Jews heading to synagogue this Rosh Hashana will chant ancient prayers, writes violist Miles Hoffman in The New York Times. "Some of the melodies will be simple and some complex, and some will be particularly beautiful. What almost none of them will be is 'classical.'" Why is that? Classical music has provided plenty of material for the Christian church, and "given the extraordinary Jewish classical composers over the last two centuries," you would think a comparable set of of Jewish sacred music would have appeared. Why hasn't it? Here are three reasons Hoffman offers.
HOW CLASSICAL MUSIC IS LINKED TO CHRISTIANITY
Western classical music has various ancient antecedents, including, interestingly, the early music of the Jewish liturgy. But its modern history begins in the Middle Ages with music written for the Roman Catholic Church. And to a large extent it owes its subsequent evolution to the work of musicians trained and employed by the church, the great patron not just of musicians but of artists, scribes and scholars.
It’s true that secular musical forms, training and traditions developed along the way ... But in terms of classical music's basic principles, the similarities outweigh the differences: Bach is still Bach and Mozart is still Mozart, whether in Masses or sonatas. The language of classical music, in other words, is the language of Christian church music.
WHY LATER 'EMANCIPATED' JEWISH COMPOSERS STILL DIDN'T WRITE FOR THE SYNAGOGUE
The answers rest in the eternal dual longings of the Jewish people: the longing, on the one hand, for distinction, separateness and “chosenness,” and on the other for acceptance and belonging.
These forces are always in conflict, but in the field of music, when Jewish composers were finally free from prohibitions and persecution and began to develop their talents within the cultural mainstream, their longing for acceptance triumphed. ... Is it realistic to expect brilliant Jewish composers, exposed to some of the most magnificent artistic creations of Western civilization and struck by the universal impact and appeal of those creations, to be satisfied setting Hebrew texts for their local congregations?
WHY JEWISH CONGREGATIONS ALSO DIDN'T NECESSARILY WANT IT
The Jews tend to have a deep appreciation, for example, for great cantorial singing, and many synagogues have fine choirs. ... [But] when it comes to music for the synagogue, invention and innovation have simply not proved as important to the Jewish community as tradition and continuity.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.