Composing Jewish sacred music – part 6/7

‘God is in the detail’: a composer’s perspective on crafting modern Jewish sacred music – part 6/7

 Pt-1       Pt-2       Pt-3       Pt-4        Pt-5        Pt-6
Pt-7 (Bibliography)
PARDES (‘paradise’)

In order to be able to answer those questions, lyricists and composers must be prepared to immerse themselves deeply in religious life and learning. I imagine they might have an active prayer life, have contemplative time alone, and spend significant time with those of their faith community, study Scripture, midrash and commentary on it. In Jewish tradition, the study of text can fall within the concept of pardes, a word meaning ‘paradise’, but also being a mnemonic for four principles. I continue to experiment with how the practices of pardes might be applied to creating liturgical vocal music.


This is the ‘plain’ meaning of the text. Musically, I think of this as corresponding to the general mood of the music, what might be called the ‘emotional’ reading of the text. Of course, texts can be read emotionally in more than one way. The shape and energetic trajectory of the music may be unconventional or unexpected for a given text, but it can still ‘work’ if it sheds light on an authentic possible reading of that text. The music must also match the mood appropriate to the moment in the service, or the Jewish calendar or life cycle. Drawing upon nusach, the musical shapes and modes of a particular strand of Jewish musical liturgy can play a role here, as nusach has an elaborate system of correspondences and associations for some Jewish lineages.


These are the ‘hints’ to other meanings. Musically, I look for possibilities for paralleling textual structure with musical structure, in grammar, and in rhetoric – for example, chiasmus, climax, anadiplosis, isocolon.


Meaning ‘searching’, this is where we get the word midrash. We can discover connections between one text, and other texts, either from Torah or Tanach, or from Talmud, commentaries and stories and traditions up to the present day including the evolving liturgy and prayerbook. This might give rise to creative connections with music from within or outside the Jewish world across time and space – in the musical language or in specific musical quotations. It is these external reference points and common cultural pool that composers partly rely upon, in order to make an emotional and psychological impact on the listener. Translations, while aiming to stay faithful to the Hebrew, might reveal a particular or unusual understanding, albeit rooted in rigorous scholarship and respect for significant sources. Melody, harmony, musical structure and even the arrangement or choice of instruments may add to what is called musical ‘word painting’.


These are the ‘secret’, esoteric and mystical elements (such as from Kabbalah and the number symbolism of gematria) that may be deliberately embedded in the original text, or that can be creatively, experimentally and respectfully read into it anachronistically. This hidden elements can be echoed in more subtle aspects of lyric or musical composition, such as in plays on words in English translations, key relationships, time signatures, numbers of bars, and so on.

Isaac’s wells and Jewish renewal

It is a tenet of both Judaism and Christianity that we should ‘shatter the idols’ whenever and wherever we find them. We should no more idolize pop culture and what is new than idolize old traditions or elite musical forms. Sacred music should not anaesthetise us emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, but sensitise us to God, ourselves and who and what is around us. Sacred music’s proper role is to transform us, not chloroform us.

As I hope has become clear in this essay, I am not interested in any of the following:

  • using only the music of the past, in preference to creating anything new at all
  • creating a pastiche music by mimicking music from past Jewish liturgical forms
  • creating Jewish sacred music that simply copies what is fashionable or popular in the contemporary secular world – its sounds, rhythms and textures, or even glib, intellectually suspect lyrics
  • creating something so new and different that it fails to speak inclusively to a wide and diverse group of worshippers

In the story of Isaac, we learn that he re-opened his father Abraham’s wells; we too, can dig into our past, and find valuable forms and teachings. But Isaac did not ask people to drink old water; the water in those wells was fresh, and we must be willing to refresh Judaism. In Buber’s 1911 essay ‘The Renewal of Judaism’[1], he wrote that we should not simply revive and replicate old forms. Rather, he was encouraging us to respect and draw from the past, while playing a role in the evolution of Judaism into whatever it needs to be now, and what it needs to become. All ‘traditional’ music was new once. The music we create now may well become the ‘traditional’ music of the future. One of our important tasks right now is to create new Jewish sacred music, alongside the best from the past, that has relevance now. My hope is for that music to have depth and substance, whoever uses it.

[1] Buber, Martin (1929) Drei Reden über das Judentum, Rütten und Leonig, p.97

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