Composing Jewish sacred music – part 1/7

‘God is in the detail’: a composer’s perspective on crafting modern Jewish sacred music – part 1/7

 Pt-1       Pt-2       Pt-3       Pt-4        Pt-5        Pt-6        Pt-7 (Bibliography)
Prayer, words and music

For 40 years, I have been exploring the relationship between prayer, words and music.

Music makes an impression on us. What do we want to impress on our senses, our psyches, our souls?  What sensory, emotional, intellectual and spiritual impression of our prayers and texts do we want to be left with? How might music enhance or undermine our religious life?

As for words, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1954, p.78) wrote: “We must learn how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our prayer book. … It is not enough to know how to translate Hebrew into English … A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life.”

Heschel (1954, p.70) also wrote: “Prayer is of no importance unless it is of supreme importance.” “[In] prayer, words are commitments, not the subject matter for aesthetic reflection, … prayer is meaningless unless we stand for what we utter, unless we feel what we accept. A word of prayer is a word of honour given to God.” Heschel 1954, p.79

As I hope will become apparent in this article despite being a professional musician for around 35 years, for me, music actually comes last, and prayer comes first. And words help provide the link between the two. So: prayer – words – and music. In that order.

This framework has proved helpful for me when navigating the literature on music and worship, and sacred music. Sacred music appears to be given the job of being all things to all people. Variously, it has been required to:

  • Foster community spirit, cohesion and a sense of belonging
  • Resolve and prevent community fragmentation
  • Create and sustain spiritual community
  • Help overcome disaffection with synagogue/church or Judaism/Christianity, and crises of faith, and offer a ‘way in’
  • Help attract and enlarge congregations across the whole age range
  • Aid a sense of rootedness, and be an engine for cultural transformation and spiritual renewal
  • Aid emotional expression and release, and communication
  • Entertain
  • Help interpret text, engage intellect and instruct
  • Entertain
  • Uplift and encourage
  • Provide familiarity, predictability, sameness, and connection to tradition, as well as provide variety
  • Make the worhip space and experience ‘accessible’
  • Enable freedom and discipline
  • Enable people to tune, and tune out and unwind
  • Supply distraction, even enabling a way to avoid prayer or significant engagement with religion, theology, belief, faith, God, oneself of others
  • Enable frequent emotional highs (frequently), and immediate gratification
  • Create ‘spiritual’ experiences
  • Engage body and breath
  • Validate religious rituals
  • Promoting kavanah (directing attention towards God) and devekut (cleaving’ to God)
  • Be a means to build intra-faith and interfaith links;
  • Enable participation, whether that means giving people a chance to belong, to do something, or being given a voice in prayer and God-relationship
  • Make or reinforce memories (and providing spiritual nurture in remembrance)
  • Broaden vision and horizons

This is a bewildering list of requirements. And despite my many years of experience as a composer and liturgical musician, I find myself still ill-equipped to meet all those demands. I am still trying to work out what music is doing, or could do, in the context of prayer, and the religious and spiritual life of a person or a community. In this article, I explore:

  • The difference in sound and structure, if any, between sacred and non-sacred music, and if it is possible to ‘make music holy’
  • The nature of prayer, and the current state health of collective prayer
  • The influence of values, theology, and religious questions on the making and performative element of faith-based music
  • The influence of music on faith, theology, and religious experience, and the roles of music in individual and collective prayer and spiritual life

Out of all this, there emerge some principles and questions to guide composers, lyricists and performers of sacred music, as well as liturgists and worship leaders.

 Pt-1       Pt-2       Pt-3       Pt-4        Pt-5        Pt-6
Pt-7 (Bibliography)