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The Music Of The Synagogue Post by :Jim_Hutton Category :Essays Author :Gustav Karpeles Date :November 2011 Read :2190

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The Music Of The Synagogue


Ladies and Gentlemen:--Let the emotions aroused by the notes of the great masters, now dying away upon the air, continue to reverberate in your souls. More forcibly and more eloquently than my weak words, they express the thoughts and the feelings appropriate to this solemn occasion.

A festival like ours has rarely been celebrated in Israel. For nearly two thousand years the muse of Jewish melody was silent; during the whole of that period, a new chord was but seldom won from the unused lyre. The Talmud(108) has a quaint tale on the subject: Higros the Levite living at the time of the decadence of Israel's nationality, was the last skilled musician, and he refused to teach his art. When he sang his exquisite melodies, touching his mouth with his thumb, and striking the strings with his fingers, it is said that his priestly mates, transported by the magic power of his art, fell prostrate, and wept. Under the Oriental trappings of this tale is concealed regretful anguish over the decay of old Hebrew song. The altar at Jerusalem was demolished, and the songs of Zion, erst sung by the Levitical choirs under the leadership of the Korachides, were heard no longer. The silence was unbroken, until, in our day, a band of gifted men disengaged the old harps from the willows, and once more lured the ancient melodies from their quavering strings.

Towering head and shoulders above most of the group of restorers is he in whose honor we are assembled, to whom we bring greeting and congratulation. To you, then, Herr Lewandowski, I address myself to offer you the deep-felt gratitude and the cordial wishes of your friends, of the Berlin community, and, I may add, of the whole of Israel. You were appointed for large tasks--large tasks have you successfully performed. At a time when Judaism was at a low ebb, only scarcely discernible indications promising a brighter future, Providence sent you to occupy a guide's position in the most important, the largest, and the most intelligent Jewish community of Germany. For fifty years your zeal, your diligence, your faithfulness, your devotion, your affectionate reverence for our past, and your exalted gifts, have graced the office. Were testimony unto your gifts and character needed, it would be given by this day's celebration, proving, as it does, that your brethren have understood the underlying thought of your activities, have grasped their bearing upon Jewish development, and have appreciated their influence.

You have remodelled the divine service of the Jewish synagogue, superadding elements of devotion and sacredness. Under your touch old lays have clothed themselves with a modern garb--a new rhythm vibrates through our historic melodies, keener strength in the familiar words, heightened dignity in the cherished songs. Two generations and all parts of the world have hearkened to your harmonies, responding to them with tears of joy or sorrow, with feelings stirred from the recesses of the heart. To your music have listened entranced the boy and the girl on the day of declaring their allegiance to the covenant of the fathers; the youth and the maiden in life's most solemn hour; men and women in all the sacred moments of the year, on days of mourning and of festivity.

A quarter of a century ago, when you celebrated the end of twenty-five years of useful work, a better man stood here, and spoke to you. Leopold Zunz on that occasion said to you: "Old thoughts have been transformed by you into modern emotions, and long stored words seasoned with your melodies have made delicious food."

This is your share in the revival of Jewish poesy, and what you have resuscitated, and remodelled, and re-created, will endure, echoing and re-echoing through all the lands. In you Higros the Levite has been restored to us. But your melodies will never sink into oblivious silence. They have been carried by an honorable body of disciples to distant lands, beyond the ocean, to communities in the remote countries of civilization. Thus they have become the perpetual inheritance of the congregation of Jacob, the people that has ever loved and wooed music, only direst distress succeeding in flinging the pall of silence over song and melody.

Holy Writ places the origin of music in the primitive days of man, tersely pointing out, at the same time, music's conciliatory charms: it is the descendant of Cain, the fratricide, a son of Lemech, the slayer of a man to his own wounding, who is said to be the "father of all such as play on the harp and guitar" (Kinnor and Ugab). Another of Lemech's sons was the first artificer in every article of copper and iron, the inventor of weapons of war, as the former was the inventor of stringed instruments. Both used brass, the one to sing, the other to fight. So music sprang from sorrow and combat. Song and roundelay, timbrels and harp, accompanied our forefathers on their wanderings, and preceded the armed men into battle. So, too, the returning victor was greeted, and in the Temple on Moriah's crest, joyful songs of gratitude extolled the grace of the Lord. From the harp issued the psalm dedicated to the glory of God--love of art gave rise to the psalter, a song-book for the nations, and its author David may be called the founder of the national and Temple music of the ancient Hebrews. With his song, he banished the evil spirit from Saul's soul; with his skill on the psaltery, he defeated his enemies, and he led the jubilant chorus in the Holy City singing to the honor and glory of the Most High.

Compare the Hebrew and the Hellenic music of ancient times: Orpheus with his music charms wild beasts; David's subdues demons. By means of Amphion's lyre, living walls raise themselves; Israel's cornets make level the ramparts of Jericho. Arion's melodies lure dolphins from the sea; Hebrew music infuses into the prophet's disciples the spirit of the Lord. These are the wondrous effects of music in Israel and in Hellas, the foremost representatives of ancient civilization. Had the one united with the other, what celestial harmonies might have resulted! But later, in the time of Macedonian imperialism, when Alexandria and Jerusalem met, the one stood for enervated paganism, the other for a Judaism of compromise, and a union of such tones produces no harmonious chords.

But little is known of the ancient Hebrew music of the Temple, of the singers, the songs, the melodies, and the instruments. The Hebrews had songs and instrumental music on all festive, solemn occasions, particularly during the divine service. At their national celebrations, in their homes, at their diversions, even on their journeys and their pilgrimages to the sanctuary, their hymns were at once religious, patriotic, and social.(109) They had the viol and the cithara, flutes, cymbals, and castanets, and, if our authorities interpret correctly, an organ (magrepha), whose volume of sound surpassed description. When, on the Day of Atonement, its strains pealed through the chambers of the Temple, they were heard in the whole of Jerusalem, and all the people bowed in humble adoration before the Lord of hosts. The old music ceased with the overthrow of the Jewish state. The Levites hung their harps on the willows of Babylon's streams, and every entreaty for the "words of song" was met by the reproachful inquiry: "How should we sing the song of the Lord on the soil of the stranger?" Higros the Levite was the last of Israelitish tone-artists.

Israel set out on his fateful wanderings, his unparalleled pilgrimage, through the lands and the centuries, along an endless, thorny path, drenched with blood, watered with tears, across nations and thrones, lonely, terrible, sublime with the stern sublimity of tragic scenes. They are not the sights and experiences to inspire joyous songs--melody is muffled by terror. Only lamentation finds voice, an endless, oppressive, anxious wail, sounding adown, through two thousand years, like a long-drawn sigh, reverberating in far-reaching echoes: "How long, O Lord, how long!" and "When shall a redeemer arise for this people?" These elegiac refrains Israel never wearies of repeating on all his journeyings. Occasionally a fitful gleam of sunlight glides into the crowded Jewish quarters, and at once a more joyous note is heard, rising triumphant above the doleful plaint, a note which asserts itself exultingly on the celebration in memory of the Maccabean heroes, on the days of Purim, at wedding banquets, at the love-feasts of the pious brotherhood. This fusion of melancholy and of rejoicing is the keynote of mediæval Jewish music growing out of the grotesque contrasts of Jewish history. Yet, despite its romantic woe, it is informed with the spirit of a remote past, making it the legitimate offspring of ancient Hebrew music, whose characteristics, to be sure, we arrive at only by guesswork. Of that mediæval music of ours, the poet's words are true: "It rejoices so pathetically, it laments so joyfully."

Whoever has heard, will never forget Israel's melodies, breaking forth into rejoicing, then cast down with sadness: flinging out their notes to the skies, then sinking into an abyss of grief: now elated, now oppressed; now holding out hope, now moaning forth sorrow and pain. They convey the whole of Judah's history--his glorious past, his mournful present, his exalted future promised by God. As their tones flood our soul, a succession of visions passes before our mental view: the Temple in all its unexampled splendor, the exultant chorus of Levites, the priests discharging their holy office, the venerable forms of the patriarchs, the lawgiver-guide of the people, prophets with uplifted finger of warning, worthy rabbis, pale-faced martyrs of the middle ages; but the melodies conjuring before our minds all these shadowy figures have but one burden: "How should we sing the song of the Lord on the soil of the stranger?"

That is the ever-recurring motif of the Jewish music of the middle ages. But the blending of widely different emotions is not favorable in the creation of melody. Secular occurrences set their seal upon religious music, of which some have so high a conception as to call it one of the seven liberal arts, or even to extol it beyond poetry. Jacob Levi of Mayence (Maharil), living at the beginning of the fifteenth century, is considered the founder of German synagogue music, but his productions remained barren of poetic and devotional results. He drew his best subjects from alien sources. At the time of the Italian Renaissance, music had so firmly established itself in the appreciation of the people that a preacher, Judah Muscato, devoted the first of his celebrated sermons to music, assigning to it a high mission among the arts. He interpreted the legend of David's Æolian harp as a beautiful allegory. Basing his explanation on a verse in the Psalms, he showed that it symbolizes a spiritual experience of the royal bard. Another writer, Abraham ben David Portaleone, found the times still riper; he could venture to write a theory of music, as taught him by his teachers, Samuel Arkevolti and Menahem Lonsano, both of whom had strongly opposed the use of certain secular melodies then current in Italy, Germany, France, and Turkey for religious songs. Among Jewish musicians in the latter centuries of the middle ages, the most prominent was Solomon Rossi. He, too, failed to exercise influence on the shaping of Jewish music, which more and more delighted in grotesqueness and aberrations from good taste. The origin of synagogue melodies was attributed to remoter and remoter periods; the most soulful hymns were adapted to frivolous airs. Later still, at a time when German music had risen to its zenith, when Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven flourished, the Jewish strolling musician Klesmer, a mendicant in the world of song as in the world of finance, was wandering through the provinces with his two mates.

Suddenly a new era dawned for Israel, too. The sun of humanity sent a few of its rays into the squalid Ghetto. Its walls fell before the trumpet blast of deliverance. On all sides sounded the cry for liberty. The brotherhood of man, embracing all, did not exclude storm-baptized Israel. The old synagogue had to keep pace with modern demands, and was arrayed in a new garb. Among those who designed and fashioned the new garment, he is prominent in whose honor we have met to-day.

From our short journey through the centuries of music, we have returned to him who has succeeded in the great work of restoring to its honorable place the music of the synagogue, sorely missed, ardently longed for, and bringing back to us old songs in a new guise. An old song and a new melody! The old song of abiding love, loyalty, and resignation to the will of God! His motto was the beautiful verse: "My strength and my song is the Lord"; and his unchanging refrain, the jubilant exclamation: "Blessed be thou, fair Musica!" A wise man once said: "Hold in high honor our Lady of Music!" The wise man was Martin Luther--another instance this of the conciliatory power of music, standing high above the barriers raised by religious differences. It is worthy of mention, on this occasion, that at the four hundredth anniversary celebration in honor of Martin Luther, in the Sebaldus church at Nuremberg, the most Protestant of the cities of Germany, called by Luther himself "the eye of God," a psalm of David was sung to music composed by our guest of the day.

"Hold in high honor our Lady of Music!" We will be admonished by the behest, and give honor to the artist by whose fostering care the music of the synagogue enjoys a new lease of life; who, with pious zeal, has collected our dear old melodies, and has sung them to us with all the ardor and power with which God in His kindness endowed him.

"The sculptor must simulate life, of the poet I demand intelligence;
The soul can be expressed only by Polyhymnia!"

An orphan, song wandered hither and thither through the world, met, after many days, by the musician, who compassionately adopted it, and clothed it with his melodies. On the pinions of music, it now soars whithersoever it listeth, bringing joy and blessing wherever it alights. "The old song, the new melody!" Hark! through the silence of the night in this solemn moment, one of those old songs, clad by our maestro in a new melody, falls upon our ears: "I remember unto thee the kindness of thy youth, the love of thy espousals, thy going after me in the wilderness, through a land that is not sown!"

Hearken! Can we not distinguish in its notes, as they fill our ears, the presage of a music of the future, of love and good-will? We seem to hear the rustle of the young leaves of a new spring, the resurrection foretold thousands of years agone by our poets and prophets. We see slowly dawning that great day on which mankind, awakened from the fitful sleep of error and delusion, will unite in the profession of the creed of brotherly love, and Israel's song will be mankind's song, myriads of voices in unison sending aloft to the skies the psalm of praise: Hallelujah, Hallelujah!



(107) Address at the celebration of Herr Lewandowski's fiftieth anniversary as director of music.

(108) Yoma, 38a.

(109) Cmp. Fétis, Histoire générale de la Musique, Vol. I., p. 563 ff.

(The end)
Gustav Karpeles's essay: Music Of The Synagogue

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