Music and the Cantorial Art

Because of its deep connections with the brain, music is intrinsically meaningful to the human race.

This was brought home to me by two excellent programs on CBC radio. One was a three-part series about the creation of Frank Zappa’s music, narrated by those who worked with him.

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

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa took the sounds of the twentieth century and transformed them into music. Although I had no prior connection to Frank Zappa or his music, I recognized our world in his work.

Yo-Yo Ma

A second program I recently viewed was the CBC radio interview with Yo-Yo Ma on music’s power to “comfort, give solace, and transition us from life to death.” During the pandemic, Yo-Yo Ma regularly played his cello live on social media. Listening to him play his cello on this program left me with chills of recognition. He explained that the vibrations of sound do “touch” us in a very physical way.

Music is the sound of life. It adds emotion, nuance, and meaning. The Torah itself has a prescribed score for every single word in it. When the reader chants the Torah’s text for the congregation, he follows a defined scored notation, which powerfully enhances the text’s meaning and is inseparable from it. The melody, coupled with the text, creates resonance and a sense that neither alone can carry. It is parallel to the notion that the “Oral Torah” (the Torah legacy initially passed on orally from Sinai) and the written Torah (the actual text on parchment) are inseparable and need to be studied and understood together to achieve complete clarity of meaning.

The Torah of Music by Joey WeisenbergJoey Weisenberg has written the definitive book about Jewish music, The Torah of Music. He has collected all of the Midrashic, Mishnaic and contemporary texts referring to music. In addition, he has lyrical chapters on music – its varying moods and purposes on the character and function of specific instruments – and the uses of the voice.

“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)

The 2020 European Cantors’ Convention in Hanover, Germany, allowed me to experience some part of the Jewish soundtrack. Sponsored by the Jewish Music Institute (JMI) of London, the convention was a remarkable experience where I got to witness and listen to the art of the Cantor. I share some snippets below.

Cantor Daniel Mutlu of Central Synagogue in Manhattan, during a tutorial for Cantors, starts with “es amo yevarech be’shalom” (His nation he will bless with peace) and then moves into the familiar hymn, l’cha dodi, welcoming the Sabbath Queen – the feminine aspect of G-d, Shechinah – as part of the Friday night service.

Svetlana Kurdish, a female Cantor serving in Germany, shares a prayer for G-d to protect us from the dangers of the night at an open-mike concert. This piece was composed in the 19th century by the legendary choirmaster Louis Lewandowski for his Berlin synagogue, complete with choir and organ. This music is no longer popular or very familiar but remains quite beautiful.

In this third piece, Chazzan Asher Heinowitz of Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem sings a classic Yiddish lullaby. This was part of a memorial concert to honour 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!

I hope to share more of these clips from the convention with you soon. After participating In the Cantors’ convention, I believe this work deserves a broader audience. Perhaps a documentary showcasing the cantors’ art based on the European Cantors Convention would be worthwhile. Would this be of interest to you?


1 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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