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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Canton, Isaac Berechiah
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Mode of intonation used in public recital of prayers and Holy Scripture. The infinite gradations of tone in ordinary speech serve to bring home to the listener the interrelation and coordination of the words used by the speaker. Even when the listeners do not exceed the small circle that can be reached by the ordinary speaking voice, the delicate shade of meaning to be conveyed by the structure adopted for the sentence will not be appreciated by them unless certain conventionalities of pitch are introduced in utterance. These conventionalities of pitch result in an elementary form of song, and thus became early known as "singing to speech" (προσωδία, accentus). But when a larger audience is addressed the assistance of a sing-song utterance in marking this accent or prosody, and rendering the precise interdependence of the successive words unmistakable, has been recognized by all who have ever had to speak in the open air or in a large building, and has been from the earliest ages adopted for the public recitation of sacred texts. Among Jews the desire to read the Scriptures in the manner described in Nehemiah 8:8 has from time immemorial resulted in the use of some sort of musical declamation. This mode of recitation, depending not upon the rhythm and sequence of the sounds chanted, but upon the rhythm and sequence of the syllables to which they are chanted, is known as cantillation.

In describing synagogal chanting, it is necessary to distinguish the intonation traditionally employed for the text of the prayers—the component sounds of which are dependent upon the momentary impulse of the reader, checked only by the fixed melody of the coda with which the benediction concludes—from the intonation traditionally employed for the text of the Scriptural lessons (the elements of which are rigidly fixed). The first is discussed in the general article on see MUSIC, SYNAGOGAL, under the heading "Prayer-Motives." The cantillation which is here described forms the musical interpretation of the Accents which accompany the text of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Chant Preceded Its Notation.

These signs, ("strings," "musical notes"), or, in the older expression, ("adornments," "tropes"), have been discussed, from the grammatical point of view, in Accents. The musical system to which they now serve as a notation, apart from their syntactical force, must have existed long before the need was felt for such a notation, even as VOCALIZATION was in use long before the vowel-signs were invented. The notation which fixed the traditional pronunciation of each word may well, as Wickes points out, have been introduced at the same period and for the same reasons as the notation which fixed the traditional modulation. And, similarly, the causes which have led to a geographical variation of the original sounds in the one case have brought it about in the other.

The earliest reference to the definite modulation of the Scripture occurs in the Babylonian Talmud (Meg. 32a), where R. Johanan deprecates the indifference of such as "read [the text] without tunefulness and repeat [the Mishnah] without song." The use of the term ("tunefulness") shows that a melody definite enough to cause a pleasant impression was already attached to the Scriptural reading, and that it had long passed the stage of a syllabic plain-song which could only bring out the rhythm of the cursus as one group of syllables succeeded another. The cantillation must already have become "melismatic," with groups of notes, that is, attached to the more important syllables, so that the meaning of the text as well as its rhythm received emphasis and illustration from the chant.

Early References.

If the cantillation was already tuneful to contemporary ears, the way had been cleared for its hermeneutic application to the text. The vocal phrases which constituted its melodious element would, by their distinctness from the monotone recitation which joined them into tuneful succession, serve to bring out the logical and syntactical importance of the syllables sung to them from among the othersyllables comparatively slurred over on one note. "In this way the music was made to mark not only the broad lines, but the finest shades of distinction in the sense; and when its signs were introduced into the text, they were also the signs of interpunction; no others were needed" (Wickes). For a long time no such signs, however, were necessary: the cantillation was transmitted orally, and teachers were recognized whose profession it was to give instruction in "the pausal system of the accentuation" (Ned. 37a). But precisely as in the case of the plain-song of the churches, memoriœ technicœ were gradually introduced in the private scrolls of individual masters, probably at a very early date—later crystallizing into the Babylonian and Palestinian systems of Accents. Before this necessity for a notation was generally felt, a system of manual signs had been developed (Ber. 62a), just as in the Greek Church, where it was called the χειρονομία ("Manuum variis motibus altitudinem, depressionem, flexus vocis significabant"); and the system survived into the Middle Ages, being referred to by Ben Asher (, ed. Baer and Strack, 18), and later by Rashi (on Ber. 62a), while Pethahiah of Regensburg found them still practised in the Bagdad synagogues in the twelfth century. In modern times it has been noticed by Joseph Saphir in Yemen (Eben "Safir," 1:56b) and by Burkhardt in Tiberias.

The Chironomy and Notation.

This chironomy, like that of the churches, must have been based upon the rise and fall of the finger as the notes employed seemed to rise and to fall in succession. However much the point and straight line, as in the fifth-century Syriac system, may have been utilized for the bases of notation, yet the manual movements and the written signs must often have mutually counteracted (compare "Manuel du Lecteur," ed. J. Derenbourg, p. 16). In its present state, however, calligraphy rarely depicts the rise and fall of the voice, for the accents are intended only to remind readers of certain intonations they have already learned by ear. So the signs do not designate any tonal value or any sort of succession of notes, but only that a conventional series of sounds are to be grouped on a syllable in a certain manner.

Attempts have been made to reconstitute the oldest form of the cantillation by J. C. Speidel ("Spuren von der Alten Davidischen Sing-Kunst," Waiblingen, 1740), C. G. Anton (in Paulus' "Neues Repertorium für Biblische Litteratur," Jena, 1790), L. Haupt ("Sechs Alttestamentliche Psalmen," Görlitz, 1854), and L. Arends ("Ueber den Sprachgesang der Vorzeit," Berlin, 1867). But as these investigators did not combine that acquaintance at once with Hebrew grammar and history and with synagogal music on which Delitzsch rightly insists for the study of the subject ("Physiologie und Musik in Ihrer Bedeutung für die Grammatik, Besonders die Hebräische," Leipsic, 1868), the fanciful in their conclusions outweighs the probable.

One Species Lost.

The Hebrew Bible is now pointed with two systems of accents. Of the system employed in the three poetical books, , Job, Proverbs, Psalms, the vocal interpretation has been forgotten, although traces of it appear to have been still retained in the fourteenth century (compare Simon ben Ẓemaḥ Duran, , 52b). This loss is probably due to the early discovery that for congregational use—the chief employment of the Psalms, at least—the utilization would be at once more simple and more effective of a chant identical in each successive verse, and with enough melodic definiteness and individuality to be easily remembered, in comparison with a pointed cantillation varied from verse to verse, and demanding continuous attention from the readers. The similar measurement and dichotomy of verses in these poetical books would sometimes, indeed, suggest such a fixed melody by the similar accentuation of successive verses. But the prose Scriptures are recited by an individual, and for them the commoner species of pointing is employed. For this accentuation of the "twenty-one books" the cantillation vigorously survives in a certain number of antique forms, divergent in detail of tune and especially in tonality (or scale structure), but parallel in character and in outline.

Principle of Parallel Tonalities Ancient.

This parallelism of divergent forms results in several divergent musical interpretations being given to the accents in each MINHAG or rite traditional among Jews since the Middle Ages (remarked before 1444 in S. Duran's , 52b). This feature is probably of great antiquity, and may have already existed in the Talmudical age. A similar parallelism is noticeable among the various prayer-motives (or outlines of melody for intoning the devotional portions of the various services; MUSIC, SYNAGOGAL) in each rite, and exhibits the same uniformity of employment of different tonalities. The principle seems to be general in Jewish worship-music, and may be formulated as the specific allotment in tradition of a particular mode or scale-form to each sacred occasion, on account of some esthetic appropriateness felt to lie in the association. While the only two modes utilized in modern European music, the major and the minor, are to be met with, they are of insignificance in face of the rich variety of modes of an antique or Oriental character more frequently favored in all the musical rituals which have not recently broken with tradition. The cantillation adheres only to modes similar to those of the Catholic plain-song, probably from a contemporary development at the close of the Dark Ages. The resemblance of some tropes to intonations employed in reading the Koran is at once striking; and the tonalities preserved among the Jews closely resemble those of the Byzantine and Armenian traditions, of the folk-song of eastern Europe, and of Perso-Arab melody. This modal feeling of Jewish worship-music is still reminiscent of the musical theory and practise of eastern Asia, which radiated from Babylon to the Mediterranean and to the Indian ocean.

Temple Cantillation of Psalms.

All this suggests that a similar principle may have underlain the cantillation of the Psalms in the Temple at Jerusalem, and attracts attention to the suggestions thrown out on literary grounds by Haremberg ("Lips. Misc. Nova," 1753, 9:2, p. 218 et seq.) and by Grätz ("Psalmen," 1882, p. 71) that other headingsof the Psalms besides Gittith (, ) refer to music known by the name of a particular district, according to the old Greek custom and that of Eastern races. It may be surmised that the Masoretes were no longer acquainted with that practise of the older musical school which superscribed a Psalm with the geographical name of the scale in which it was to be sung, because the liturgical Psalms nearer the close of the Canon, the chant of which may have been still known, or may have been more definite in melody form, bore no such superscription. But if the practise of later Jews (found equally among the various traditions which then had not yet diverged) of using a different tonality for each class of religious occasion had already prevailed in Temple times, it could be understood why Psalms would be headed with geographical expressions such as Gathite (, ); Eolian of the East (); Susian (, , , ); Elamite (, ); Ionian (Jawanit) (); perhaps the headings of Psalms 6 and , with others similarly superscribed, might be referred to the same class of technical musical rubric. In any case, scale-forms similar to these ancient ones were, and are, used by all Jews, according to the sacred day, for the cantillation now designated by the Accents.

The modes employed in the prayer-motives will be discussed with them, but the modes for the cantillation may be summarized as follows, if the Gregorian nomenclature is used.

Scriptural Reading.Mode.
Prophetical Dorian
Lamentations Hypodorian
Esther Hypolydian
SephardlPentateuchal Hypoeolian
LavantineLamentations, etc.Phrygian

Interpretation of the Accents.

In all these varied systems of musical interpretation of the same signs each particular accent is associated with a parallel vocal figure or trope, which consists of a group of notes forming a melismatic phrase. The accents, and consequently the tropes, are either conjunctive or disjunctive. Some of the disjunctive tropes form not so much a note-group, to be sung at one effort of the voice, as a series of such groups, or what is known in plain-song as a jubilation. Sometimes a minor conjunctive will in chanting be absorbed into the more important disjunctive which may follow it; but, as a rule, one accent designates one trope, and each word (save only the few enclitics) has a trope sung upon its tone-syllable, the more immediately connected conjunctives and disjunctives running on smoothly together into a "distinction" or phrase. If the word has a penultimate accent, the last note is, where necessary, repeated; and any syllables preceding the accented syllable are recited on a note of the trope introduced for the purpose in front of the note bearing the stress, and serving to "carry on" from trope to trope, blending the several or jubilations together into a homogeneous distinction for each successive rhetorical phrase. The whole strikes the hearer with its singular effectiveness in bringing out the meaning of the text, and affords a fair idea of that bardic declamation interpreting the text chanted, which for the ancients constituted melody, as tune does for us.

Now, if the following text be taken for cantillation according to its accents— when read (according to the Northern use) as part of an ordinary Pentateuchal lesson, it will be chanted thus:

On the Penitential Days, however, it would be chanted with jubilations of similar outline to each accent, but the intervals of the scale drawn from quite another mode, as follows:

But, again, had this passage from Genesis 29 formed a portion of a lesson from the Prophets (HAFṬARAH), its accents would have been musically interpreted in similar style, but in yet another tonality; thus:

The coda added to each of the above transcriptions shows the form of the "jubilation" which ends each section of the reading, a sort of musical "Here endeth the lesson," varying in figuration as well as in tonality according to the importance of the service.

Old Descriptions.

It is not always certain whether the names of the accents were given to them from their shape, position, and function, or from the outline and tone of the musical sounds for which they are the notation. Words in any case rarely succeed in describing the effect of musical sounds with any approach to accuracy; and only inadequate impressions of the con temporary jubilations in use can be derived from the few statements preserved in the writings of Ben Asher, Shem-Ṭob, and Moses Provençale. Delitzsch (Psalms , p. 44, English ed.) sums these up as follows: "Pazer and Shalshelet have a like intonation, which rises quaveringly; though Shalshelet is drawn out longer—about a third longer than that of the prose books. Legarmeh (in form Mahpaḳ or Azla, followed by Pesiḳ) has a clear high tone; before Ẓinnor, however, it is deeper and more broken; Rebia magnum has a soft tone, tending to repose [query: sinking to a rest-note]. In Ṣilluḳ the tone is raised at first, and then sinks to repose. The tone of Merka is, according to its name, andante [query, protracted] and sinking into the depths; the tone of Ṭarḥa corresponds with adagio." All that can be gathered from this is that the accents of the three poetical books were meant to be interpretedby much the same figuration of notes as those of the twenty-one prose books. Of these last similar descriptions are to be found in old writers (compare Kalonymus ben David in A. de Balmes' , Venice, 1523). During the recent centuries the continued elaboration of the cantillation by the professional readers, especially among the Polish and German congregations, has overlaid the earlier elements of the chant with ornament and developed many variants, so as to render these descriptions difficult to elucidate. But they are scarcely needed, since so many musical transcriptions have been made; such transcriptions being known, from the jubilation with which they commence, as "Zarḳa Tables." The most valuable of them all, for the Ashkenazic traditions, is to be found in Cantor Abraham Baer's "Ba'al Tefillah," 1877, pp. 30-42. The value of the earlier tables (e.g., those of Bartolocci, A. Kircher, P. Guarin, etc.) is detracted from by unnecessary elaboration, and especially by experiments in transcribing the notes backward, so as to go with the Hebrew from right to left, which have misled later students. Such, too, is the case with the transcription made by the monk Böschenstein for Reuchlin, and printed in his "De Accentibus" (Hagenau, 1518), at end of Book III., where the cantillation, reversed and given in the tenor as a canto fermo, is ludicrously accompanied by three other harmony parts. But Reuchlin's tenor cantillation, when retranscribed, is particularly valuable as showing that the tradition has not appreciably varied in four centuries, save possibly in the rarer jubilations, such as "Ḳarne Farah," where license is always taken. Similarly valuable as illustrating the persistent accuracy of tradition is the transcription of the Sephardic cantillation made by David de Pinna, a Jewish surgeon in Amsterdam, for Jablonski's "Biblia Hebraica" (Berlin, 1699). The Oriental traditions have only received treatment since Villoteau followed in the train of Napoleon to Egypt, while the Bagdad forms are now first presented (from notes by Mr. Morris Cohen). The cantillation being still handed on in oral tradition, many minor variants will be found to exist, which it was not deemed necessary to include in the preceding "Zarḳa Table," where ad libitum grace notes have also been omitted from the transcription.

The Students' Cantillation.

The "repetition with song" (see above), or study of religious literature in a vocal intonation, similarly survives from the Talmudical age to the present day. But it was never so developed for the small audience in the house of study as was the Scriptural cantillation for the larger congregation in the house of prayer. Private notes in the copy of the individual here likewise originated a system of accentuation. Examples are referred to by the Tosafists and by Profiat Duran; and an accentuated copy of the Mishnah was possessed by Joseph Solomon Medigo in the seventeenth century. Indeed, one treatise of the Mishnah was printed with accents as late as 1553. The oldest extant manuscript of the Talmud, a fragment of Keritot, is marked with accents for the students' cantillation, and can be examined in the facsimile published in Singer and Schechter's "Rabbinical Fragments." Nothing, however, is known of any musical interpretation of these accents. The students' cantillation in present use varies according to the country of origin, but is more or less a mere drone, although the monotone is always abandoned at the end of the clause, according as it expresses a question or a reply, a doubt or a conclusion. Generally the question ends on the dominant, the reply on the tonic.

The earliest transcription of a students' cantillation is to be found in the Ḥeleḳ of the apostate Gerson of Halberstadt (Helmstadt, 1610), where he says that "almost the whole of the Talmud is set out in question and answer as follows." Put into modern notation, his transcription is as given on page 549.

The students' cantillation has been carried into domestic worship in the HAGGADAH, the child's question on the Passover Eve being often set out in it. The transcription on the following page is due to Baer ("Ba'al Tefillah," p. 170).

  • The grammatical force of the accents is treated under Accents. Almost every compilation of synagogue music covering the whole year includes some transcription of the cantillation, if only of the Pentateuch.
  • Fuller and more careful summaries are due to Naumbourg, Recueil de Chants Religieux, Paris, 1874, and Baer, Der Praktische Vorbeter, Gothenburg, 1877, and Frankfort, 1882.
  • For the general consideration of the melody of the accents see Wickes, Poetical Accentuation, Oxford, 1881, and Prose Accentuation, ib. 1887.
  • Useful references are collected in Ackermann, Der Synagogale Gesang (I. Das Talmudische Zeitalter), in Winter and Wünsche, Jüdische Litteratur, vol. , Treves, 1894.
  • For the musical accentuation of later texts see Steinschneider, Jewish Lit. p. 154;
  • Dukes, in Literaturblatt des Orients, 1843-1844;
  • and Abrahams, in Jew. Quart. Revelation 11:291, London, 1899.
  • The various traditions are coordinated in F. L. Cohen, Ancient Musical Traditions of the Synagogue, in Proceedings of the Musical Assoc. , London, 1893;
  • and Le Plain Chant de la Synagogue, in Revue du Chant Grégorien, Nos. 33-36, Marseilles, 1899.
F. L. C.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Cantillation'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia.​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​c/cantillation.html. 1901.