Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Song of Songs

I've often joked that the Cantor is my ultimate synagogue nemesis -- were it not for Cantors showing off, the service would end in half the time and I'd be that much closer to the delicious bagels at the reception. To be fair, I'm a tough critic to please -- were it up to me, every song would be sung exactly as it was when I was growing up, with no alterations whatsoever. This may run in the family -- at my old synagogue, I distinctly recall that anytime the Cantor experimented with a new melody, my dad would start loudly singing the old one in reprimand. It never caused the tune to be changed, but perhaps it served as a deterrent.

Whenever I go to a new synagogue, I'd always grouse about how I preferred the singing at my home congregation. As I grow older, even the tunes at my home synagogue grow more unfamiliar, which I don't like. Our new Aleinu sounds like a funeral dirge, for example. But hearing that new tune (and others) made me wonder -- just how old are the songs we sing? Not the words, but the music? Are they hundreds of years old, recognizable in the Shetls of Europe or the villages of the Middle East? Or are they all reinvented anew by each generation of Hazzans? Do we have any way of knowing? I doubt songs such as these were ever committed to a score. It seems like one of those mysteries that may be unknowable. But maybe not -- historians have sussed out stranger facts.

1 comment:

PG said...

The dislike of change in religious music reminds me of the first time I attended a Christian service other than those at my Episcopalian elementary school's chapel. Out of curiosity while in college, I began attending a bible study and occasionally was even persuaded to lose a Sunday morning to church attendance.

It was an evangelical church, so in addition to all the other ways it's less formal than the average Episcopalian church, it had one of those bands in the front, complete with drums and guitar, singing songs that definitely had never been in my hymn book as a kid. It made me realize that although I had never come to believe in Episcopalian doctrine religiously, I was quite attached to Episcopalian tradition as What Church Is Like.

Of course, given the rapidly-diminishing size of Episcopalian congregations, mostly carried out feet-first, the evangelical church was far more representative of typical American Christian worship.