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Rousseau, Melody, and Mode

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is best remembered today for his political-philosophical works, but he was also a careful student of music.  He thought he had isolated different aspects of music and was able to assign a clear role to each.  He drew a strong distinction between sound and melody and their respective effects.  But his conclusions are profoundly undermined by a form of music which, as far as we know,  Rousseau never encountered—the liturgical music of Ashkenazi Jews. 

If you took a traditional synagogue-attending Ashkenazi and placed him on a desert island until he had thoroughly lost track of time, then transported him to a service in any Orthodox congregation, within a few minutes he would be able to tell you what day of the week it was and the time of day. Most remarkably, little of this information would come from the words of the prayers.  The texts of three daily services and the liturgy for different occasions—weekday, Shabbat, Festival,  High Holidays—are in many parts remarkably similar. What varies markedly is the musical mode in which that text is sung. 

In Western music we are used to major and minor scales.  Schoenberg achieved fame through his pioneering use of a 12-tone scale.  Jewish music uses a selection of scales, each based on a particular succession of sharp, flat, and natural notes.  These are referred to as the prayer modes and, as they are applied to prayer, as nusah hatefillah.  They developed in medieval Northern and Western Europe and became the sound world of Ashkenazi Jews, both inside and outside the synagogue, in liturgical settings, in the klezmer music played at celebrations and the folk songs performed at home.  To take just a single example, one of the most common modes is the Ahavah Rabbah or Fraygisch (it is related to a Greek mode called the Phrygian).  Many people who have never set foot in a synagogue have heard music in the Ahavah Rabbah mode because it is the basis for Havah Nagilah, which began life as a Hassidic niggun (melody).  There are also tinges of Ahavah Rabbah in “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” in the musical Oliver, which is why it sounds distinctly “Jewish.”  Our ears have come to associate Jewishness with the succession of notes in the Ahavah Rabbah mode. 

Different liturgical occasions use particular modes.  Ahavah Rabbah dominates Shabbat and festival mornings, Hashem Malakh appears on Friday and High Holiday nights.  Magen Avot is also heard on Friday night but has a stronger presence on weekdays.  The highly distinctive S’lihah mode is used for the early part of the High Holiday morning service, and Mi Sheberakh is the mode for grace after meals.  Although distinct snatches of melody (they could even be called motifs) are common across the Ashkenazi world, the atmosphere of the moment is communicated by the mode.  As with any scale, there is a huge variety of possible expressions; but any tune or quasi-tune, if sung in the appropriate mode, will evoke the spirit of the occasion. This could be the solemnity of the Days of Awe, the frivolity of Simhat Torah or Purim, or the melancholic quality of Shabbat afternoon. Through nusah hatefillah profound meaning and emotion is transmitted, not through melody but through the music’s basic structure. 

This insight is relevant to an assessment of Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Language in which Something is Said about Melody and Musical Imitation.  Rousseau compared music to painting, and claimed that “just as the sentiments which painting arouses in us are not due to colors, the power which music exercises over our souls is not the product of sounds.”  According to Rousseau, that role is played by melody, which “does in music exactly what drawing does in painting; it indicates the lines and shapes, of which the chords and sounds are just colors.”  Rousseau claimed that melody possesses a unique ability to communicate, which notes or harmonies by themselves do not: “melody expresses plaints, cries of suffering or of joy, threats, moans; all the vocal signs of the passions fall within its province.”  Rousseau believed that melody is essentially a more intense form of speech, built on the rhythms of speech, and though melody is “inarticulate” it is “lively, ardent, passionate, and a hundred times more vigorous than speech itself.” 

The power of nusah to move its listeners is a profound challenge to Rousseau’s argument.  It is not exclusively or primarily the melodies used on the High Holidays that move the Jews assembled for prayer.  Each prayer leader will sing the liturgy in a slightly different way.  Among the great hazzanim, a service with Yossele Rosenblatt was very different melodically from one led by Pierre Pinchik or Leibele Glanz.  The clothes they constructed for the prayers may have been different, but the prayers were cut from the same cloth, and a worshipper would have felt equally at home at any of their services because they shared a common nusah. 

The power of nusah comes, to be sure, from years of association between the occasion and the music and therefore has a social as well as a musical aspect.  Rousseau, however, acknowledged that this, too, is an important aspect of melody.  According to Rousseau’s theory of the connection between language and music, melody “imitates the accents of [various] languages as well as the idiomatic expressions commonly associated in each one of them”—that is to say that melodies move some language communities in ways that would leave others cold.  Indeed, this is at the core of Rousseau’s argument against Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s claim that music can have a universal and physical effect.  Rousseau argued forcefully that music acts upon us not simply through a sensory but through a moral effect, based on its associations and cultural resonances.  According to Rousseau, the power of melody, no less than nusah, derives from an intersection of the musical and the social. 

Rousseau was a decidedly modern figure; indeed, he was one of the founders of modernity.  Nusah is pre-modern in origin and is based on truths that moderns do not always appreciate. Some of these are being recovered by post-modernity.  The most recent art music, whether tonal or atonal, has moved away from melody, yet remains enormously affecting.  The same holds true of art. Although Rousseau argued that sounds and colors are not wholly analogous, we saw how he began with a comparison of sound and color, maintaining that neither of them can communicate.  He vested all meaning in drawing.  Yet artists after Rousseau, from the Impressionists to Rothko and Jackson Pollock, increasingly explored color over line and created overwhelming emotional effects. Rousseau stands refuted by artistic expression from both before and after his time.  Had there only been Jews in Geneva during his lifetime, he might have avoided his modernist misconception.

Ben Elton is a 2012-13 Tikvah Fellow.

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