THE absence of monumental records of Hebrew music, some of which, however, may yet be found by the zealous explorers now at work in Palestine, renders the subject of the vocal music of the Jews no less involved in difficulty and mystery than that of their musical instruments. And in offering a few remarks upon it, the course already pursued seems to be the only one open to usnamely, to attempt to give some general idea of what ancient vocal music was, and leave it to the reader to judge how far the Hebrews caught the artistic spirit of their age, or were led by an unusual share of musical ability to excel their neighbors or contemporaries in the practice of this art. If a set of pipes could be found, in good preservation, in each of the centers of ancient civilization, an approximation might be made to the scales commonly in use ; but, alas ! when the treasures of European museums are ransacked, and some of the envied specimens produced, it is found that they are too old and crumbling to bear handling, or, if they may be freely handled, resolutely decline to emit a sound of any kind. Facsimiles, it is true, can be constructed. But, as has been hinted in a previous chapter, the method of blowing into a reed-pipe, or of closing or half-closing the apertures, has all to do with the reproduction of its scale ; so that even if. an ancient pipe were actually placed in the hands of one of our most expert players, he could only give us a general idea of its original capabilities. From ancient instruments of the harp or guitar class which have survived still less information can be gleaned. It is hardly necessary to say that, at the most, only fragments of the strings remain attached to their frames ; nor would an intact set tell . any tale, as stringed instruments are not in the habit of remaining in tune for several thousands of years.
Of course written music, or the use of signs to represent sounds, must have been, in point of time, far posterior to the use of both vocal and instrumental music. Even if music had never had a definite scientific growth, it could not have failed to creep into use from a common observance of the different effects produced by altering the pitch of the voice, especially when reading poetry. Whilst reciting the great deeds of ancestors, or traditional hymns on the greatness of the unseen Maker of the universe, the modulation of the voice must have been a most important element of the poet’s or minstrel’s training. Bearing this fact in mind, it is easy to imagine how, first of all, a solemn monotone, next, occasional changes of pitch, and, lastly, ornaments and graces, came to be part of the reciter’s art, or, in other words, the poet’s music. The Arabs to this day recite the Koran to a sort of irregular chant or cantillation. Among many nations musical instruments were used to support the voice of the chanter. That the prophets of Israel sometimes uttered their inspirations in such a manner is suggested in i Sam. x. 5. It is a well-known fact that ancient Greek poets rhapsodised in a sing-song way often to the accompaniment of a lyre or pipe. The traditions of such accompaniment were probably handed down to the Italian improvisatori, and the troubadours, whose rhymes were frequently sung to chant-like melodies.
How to write these modulations of the voice was quite another question. And here we find that ancient musical notation seems naturally to have grown into two branches, the difference between them depending upon the taste or aptitude of different nations for incorporating into their music sounds of fixed pitch, or ornaments and graces which could be used in any pitch according to the reciter’s wish or requirements. At once the fact suggests itself to us that flutes or wind instruments would have a tendency to fix definite pitch, while harps and guitars, owing to the ease with which their accordatura or system of tuning could be altered, would be available for a constantly changing normal pitch,or diapason, as we some-what improperly term it.
Not forgetting this, it is most interesting to find that in notation the tendency of Europeans has been from the earliest times to graduate sounds from a known generator, and so to fix pitch ; while, on the other hand, the taste for ornament has led Asiatic nations to devise means rather for expressing these ornaments than for securing their immutability in a scale series.
To this day an Asiatic song generally consists of a slight melodic framework, almost hidden beneath a load of extraneous graces. The following fragment of an Arabian tune would puzzle the most devoted lover of fioritura. The notes marked x are not doubly sharpened, as would be implied by our modern notation, but express small intervals lying between the notes of our scale which we have no means of showing.
It must not for one moment be supposed that all Asiatic melodies abound in graces, or that all ancient European tunes lack them quite the contrary. All that is meant is that the tendency of these two branches of music is in the one case to include them, and in the other to exclude them.
Hence we find that the oldest known form of European notation has for its object the giving of a sign for a fixed note ; the oldest, or presumably the oldest, of Eastern systems the giving of a sign for the movement of the voice for a certain interval, or this same movement with the addition of an embellishment. The former is exemplified in the Greek notation, as given in ancient treatises ; the latter in the so-called accents of the Hebrews, of which more will be said later. Hence, ancient notations are of two kinds : those founded on the use of the letters of the alphabet, and those in which conventional signs described conventional ornaments. These two, however, though distinct in principle, often overlap each other. The ancient notation of the Eastern Church, which was tabulated by St. John of Damascus, who was to the Eastern Church, musically, what Gregory was to the Western, consisted of signs which must be considered as indications of the form of the movement of the music-director’s hand. Much can be said in favour of this theory, as a system of chironomy has been associated with music from the earliest times.
Ison is the keynote or tonic, a movable Doh. The other signs represent the vocalisation of various intervals above ; namely, the second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.
If such distinctive signs as these were used only for the expression of definite intervals, the translation’ of such music into modern notes would be comparatively easy ; but unfortunately the Hebrew accents were intended in all probability to describe often not only an interval, but a succession of -notes and an embellishment. The reading of the sacred Scriptures, says De Sola, was ” always accompanied by the observance of certain signs or accents, intended to determine the sense, and as musical notes ; which, although they have a distinct form or figure, do not, nevertheless, present a determinate sound like our present musical notes, but their sound is dependent on oral instruction, since the same sounds vary in sound in the various scriptural books, and are modulated according to the tenor and contents of them.” De Sola then goes on to quote R. Simeon bar Zemach Duran, to the effect that of the accents, which are sorts of melodies, three have remained : one appropriated to the reading of the Pentateuch; the second for that of the Prophets (the portion used on Sabbaths and festivals differing from the rest) ; the third for the reading of the Psalms, the Proverbs, and Book of Job. Some of these signs are placed over words, others under ; some over the last letter of a word, last but one, or in other positions, the musical value varying accordingly.
The form of several of the above will be found to differ from that given to them in other works, because in the manuscripts from which the accents are copied, it has varied slightly from time to time. Kircher (Musurgia, 165o) exhibits their position above or below a word by using a short line as an imaginary word. Some of the vowel-accents of Hebrew become tonal-accents if placed in a particular place with regard to the letters forming the word. This adds to the difficulties of this already difficult subj.ect. The following, in modern notation, are some of Kircher’s explanations of the accents.
A careful examination of Kircher’s complete list will, however, raise some doubts as to his trust-worthiness. Exactly similar musical phrases are in more than one instance given for two different accents, and the explanation of some of them resolves itself into the repetition of a single note.
The questions which arise as to the meaning of these signs would pass from the consideration of the musician to that of the scholar, were it not for the fact that complete musical transcriptions of them, such as those above, have been given by several authors. On comparing these, however, their difference is found to be so great that the conclusion is unwillingly forced upon us that practically the musical rendering of the accents varies in character according to the nature of music in use in whatever country the Jews have become domiciled. Thus Eastern Jews give them in music which bears a close likeness to that of modern Asiatics. Their interpretation in Spain is palpably Moorish ; in Germany it is different from both of these, and so on. The few following examples will point out the discrepancies which exist in their explanation.
Schalscheleth, which has already been quoted from Kircher, is traditionally rendered in the Egyptian synagogues by the English Jews, according to Nathan (Essay on History of Music) by the Spanish Jews, according to Bartolocci (Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica).
Any translations more divergent in character than these can scarcely be conceived. In comparing traditional tunes it is generally, or at least often, found that the different versions begin and end in the same key-tonality; but in comparing the above four traditional explanations of schalscheleth not. even this similarity of construction is observable.
It should be remarked that the musical renderings. of the accents, as given by Egyptian and Syrian Jews, bear a striking resemblance to each other.. For instance, thalsha is thus sung by the Egyptian Jews (according to Fétis).
The Syrian use is practically identical.
It has also been found that two sects of Jews in Egypt, though opposed to each other in ceremonial and doctrine, have very similar systems of singing the accents.
As the primary use of accents is to point out the usual elevation of the voiceas shown by the Greek accents, which were a comparatively late addition to their written language, for the benefit of foreign studentsso also it is quite possible that these complicated Hebrew accents gradually grew out of what were originally simple signs directing a slight elevation of the voice when reading or perhaps. monotoning. That monotone, when used from century to century in the mouth of devout readers, would grow into a cantillation, or rude sort of chant, can be proved by the history of our early Church plain-song. Why should not the Hebrews in their day have passed through the same phases of musical development as have other nations ?
If there is any truth in this thought it would be futile to attempt to stereotype, as it were, the actual meanings of their tonal accents. In the most primitive times, what would now strike us as a simple cadence of the voice must have added dignity to the solemn recitation of the revered words of the treasured rolls. As art evolved, these improvised ornaments would naturally become more complicated, until, as we actually find to be the case, they would rival the most ambitious modern roulade. In the authors already quoted, the reader who is specially interested in this subject will find much information.* A quotation (from Naumbourg) of a fragment of Genesis xxii. shows the result of strictly applying the meaning of the accents attached to the text of the Pentateuch, as interpreted or taken down from tradition by him.
It is curious that one of the earliest attempts at musical notation among Western Christians should have consisted of signs, such as the following, placed over words :
The above, which comes from a work of the 11th century, has been copied from Coussemaker’s admirable History of Harmony in the Middle Ages. As a class these signs were called neumes, but some-times also accents. They laboured under precisely the same disadvantages as their prototypes among the Hebrews, namely, the probability of a diversity of translation. Modern musicians perhaps do not know how grateful they ought to be to those who first used lines, or a staff of lines, to represent the exact interval between ascending and descending sounds. Attempts were probably made to intro-duce them at about the same date ascribed to the above signs, after which their use rapidly spread. Until such a system came into existence music was chained within the narrowest limits. By enabling composers to express in a simple form the relation or position of two or more parts placed over one another, it doubtless paved the way for that marvellous expansion of harmony, or polyphony, into a separate branch of the art, which has achieved such wonders in our own day. For although early composers of part-music, it is presumed in accordance with fashion, rarely published scores of their works, it cannot be doubted that in the quietude of their study they took the simple course of sketching a score before copying out separate parts. This growth of harmony must be looked upon as the distinctive feature of modern music. By ” harmony” must of course be understood that independence of movement in the component parts of music which makes some of our finest music practically into a number of beautiful melodies heard simultaneously. This, it is almost a certainty, was unknown to all ancient nations. In the more limited sense of the word” a combination of consonant, or properly regulated dissonant, sounds,” or, in short, chordsthe Ancients no doubt may be said to have had harmony, that is to say, certain notes of their scales were very probably accompanied by chords, according to certain rules. Yet they had only one melody at a time, whereas we can, and do, listen to many conjointly. And who can describe the pleasure which accrues to a trained musician when he grasps in his mind many threads of delicious melody, and traces the composer’s genius in inter-lacing them, now drawing them close together, now spreading them out until the ear is taxed to gather in high and deep tones ; and still further, while thus interweaving the several threads, is spreading to the ear at each combination, whether the parts move concordantly or are discordantly jostling one another, chords which are in themselves complete and beautiful sets of sweet sounds ? Such harmonyto be found in the works of a Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, or Mendelssohn did not exist for the Hebrews, Egyptians, or even Greeks. It places modern music on a pinnacle of glory. Chords, and a regulated use of chords, the Hebrews very probably used ; but they did not possess the full gift which we term harmony.
As regards the form of early Hebrew melodies, it is probable that they are reflected in modern Asiatic music, and would, if we could hear them now, strike us as being in a sort of minor mode. It is possible that they might at one time have had an enharmonic scale (that is, a scale having intervals less than a semitone), and that this was in time superseded by a simpler form ; but there are good reasons for supposing that they used a form of scale consisting of tones and semitones. From some of the music now sung by Egyptian Jews such scales as the following might be formed.
In all attempts to construct scales from traditional songs, the great difficulty which presents itself is to discover what was the key-note or starting-point of the scale. If ancient melodies began or ended on the key-note or tonic, the knot could at once be unravelled ; but this no one can venture to assume. The key-note of the Greeks was at first, unquestionably, in the middle of their scale. The reader must bear in mind that the question is not of what sounds any tune is made up, but in what order did these sounds occur to form a scale. Engel has shown his appreciation of this difficulty when discussing the pentatonic scale, to which he justly attributes great antiquity. It consists of what we should call the first, second, fourth, fifth, and sixth degrees of our modern scale.
In some of the oldest known tunes made up of these notes, the lowest note is not the tonic. But if it be written thus it presents a very different appearance to the eye, and produces a very different effect on the ear. Yet, without doubt, any musical instrument tuned to a series of notes corresponding to the above might with justice be described as possessing a pentatonic scale. Some interesting remarks on the almost universal use of this pentatonic, or pentaphonic, scale will be found in Gevaert.
The following beautiful tune is Syrian. Simple harmonies have been added to it for the assistance of those who cannot harmonize it for themselves.
The rhythm of this tune is so symmetrical that it might well be used as a hymn-tune. In this respect it is perhaps different from many of its class. It will be noticed that its compass is a minor sixth, a compass within which old melodies are often contained, and which had been remarked by Villoteau as a feature in some of the Egyptian-Jewish music.
The following melody was sent to M. Fétis, whose account of the vocal music of the Jews is perhaps the most interesting and reliable portion of his Histoire Générale de la Musique (and to whom we are indebted for much of the music that has been given), by a resident of Egypt, as being traditional in the synagogue of Alexandria.
The quaint and wild beauty of this tune will be appreciated by the most unmusical reader. As an example of ancient Hebrew music, the tune which follows is given with a simple pianoforte accompaniment. It is called the ” Song of Moses.” De Sola says that a very ancient Spanish work affirms that it was the veritable melody sung by Miriam and her companions. Such a legend goes to prove that the melody probably belongs to a period anterior to the regular settlement of the Jews in Spain.
In cantillation, which has above been described as a rude kind of chant, all the defects which are attached to irregularity and uncertainty showed themselves. Its character varied from time to time and in different places. But the very irregularity of this sort of chant renders it singularly appropriate for use to poems of a complicated or constantly changing rhythm, such as the Psalms. The rigidity of the form of the single or double chants to which we sing the .beautiful Prayer-book translation of the Psalms is really their great fault, for although it gives a congregation of hearers every opportunity of quickly learning its unvarying tune, yet it must remain exactly of the same length and cadence, whether the verses be short or long, or whether the parallelisms of the poetry run in half-verses, whole verses, or in sets of two verses. The unequal length of the mediations and endings of Gregorian tones has been urged in their behalf, as giving greater. elasticity to the musical recitation of the Psalms. It must be allowed that this is true, but on the other hand this advantage is often thrown away by using one particular tone for a whole Psalm, or, what is still worse, for several consecutive Psalms at one service. We moderns, it must be confessed, stand greatly in need of some easy form of cantillation for psalm-singing, which, owing to its elastic character, shall be capable of being moulded to suit irregularly-constructed poems. The following chant is used to the 18th Psalm by the Spanish Jews. As will be seen, it has lost much of the rhythmical irregularity of cantillation, but yet is not tied up in a strait-jacket like a modern chant.
As to the manner in which the Psalms were rendered at the time of the first Temple, little can be said with certainty, unless it be that the instruments we have enumerated were used in whole or in portions, and that dancing of a solemn character formed an accompaniment to the rhythm of the music. Of the psalm-singing of the second Temple, clearly-defined traditions are to be found in the Talmud,* according to which, on a sign being given on cymbals, twelve Levites, standing upon the broad step of the stairway leading from the place of the congregation to the outer court of the priests, playing upon nine lyres, two harps, and one cymbal, began the singing of the Psalm, while the officiating priests poured out the wine offering. Younger Levites played other instruments, but did not sing ; while the Levitical boys strengthened the treble part by singing and not playing. The pauses of the Psalm, or its divisions, were indicated by blasts of trumpets by priests at the right and left of the cymbalists.
It will not be difficult to form an opinion of the general effect of Temple music on solemn occasions if we know the grand musical results of harps, trumpets, cymbals, and other simple instruments, when used in large numbers simultaneously, or in alternating masses. It is easy to describe it in an offhand way as barbarous. Barbarous in one sense, no doubt, it was ; so, too, was the frequent gash of the uplift sacrificial knife in the throat of helpless victims on reeking altars. Yet the great Jehovah Himself condescended to consecrate by His visible Presence ceremonials of such sort, and why may we not believe that the sacred fire touched the singers’ lips and urged on the cunning fingers of harpists, when songs of praise, mixing with the wreathing smoke of incense, found their way to His throne, the outpourings of true reverence and holy joy? If one of us could now be transported into the midst of such a scene, an overpowering sense of awe and sublimity would be inevitable. But how much more must the devout Israelites themselves have been affected, who felt that their little banda mere handful in the midst of mighty heathen nationswas, as it were, the very casket permitted to hold the revelation of God to man, of Creator to His creatures ; and could sing in the Psalmist’s words, which now stir the heart and draw forth the song, how from time to time His mighty hand had strengthened and His loving arm had fenced them ! Let us try and enter into their inmost feelings, when the softest music of their harps wafted the story of His kindness and guidance from side to side of their noble Temple, or a burst of trumpet-sound heralded the recital of His crushing defeat of their enemies, soon again to give place to the chorus leaping from every heart, ” Give thanks unto the Lord, His mercy endureth for ever.”
When next, in time to come, such sounds wake the desolation of the now ruined and half-buried Holy City, the ancient music will have passed for ever away with the ancient hardness of heart and disbelief, and nothing in Art shall be too new for those who will then understand how old and new dispensations have been bound together in one by Him who has brought His erring children once more unto His fold, from the east and from the west. What a new, what an unfathomable depth of meaning will then be found in their oft-repeated song, His mercy endureth for ever ! ”
(1.) In the suggestive paper by the Rev. F. L. Cohen on the Ancient Musical Traditions of the Synagogue, already alluded to in the Supplementary Notes to Chapter iv., the author, when dealing with the music in use at the present time, eliminates from the category of ancient
Jewish composition all the choral music now sung with a four-part choir, all music with melodic passages reminiscent of the Gentile musical world,’ and all tunes set to texts of a measured rhythm, which are at the very earliest the product of mediæval Arab influence. The oldest vocal traditions of the Synagogue are enshrined in the Neginoth accentual cantillations of Scripture. In the scrolls used for the public lessons the text is written in consonants alone, and the Precentor has to learn the chant melody by heart : in the printed Bibles, however, the tonic accents for cantillation are added as well as the vowel points. These accents, some thirty in number, were probably evolved by the Massoretic school of Tiberias about the 7th century A.D. in order to form a notation for the highly developed cantillation which had existed long before, handed down by tradition. With each individual accent there was associated a particular fixed sequence of notes, and this was sung to the tone syllable of the word as marked by the accent. These phrases have been preserved with the greatest purity by the Jews of Northern Europe, especially for the reading of the Scriptures and for the chief Prayer. The fixed scales employed are of diatonic and chromatic form (not pentatonic), and even where they are simply diatonic an occasional chromatic change in the embellishment is permitted to the Precentor. The relation of these scales to the Greek modes has been mentioned in the Notes to Chapter iv.
(2.) Allusion has previously been made (Chapter iv., Note (2)) to the fact that the musical systems of Assyria and Egypt, so far as can be ascertained, consisted of a seven-note scale : and it is interesting to observe that even where the pentatonic scale is most in evidence at the present day, namely in China and Japan, musicians in both these countries recognise for the classical or ancient music a diatonic scale of seven notes or a chromatic scale of twelve semitones. In India the ancient scale was divided into twenty-two sruti or intervals less than a semitone, and the Persian and Arabian musicians recognise twenty-six of these minute divisions. There is therefore no reason to believe that the Temple music of the Jews was limited to the much lauded five-note scale. Encouraged as they were to devote their best to the service of the sanctuary, where masters of music taught and practised their art, it is more than probable that the musical system of the Hebrews was equal, if not superior, to those of their neighbours in Assyria, Phoenicia, and Egypt, where, if we may draw conclusions from the scales still produced by their own flutes and reed-pipes, not only diatonic and chromatic but possibly enharmonic notes were already in favour.