish music, drawing from Midrashic, Mishnaic, and contemporary texts.

“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)

Participating in the 2020 European Cantors’ Convention gave me a unique immersion into the Jewish musical landscape. Organized by the Jewish Music Institute (JMI) of London, the event showcased the artistry of Cantors, leaving indelible impressions.

In one memorable tutorial by Cantor Daniel Mutlu from Central Synagogue in Manhattan, he commenced with the poignant phrase “es amo yevarech be’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 feminine manifestation of G-d, known as Shechinah—integral to the Friday night service.

 

At an open-mic concert, Svetlana Kurdish, a female Cantor based in Germany, graciously presents a prayer invoking divine protection from the perils of the night. The composition, crafted in the 19th century by the renowned choirmaster Louis Lewandowski for his Berlin synagogue, originally featured a choir and organ. Although this piece may not enjoy widespread popularity or familiarity today, its enduring beauty remains captivating.

 

In the third performance, Chazzan Asher Heinowitz from Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem delicately renders a timeless Yiddish lullaby. This poignant rendition was part of a memorial concert commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 26, 2020.

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!

 

Whether through rule-breaking creativity, Torah exploration, or emotionally charged performances, music transcends boundaries, acting as a wordless prayer that sparks our imagination toward life’s divine essence. Recognizing music’s fleeting yet enduring nature, we find a meaningful connection to the sacred, others, and our shared humanity. Melodies and lyrics, whether avant-garde or traditional, weave the narrative of our existence, enriching our collective journey. With its intangible beauty, music serves as a potent reminder of the vastness of the human experience, providing solace, guidance, and a timeless connection to life’s eternal rhythms.

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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