Entexualization and Orality in 19th Century Jewish Music

The 19th century saw a proliferation of transcription of Jewish sacred music using the tools of western musical notation. This process of entextualization of oral music traditions has been understood in different ways by the major commentators on Jewish music and by the collectors themselves. The founders of the Jewish Folk Music Society in St. Petersburg, operating in the first decades of the 20th century, articulated the goal of their project of folk song collection as being a bulwark against the tides of social change that threatened to erase oral traditions. A.Z. Idelsohn, the collector par excellence of Jewish music, looked at his work of transcription of geographically diverse Jewish communities as a means towards the goal of “scientifically” proving the ancient origins and collective unity of the dispersed Jews of the world. Phillip Bohlman, in his Jewish Music and Modernity (2008), looks at entextualization as part of a move to “invent” a category of “Jewish music” that would provide an indexical frame with which to look at music as distinct from its liturgical and practical functions, aligning Jewish sound culture more closely with Euroclassical aesthetics. These diverse ways of understandings the role text and collection played for Jewish music are mutually complementary. They point to the constructive role notation played in forming a Jewish musical response to modernity. The understanding is that purely oral forms of musical transmission were receding as a result of modernization and were in need of protection and reinterpretation through entextualization.

In his essay, “The Education of Hazzanim in Nineteenth-Century Germany,” published in Vol. VII of Yuval, the esteemed Jewish music journal, musicologist Geoffrey Goldberg presents a very different take on the role of transcription (2002). Goldberg begins his study by tracing changes in the educational system of Cantors. Traditionally, Cantors would be accompanied by meshorerim, choirboys, who would serve as apprentices and perform with a Cantor. Goldberg stresses the importance of the oral education that meshorerim received in practicum as central to the reproduction of Cantorial knowledge.  In the mid-19th century, aggressive reform of the German Synagogue began, at first prompted by elite urban Rabbis and later regulated into law by the German government as part of its policy of encouraging modernization of the newly emancipated Jewish population. “Whereas before the Emancipation the states took little or no interest in the internal organization of the Jewish communities, now every facet of Jewish life, especially the religious and educational aspects came under the judgmental eye of the authorities.” (Ibid: 307)

In a move to modernize the worship practice of the German Synagogue, legally binding legislation was put in place by state authorities that expressly dismantled the  old meshorer system. New musical practices were instated that mirrored the goal of German Rabbis to create a more “dignified” worship environment. The new Synagogue music closely followed the musical innovations of the Vienna-based Cantor Salomon Sulzer. The new movement in German Synagogue music inaugurated a style of Jewish worship music that incorporated the organ and multi-voiced choirs performing music in a Euroclassical idiom influenced by the Lutheran Church. These changes were partly imposed from above by Reform-oriented Rabbis and the German government, but also reflected the new economic and cultural statuses of German Jews, especially in the cities.

To train Cantors who could perform in this new Jewish liturgical music style, the state instituted schools for Jewish religious leadership, including schools for Cantors, the first of which opened in Berlin in 1859. The state sanctioned Lehrerseminaire for khazzanim largely usurped the old meshorerim system of apprenticeship. While the new Cantors had a thorough education in general music theory, their knowledge of older repertoires of Synagogue music was broadly deficient. Goldberg quotes primary sources that state, “A general complaint of the communities is caused by the circumstance that when the younger teachers come out of the seminary, they are completely inexperienced in hazzanut…” (336) Another source elaborates, “Whoever had the serious intention to devote himself to the cantorate…had to undertake serious private study after completion of the seminary education (338).”

Goldberg claims that the deficiency in the seminary school-based model of Cantorial education directly led to the need for notated compendia of nusach, the old system of Synagogue musical practice: “the later compendia had to stress nusach ha-teffilah, the musical formulae and tunes for the basic prayer texts, since cantors were no longer proficient in what an earlier generation of hazzanim had taken for granted and never occurred to them to transcribe… It was primarily in Germany, where the oral tradition was so severely weakened, and where no successful substitute had arisen to replace the institution of the meshorerim as a means of cantorial apprenticeship, that there arose the need for cantorial compendia.” (347-8)

Goldberg’s vision of the role of the entextualization of Jewish music follows a different logic than that of Idelsohn or the Petersburg folk-song collectors. For the sammlers (collectors) at the turn of the 20th-century, text-based knowledge of music and oral tradition occupied unrelated cultural spaces. The collector’s tools for notation were conceptually distinct from and therefore not in direct competition with the musical object that they were being used to encapsulate and analyze. In Goldberg’s narrative about 19th century Germany, the move towards a text-based modern form of liturgical music provides both the impetus towards the degradation of the oral tradition and the means for its reclamation. Goldberg’s sense of the conflict and hostile inter-relationship between written music and orality is stark. Rather than looking at the notation of Cantorial repertoires as being an ethnomusicological project inspired by an urge towards preservation of the folkloric and historic, Goldberg describes the Cantorial compendia as a stop-gap measure devised out of the necessity of repairing the damage done to a previously functioning oral education system. Goldberg’s reading of the history of the German Lehrerseminaire positions text-based musics of Christian Europeans in opposition to the Synagogue and its orality-based sound world.

Goldberg contends that the curricula of the new schools did not cover the same information that Cantors used to learn in their meshorer apprenticeships, namely, nusach. Therefore comprehensive compendia were needed to catch the conservatory trained Cantors up on musical knowledge that they would previously have learned in their apprenticeships. The Cantors had “legitimacy” in the form of a certificate, and could thus obtain employment in the newly minted State sanctioned Temples. The Seminaries taught a specific set of skills that highlighted Euroclassical music proficiency that was valued by the Rabbinic elite and the State. But they did not have “legitimacy” in the eyes of their communities who wanted to hear the musical repertoires that were legible to them as “traditional.” Goldberg contends that Compendia focused on representation of nusach were a response to ignorance of sounds that had previously been the common knowledge of apprenticeship-trained Cantors.

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