The Jewish Bel Canto

I recently posted an article sharing some spectacular singing from Jewish cantors. Their flexible, rapid, and stunning singing is a forerunner by several hundred years of anything that the Italians would discover until the 1300s. In fact, these Jewish singing-schools predate the Scuola Cantorum by several hundred years! In the examples of the tradition above, you hear remarkable flexibility and phenomenal trills from the male throat! Exciting stuff.

I would be interested in learning more about the interrelationship between these two ‘schools’ of singing, as I don’t believe their contributions to each other have been explored academically or scholarly.

Listening to early cantors of the 20th century has been an eye-opening experience to say the least, and I was thrilled to have confirmation of this in David Clark Taylor’s book from 1917:

Particular interest attaches to the music of the ancient Hebrew Temple at Jerusalem, and to the system of vocal instruction established there. Singing at that time reached a standard of excellence, to which it was not destined to return for nearly two thousand years. A highly elaborate ritual was in use, containing musical settings for the Psalms and many of the historical and prophetic books. The music was throughout highly melodious in character, and embodied a system of vocal ornaments of a remarkable degree of complexity and beauty. At the time of Solomon four thousand Levites are said to have been employed in the services of the Temple, and it was their office to sing and intone the more important musical numbers. The priests also sang portions of the services. A high degree of vocal facility was demanded in the performance of the Temple music, and both priests and Levites received a careful vocal education to fit them for their offices.

The system of vocal cultivation followed in the school attached to the Temple is especially interesting, because it serves as a perfect type of a method evolved along strictly natural and instinctive lines. A striking similarity is indeed seen between this system and that perfected in Europe many centuries later. A crude system of musical notation was in use. Each melodic phrase and vocal ornament was represented by a single symbol. A lesson consisted of the master singing a passage of the music to the appropriate text, and the students repeating it after him until they had memorized it and learned to associate the melodic phrases with their symbols. During this class singing and the individual practising carried on by the students, the voices received the training needed to equip them for the adequate performance of the music.

Many centuries later the old Italian masters found out for themselves that the best possible exercise of the voice is the singing of melodious and ornamental music. This was precisely the system followed in the Temple school. All its music was melodious in character, and well suited to the voice. The ornaments it contained were of the kind best adapted to secure flexibility and freedom of delivery. There is indeed a striking resemblance between the ancient Hebrew music and the Italian operatic music of the 17th century. Especially in the character of the vocal embellishments is this similarity to be noted.

Taylor, David C. “New Light on the Old Italian Method.” (1916).

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