What Was the Style of Ancient Israelite Music?

The crucial task in determining matters of style is one of identifying relationships that are found in available music and that can be shown also to have been present in music that is not available. Through a combination of linguistics, history of culture, and comparative musicology, discoveries have been made that make this possible to a considerable extent. Excavations have produced ancient instruments from Ur, Kara-Tepe, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, as well as from Israel. Liturgies, in whole or in part, from Sumer, Akkad, Egypt, and Ugarit, have been reconstructed. Finally, comparative musicology has endeavored to examine the most ancient melodic elements of the Near East and to set forth criteria for their age and locale.

As a result of all these efforts, certain distinguishing characteristics of Semitic oriental music may be identified (Abraham Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development [New York: Schocken Books, 1967]): (a) modality—this is not to be confused with the later Western use of the term. A mode comprises a number of motives within a certain scale, each of which has different functions. The resulting composition is an arrangement and combination of these motives; (b) ornamentation—the modes and their motive partials are, within the arrangement of the modality, subject to ornamentation and decoration, often very florid and extended. To a large extent this depends on the skill and training of the singer, whose object it is to keep within the perimeters of the mode itself, while at the same time enhancing its basic profile with ornaments.

The contour of such ornamentation is basically steps-wise; skips of more than a third are rare. Thus the style is eminently vocal; (c) rhythm—all music is rhythmic in the sense that its sequence of tones is subject to virtually infinite temporal variations. Metrical music is that which is subject to regularly recurring, equally divided measures. Within each of these, rhythmic development takes place. Semitic music lacks regularly recurring meters. Nonetheless it is freely and richly rhythmic; its rhythmic structure is as complex as its ornamentation. In fact, it may be said that rhythm is to meter what ornamentation is to scale; (d) scale—the general nature of melody is diatonic, although this is mixed with a certain feeling for quarter tones, a distinctive which is foreign to most music to which we are accustomed; (e) monophony—Jewish music is unharmonized and depends for its beauty on elaborate ornamentation of the melody alone.

Occasionally, in group singing, intervals of fourths or fifths appear, more out of limitation in vocal range than because of an inherent harmonic vocabulary. However, it probably is true that the natural acoustical compatibility of these intervals allows for departure from the unison and therefore gives room for speculation as to the relation of this kind of primitive harmony to the development of harmonic procedures. When vocal music was instrumentally accompanied, heterophony (a way of embellishing the basic melodic line with concurrent decoration) was often employed; (f) improvisation—the performer and composer were the same person. The modal formulae were elaborated upon, as discussed above in connection with modality and ornamentation. A combination of long training and inherent ability were necessary to accomplish this.

For several centuries, musicians sensed an essential identity between archetypes of Christian chant and Hebraic counterparts but were unable to substantiate this until recently. The French musicologist Amadé Gastou established the first concrete evidence and support of this. Then Idelsohn was able to establish the essential identity of certain melodic archetypes in the Yemenite tradition with the earliest Gregorian chant. The significance of this is that the Yemenites had left Palestine during the beginnings of Christianity and have remained isolated from contact with the church ever since.

Adapted from The Biblical foundations of Christian Worship, Abbott-Martyn Press. Used by permission.