Historical Backgrounds of Piyyutim 

In this composition folio I examine the integration of a number of musical elements of Arabic-influenced Jewish music with contemporary Western classical music. The genre of Arabic-influenced Jewish music referred to is the Piyyutim of the Jewish congregations that were based in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Israel, from the 16th century to the 20th. I have drawn on two musical elements and sounds that are unique to these Piyyutim. The first element is the characteristic heterophony of its choral singing. This can be heard in Sephardi-Mizrahi synagogues when the people praying (congregants) create simultaneous variations of a monophonic melody. The second element is the integration of aspects of various modal systems including scales characterising Ashkenazi Piyyutim. These scales, which characterize Ashkenazi Piyyutim, consist of three main modes, Ahavah Rabbah, Magein Avot and Adonai Malach that are generally associated with Ashkenazi liturgical tradition (see page 43 for details about these modes). Arabic-influenced Jewish music also contains musical elements with similar characteristics to those in classical Arabic music, which has already been analysed here in chapters 2 and 3. Chief among these are microtonality and improvisation. 

 

This chapter presents methods of (1) composing melodies that resemble Piyyutim, (2) integrating musical elements of Arabic-influenced Jewish music with contemporary Western classical music, (3) composing a similar heterophonic texture to the Sephardi-Mizrahi Piyyutim and (4) composing by the use of modal systems from the East (Maqamat) in combination with the West (Ashkenazi modes).

 

The term Piyyut refers to a body of sacred songs that were composed from the first century through to the eighteenth century (Fleischer 1975, p. 573). In some communities the tradition of creating new Piyyutim continues today (Shiloah 1992, p. 122). Piyyut is described by Eish-Ran (An Invitation to Piyyut 2012) as follows:

 

The Piyyut began as sacred poetry adorning the prayers of the individual and the community, as well as religious rituals. The Piyyut is sung by the cantor and the congregation as part of the prayers. Over the years the Piyyut, a living creative work that is constantly renewed, widened its scope and reached out beyond the range of prayers. There are Piyyutim that follow the yearly cycle: Shabbat songs and Piyyutim for holidays and festive occasions; songs of supplication; and Piyyutim that follow the human life cycle: from birth, Piyyutim for a Brit (circumcision) and for the birth of a daughter, through Bar and Bat Mitzva, to marriage and back to the beginning. The Piyyutim are usually sung in a communal framework. It is the community that has integrated the Piyyutim from their earliest development to this day. The community brings together the hearts of its members – whether within the family or the community at large participating in a celebration, whether praying with a congregation in synagogue, or whether singing the songs of supplication together.

 

As mentioned by Eish-Ran, Piyyut is a living creative work that is constantly renewed and enriched. An example of this can be seen in the Piyyutim of Jewish congregations of the Middle East (the ones being referred to in this commentary) where elements of classical Arabic music have been applied to poems and Piyyutim that originated outside of the Middle East. 

 

The Middle Eastern Jewish communities were highly influenced by poems and Piyyutim of the Spanish-Jewish poets during the medieval era. In general, the Piyyutim composed by Spanish poets dominate the whole liturgy of the Sephardim (Zimmels 1976, p.131). These poems and Piyyutim were distributed through migrants (mostly after the great deportation in 1492) and through scrolls that religious commentators have exchanged. For Jewish history, most consider “The Golden Age of Jewish Culture in Spain” to have taken place between the 10th and the 12th centuries, though a period of tremendous Jewish intellectual and cultural production continued for more than a century in both Muslim and Christian areas of the peninsula (Firestone 2008, pp. 67-68). During “The Golden Age of Jewish Culture in Spain” Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life blossomed, and it nurtured prominent and greatly influential philosophers, poets and scholars. Among them are (1) Rabbi Moses Ben-Maimon, also known as The Rambam (born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204) who was a scholar, rabbi, philosopher, physician and a Biblical commentator, (2) Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (born and died in Spain, 1089-1164) who was a philosopher, physician, astrologer, rabbi and a poet and (3) Rabbi Judah Halevi (born in Spain in 1075, died in Israel in 1142) who was, a philosopher, physician, rabbi and a poet. Communities in the Middle East were constantly exposed to Jewish scholars from Spain and as mentioned above they were introduced to poems and Piyyutim. These poems and Piyyutim have been composed and sometimes adjusted in accordance to Arabic (secular) music, so in many instances there are many versions for a poem.

 

The Maqamat of classical Arabic music has gradually claimed an important place in Piyyutim. The first known reference to Maqamat is found in poems by Rabbi Israel Najara (Israel: 1555-1628), (An Invitation to Piyyut 2012). Najara was a liturgical poet, preacher, Biblical commentator, kabbalist and a rabbi. He was also knowledgeable in a wide range of musical styles of the Middle East. The poems in his manuscript are associated with a corresponding Maqam, the name of which is usually written below the title of the poem at the right hand side. The actual melodies associated with these poems are part of an oral tradition that has existed for many generations. Maqamat have been introduced by poets also through the practice of contrafactum, that was by giving scared lyrics to well known secular Arabic melodies turning them in to Piyyutim. This practice has been used in Piyyutim for centuries, most famously by Rabbi Israel Najara (Hazan 2011). The important place of Maqamat in Arabic-influenced Jewish music can be evidenced by the way that some books of Piyyutim, from the time after Najara, are organized. The Maqamat determine the structure of these books, whereby all Piyyutim of each particular Maqam appear in the same section. 

 

Various Jewish traditions developed their own modal systems, such as Maqamat of the Middle Eastern Jewish communities. My compositions integrate aspects of the modal systems of such Jewish traditions, including those characterising the Ashkenazi customs, prayers and Piyyutim. I have employed modes of the Ashkenazi traditions to compose melodies allied to Piyyutim that aimed to fuse different ancient types of Jewish music.

 

  The Integration of Arabic-influenced Jewish Music into Contemporary Western Classical Music.

               Composing Melodies that Resemble Piyyutim

I have looked at ways of integrating original melodies that are attributed to Piyyutim of Arabic-influenced Jewish music. I have decided not to quote melodies of the traditional repertoire for a number of reasons: (1) the wish to compose original melodies that comment upon the traditional repertoire, (2) the wish to stylistically integrate these melodies with other musical sections of my compositions and (3) the wish to avoid direct quotation. Two main methods to refer to Piyyutim have been applied. The first method is to name a melody after a well-known Piyyut. By doing this the association is made, and it provides another setting for a well-known Piyyut. This method is associated with the approach of some poets of the 16th century, but whereas these poets created new liturgical Piyyutim for well-known secular melodies, I created new secular melodies to set well-known liturgical Piyyutim. Thereby my work is concerned with introducing original music into the domain of the liturgical as opposed to associating existing secular melodies with new liturgical poems. The second method is composing some of the more typical musical elements of traditional Piyyutim. I refer here to the use of similar modes, similar forms and above all similar heterophony. 

 

Melodies that resemble Piyyutim can be seen in many sections of my works for Groups A and B. In some instances, segments of a melody have been presented in different places in movements/parts of a composition and in different musical contexts. So only by listening to the complete work could one connect these segments into a whole melody. This method can also be seen in my works prior to this folio. For example, in Oud Bass Piano Trio from 2005 a melody is divided into three segments, whereby the first segment appears at the beginning of the First Movement under the title “Priestly blessing”, the second segment appears at the ending of the First Movement under the title “And he shall bring you peace” (the closing words of the benediction of the priests) and the whole melody including its third segment appears in the final Fifth Movement under the title “Priestly blessing”. This example also presents an original melody that is named similarly to a well-known Piyyut. In other instances, melodies resemble Piyyutim in complete sections throughout a composition. 

 

The distinct sound of the heterophony of Piyyutim was my primary inspiration for integrating melodies that resemble Piyyutim. This heterophony arises from the special way Piyyutim are sung in traditional Sephardi-Mizrahi synagogues (this is explained in length in 4.3.2). However, other musical elements of Piyyutim of the Sephardi-Mizrahi have also interested me. Some of these elements are unique to these Piyyutim, such as the use of modes of the Ashkenazim in combination with Maqamat. Other musical elements such as call-and-response (by people praying and a cantor) are often similar to secular Arabic music. In this context, I have also found that the faster the tempi of the traditional Piyyut, the greater the similarity of its sound to secular Arabic music. I believe that this is the case because melodies at fast tempi do not leave time for the sort of improvisation that creates the heterophony distinctive of prayers and Piyyutim. When I composed melodies at fast tempi that resemble Piyyutim, I felt obliged to point out the resemblance to the performers and the listeners. This was done by naming the melodies after well-known Piyyutim or prayers. The association to Jewish music is made clear through these names.

 

The closing section of Part 2 (bars 102-116) of Visions Fantasies and Dances (Figure 4.1.) is an example of integrating melodies that resemble Piyyutim. This section presents a melody at fast tempo (crotchet equals 145-150) that lasts for only fifty-seconds out of the six minutes and thirty-five seconds of Part 2. In this instance, I composed a complete melody as opposed to segments of a melody. A glissando in bar 101 connects the melody with the previous section of music, and other glissandi in bars 114–116 conclude Part 2. This passage is also an example of how to place melodies into new musical contexts. The title Baqashot songs refers to the well-known collection of supplications, songs and prayers of the Sephardic Syrian Jewish tradition. The melody written in octaves is primarily associated with classical Arabic music, but has also some elements of Arabic-influenced Jewish music. There are two main classical Arabic musical elements that can be seen and heard in this section, (1) the use of Maqamat such as Nawand, Hijaz and Kurd and (2) the use of musical Arabic ornaments such as those that occur in phrases starting on the third beat of bar 107 and on the third beat of bar 109. The Jewish musical elements in this section are few and have been employed in a subtle way making them almost unnoticeable. They are fragments of melodies of the Ashkenazi Jewish prayer modes. This can be seen, (1) at the beginning of bar 104 with a four-note motif (A sharp, A, F sharp and F) derived from Ahavah Rabbah (in F) and (2) at the ending of bar 105 with a three-note motif (E, F and G) derived from Magein Avot. In order to distinguish these fragments of melodies of the Ashkenazi Jewish prayer modes, the motifs appear in quavers in a melodic line of semiquavers and demisemiquavers.

 

 

    Heterophonic Textures in Arabic-influenced Jewish Music   

Prayers and Piyyutim of the Arabic-influenced Jewish tradition have a unique and distinct sound, which is a result of the way they are performed and of their religious purpose. Prayers and Piyyutim are sung/chanted by a cantor and congregants as part of the services in synagogues. Congregants (mostly males) chant alongside the cantor. In some instances the cantor is louder, such as when he leads the prayers and the congregants join him only occasionally. In others cases, congregants are equally loud or even louder than the cantor; this is when the prayers are led collectively. There are also some instances where a call-and-response occurs. In all of these cases, the congregants and the cantor sing in quasi unison. The melodies of prayers and Piyyutim are monophonic; the congregants intuitively generate variations of these melodies. The texture that results from the congregants’ simultaneous variations is typically heterophonic.  

 

Heterophony also occurs in classical Arabic music. However, the combination of traditional choral performance practice in traditional Sephardi-Mizrahi synagogues and religious purpose results in a unique sound that is different from classical Arabic music. In synagogues, the congregants do not aim for musically refined variations, because for them the priority is the content of the prayer, and this is what shapes the resulting music. With their praying, within the emphasis of the content of the prayer, the congregants produce a range of musical elements even though many of them are not musically trained. Some of these elements include (1) the lowering or raising the pitch mainly at the beginning or/and ending of phrases, (2) changes in dynamics, applied to fragments of the prayer, (3) register changes, (4) changes in articulations including staccato and legato and (5) temporal changes, including changes in tempo and in the duration of individual notes. 

 

The heterophony of Arabic-influenced Jewish music contains musical elements in ways that contradict Western classical performance practice. The most important of these relate to intonation and tone quality, and also to the particular approach to the other musical elements mentioned above. Many of these musical utterances would be considered inappropriate in Western choral performance. 

 

In my own music I had to face the challenge of incorporating this type of heterophonic singing. In particular, a way to instruct performers in this heterophonic singing needed to be found. In the context of this challenge, it is worth considering that the sonic outcome of this particular type of praying can be very musical, especially if one can appreciate the distinctiveness of this type of heterophonic singing. I wanted to instil in the performers an awareness that their individual parts contribute to an overall heterophonic texture rather than individual melodic statements of a homophonic texture. Hence performers have been instructed in a number of complementary ways: (1) by discussing in person ways of improvising a variation of the melody and the overall sound of the texture, (2) by providing performers with a performance score rather than just the individual part and (3) by referring to these sections as a prayer, a Piyyut or a Jewish theme. 

 

The heterophony of Arabic-influenced Jewish music can be seen in many sections of my works in Groups A and B. Heterophony has been presented in two prominent ways. The first is a texture of simultaneous variations of a melody performed by all players in the ensemble. An example of this can be seen in Visions, Fantasies and Dances, in bars 102-127 of Part 3 under the title Nighttime prayer at the Western Wall (Figure 4.2.). The melody in this section is composed in a minor mode, as well as in Hijaz and Nahawand Maqamat in order to resemble a Piyyut. Slow tempi and long note values have been used to give the performers time to improvise their variations. The performers received the following instruction: “A Prayer, performed in quasi unison to imitate a group of people praying together. You can sometimes change the pitch and include the use of microtones or sul ponticello, and introduce tremolo at end of phrases”. In the submitted recording of the work I was able to instruct the performers in person.

 

The second way of presenting this type of heterophony is by involving the whole ensemble (except the piano which plays chords), or by involving part of the ensemble while the others perform a different part. An example of heterophony and piano chords can be seen in bars 4-6, in the First Movement of Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio (Figure 4.3.). Here, the violin and the double bass are instructed to perform this particular type of heterophony. The chords played by the piano are not part of traditional Piyyutim or classical Arabic music. I have composed the chords with a specific voicing that avoids interfering with the pitch variations of the strings. In particular, the melody always appears in the top part and in the bass notes of the piano part. In the given example the piano bass line is doubled at the fifth and at the octave, whilst in the right hand the voicing below the melody varies from chord to chord with the majority of the intervals being thirds and sometimes seconds. The right hand part always has four pitches.

 

An example of the second way, where the heterophony is performed by part of the ensemble while the other part plays a different line to the melody can be seen in bars 47-57, of the Third Movement of Vision, Fantasies and Dances under the title Nishmat Kol Hai prayer (Figure 4.4.). Again, the violins are instructed to play heterophonicaly, while the viola performs a double stop at the interval of a fifth with a slow rhythmic pattern. The cello performs a contra-tenor-like improvisation in a high register.  

 

I have looked at ways of composing variations of a melody without using pitch variation. Harmonics have been employed to produce a soft sound that corresponds to the soft and gentle nature of prayers and Piyyutim. I have also composed a variety of canonic sections based on the given melodies; an example of this can be seen in bars 44-56 of Part 7 of Vision, Fantasies and Dances (Figure 4.5.). Here, the melody is in two halves both presented by the first violin. The first part extends from bar 44 until the second beat of 48, and the second from the third beat of bar 48 until the end of the piece. In the first half, the first violin and the cello move in octaves, while the second violin and the viola play variations of the melody with harmonics. In the second half, the first violin plays the melody as harmonics, and the second violin and the viola continue their variation also with harmonics. The cello plays a variation as well, first in a lower register and towards the end with harmonics. All four voices unite in bar 55 to play the melody in octaves and with harmonics.   

 

        The Inclusion of Aspects of the Jewish Modal Systems 

I have explored ways of integrating aspects of two different ancient styles of Jewish music, the one from the east, Sephardi-Mizrahi that is associated with Arabic music, and the one from the west, Ashkenazi that is associated with Western music. I have composed melodies that resemble Piyyutim, and merged modal systems and musical elements of both of these ancient Jewish styles.

 

The modal system of the Sephardi-Mizrahi (the Middle Eastern Jewish communities) is Maqamat. As mentioned previously, Maqamat have gradually claimed an important place in Piyyutim. From the time after Rabbi Israel Najara, Maqamat have been recognized as the modal system of Piyyutim. In books of Piyyutim the name of the corresponding Maqam of each Piyyut appears next to the title. 

 

The modal system of the Ashkenazim consists of three main modes, as well as a number of combined and compound modes. These modes are identified with the different types of prayers. The first of the three main Ashkenazi modes is Ahavah Rabbah (Abounding Love), (Figure 4.6.). Ahavah Rabbah is associated with the blessing of the Jewish morning prayer. It is considered to be the most Ashkenazi-sounding of all the prayer modes. Its identifying feature is the interval of an augmented second between its second and third degrees. Ahavah Rabbah uses similar pitches to the Hijaz-Nahawand Maqam (Figure 4.9.) but differs greatly in the way it is performed. Ahavah Rabbah has its own vocal articulation patterns characteristic of Hebrew prayers. However, in term of intonation and tone quality, it is normally performed in the context of Western music practice. The Hijaz-Nahawand Maqam is normally performed in the context of Arabic music practice, and pitches often varied (including quarter-tone inflections that depend on the phrasing) and musical ornaments apply. In addition, whereas the fourth degree of Hijaz-Nahawand constitutes a stable note, Ahavah Rabbah strongly favours the third. The second of the three main Ashkenazi modes is Magein Avot (Shield of our Fathers), (Figure 4.7.). Magein Avot was named after a prayer of the Friday evening service, and resembles the minor scale of Western classical music. The third of the three main Ashkenazi modes is Adonai Malach (God Reigns), (Figure 4.8.). Adonai Malach was also named after the prayer of the Friday evening service, and consists of a major scale with a lowered seventh scale degree. 

 

The modal systems of the Sephardim-Mizrahim and the Ashkenazim can be seen in many sections in my works for Groups A and B. I have composed melodies that resemble Piyyutim and employed heterophonic textures of Arabic-influenced Jewish music. These melodies contain both Maqamat and Ashkenazi prayer modes. An example of this can be seen in bars 71-86, of the Fourth Movement of Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio, under the title The prayer of purification (Figure 4.10.). 

 

In Figure 4.10. (the above figure), the violin and the double bass are instructed to play heterophonic Arabic-influenced Jewish music, while the piano plays chords. The phrase in bars 71-73 presents the merging of Hijaz-Nahawand Maqam and Ahavah Rabbah mode. The first three notes (E, F, and G sharp) could be seen as Ahavah Rabbah (in E), but the lowering to G natural that occurs in bar 72 creates an association with the Saba or the Zamzama tetra-chords in E (½, 1, ½ tones), (the ajnas sets can be seen in Appendix 1). The four-note motif at the end of the phrase (C, B, A and A flat) is a typical melodic characteristic of the Ashkenazim, taken from the Ahavah Rabbah mode. The phrase moves downwards from the sixth step (C) to the third (A flat) where it comes to rest. Similar approaches can be seen in the phrase in bars 76-77. At the beginning of this phrase the modal system of the Sephardim-Mizrahim (Saba or Zamzama) has been used and at the end (the notes, D sharp, D, B and B flat) the modal system of the Ashkenazim (Ahavah Rabbah).

 

Some of my melodies that resemble Piyyutim feature rhythmic patterns that characterize the Ashkenazi prayers modes. An example of this can be seen in bars 10-20 of Part 7 of Vision, Fantasies and Dances under the title A prayer for another day (Figure 4.11.). Here, the triplets in bars 15, 16 and 17 form part of a characteristic pattern of the Ashkenazi custom.

 

 

    Summary  

Materials derived from prayers and Piyyutim are prominent in a significant part of my compositions. For example, in the string quartet Visions, Fantasies and Dances (Group A compositions), six out of thirty-four sections/musical images directly refer to Piyyutim, that is almost one fifth of all sections, and in the Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio (Group B compositions), there are six out of twenty-six sections/musical images, which is almost one quarter of all sections. 

 

This chapter examines the integration of a number of musical elements of Piyyutim with contemporary Western classical music. I have looked at methods of (1) integrating original melodies that are attributed to Piyyutim of Arabic-influenced Jewish music, (2) composing textures similar to the heterophony of Piyyutim and (3) merging aspects of modal systems and musical elements of ancient styles of Jewish music (Sephardi-Mizrahi and Ashkenazi).

 

I have composed melodies that resemble Piyyutim and offered two main methods to create the association with Arabic-influenced Jewish music. The first method is to name a melody after a well-known Piyyut, and the second is the adaptation of typical musical elements of traditional Piyyutim, that is, similar modes, similar forms and similar heterophonic textures. In some instances, segments of a melody that resemble a Piyyut have been presented in different places in movements/parts of a composition and in different musical contexts. In these instances, only by listening to the complete work could one connect these segments into a whole melody. In other instances, the melodies are stated in their entirety in a section. Integrating heterophony, maqamat and modes of the Ashkenazim have also been examined. I have employed elements of Arabic-influenced Jewish music that are similar to the sound of classical Arabic music, specifically to call-and-response and fast tempi melodies, and have created an association with Jewish music by using the names of a well-known piyyut or prayer. 

 

Heterophony of Arabic-influenced Jewish music can be seen in many sections of my works in Groups A and B. It is presented in two prominent ways. The first way is a texture of simultaneous variations of a melody performed by all musicians in the ensemble. Slow tempi and long note values have been employed to give the performers time to improvise their variations. Also the performers have received instructions either verbally or through written notes. The second way is by involving the whole ensemble except the piano (which plays chords), or by involving part of the ensemble, while the others perform a different part. In works with piano, the piano chords have a specific voicing that avoids interfering with the pitch variations of the strings. In works without piano, heterophonic textures have been given to part of the ensemble, while the other part plays various counterpoints to the melody. I have looked at ways of composing variations of a melody while avoiding pitch variation. In these instances I composed a variety of canonic sections based on the given melody, and employed harmonics to produce the soft sound that corresponds to the soft and gentle nature of prayers and Piyyutim.

 

Including Arabic heterophonic textures in Western classical music provides an opportunity to introduce musical elements of ancient and non-European sounds. My works require the performers to improvise variations of a given melody in order to introduce the distinct sound of prayers and Piyyutim of Arabic-influenced Jewish music. The heterophony of Arabic-influenced Jewish music challenges the performers to use uncommon musical elements such as pitch variation and (in a non-European manner) changes of note values and octaves, thereby creating unique elements and textures through non-European means. This also means that the performers are being pushed beyond their Western performance practice.

 

The integration of aspects of modal systems of two different ancient styles of Jewish music (e.g., Sephardi-Mizrahi that is associated with Arabic music and Ashkenazi that is associated with Western music) can be seen in many sections in the works for Groups A and B. I have composed melodies that resemble Piyyutim and merged modal systems and musical elements of both Maqamat and Ashkenazi prayer modes. Arabic-influenced Jewish music heterophonic textures have been employed for the purpose of modal integration. In particular I looked at merging Hijaz-Nahawand Maqam and Ahavah Rabbah, which have similarity in pitch. In some instances the melodies have been created with clear Arabic and Arabic-influenced Jewish music characteristics (this is by Maqamat and Arabic ornaments), and quotes of four-note motifs that are typical of the Ashkenazim have been made. These motifs appear in a number of places in the melodies and are performed with heterophonic textures that characterized Sephardi-Mizrahi Piyyutim. Listeners who are familiar with the Ashkenazi musical traditions may be able to recognize these motifs. In other instances, the melodies are only based on the modal system of Ashkenazim, and also here they are merged with heterophonic textures that characterize Sephardi-Mizrahi Piyyutim.  

 

Overall, Arabic-influenced Jewish music plays a significant part in my compositions. This can be seen by the numerous relevant musical elements in a variety of different contexts in my works. I have looked at aspects that distinguish Arabic-influenced Jewish music from classical Arabic music, and examined methods of integrating them into my works. Two prominent structural methods for this integration have been employed. The first method is composing sections that incorporate Arabic-influenced Jewish material, and the second is to transform fragments of Arabic-influenced Jewish melody in various ways. 

 

My interest in Arabic-influenced Jewish music is inspired by Jewish-Arabic spiritual matters. Furthermore, I am interested in moving between the ancient to the modern, between the religious to the secular, and between the East to the West. Arabic-influenced Jewish music enables me to move across historical, religious and geographical boundaries. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arabic-influenced Jewish Music       

      by Dr Yitzhak Yedid