Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur

That Will Bring us Back to Doe

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
Jewish Music and the Breakdown of Tonality
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Turn on a radio and listen to some 'Jewish Music.' It sounds about as Jewish as Led Zeppelin wearing tefillin.

A famous music biz manager once said "I'd rather have a second-class original than a first-class copy." The problem with any copy is that even if it is technically better than the original, it is forever limited by the fact that it came into existence not as an attempt to create ex nihilo but as a clone.

If you want to know what original Jewish music sounded like, it probably sounded much like classical music. Classical music has its roots in the Gregorian chants of the Catholic church, and the Gregorian chants were rip-offs of the music that the Levi'im played in the Holy Temple. When the Romans burned the House of G-d and exiled the Jewish People, they also exiled our music. They took it into captivity and made it sing for a new master.

Gregorian chant is monophonic, meaning music that consists of only one melodic line without accompaniment. The beauty of the chant lies in the serene, undulating shapes of its melody which always returns to the tonic, to the fundamental note - Doe - as in Doe, Re, Mi etc.

The mesmerizing quality of chant comes from an exquisite longing always to return to the root note of the scale, the tonic. To return to Doe.

The development of Western music shows an increasingly complex use of harmony. In the Baroque period, great importance was attached to the mathematical interlacing of melody lines. This was known as counterpoint. Composers such as J.S. Bach were sometimes called upon to instantly compose fugues to show their technical prowess. But still the melodic structure always returned to the tonic, to Doe.

The Breakdown of Tonality

The Twentieth Century has produced the highest level of technological civilization known to man, and at the same time the greatest violence and barbarism. It has also produced the greatest era of atheism.

This chaos in the modern world-view has been reflected in its music. During the First World War, a revolution in music theory took place, overthrowing all J.S. Bach's rules of harmony and counterpoint, and changing the way music had sounded for hundreds of years.

If you play all the notes on a piano, both black and white, from one Doe to the Doe above it, you will have played twelve notes. This scale is called the chromatic scale. Western music from the earliest times was founded on the diatonic scale which, depending on the key, consists of seven of those twelve notes. Not all of the notes are used at the same time. Everyone knows the diatonic scale. It was made famous by that great musicologist Julie Andrews in her unforgettable contribution to Western culture: "Doe - a deer, a female deer...etc."

During World War One, Arnold Schoenberg invented the twelve-tone scale. Schoenberg decided to use all the notes in the chromatic scale. After this, there was no longer a hierarchy of melodic structure where every note inevitably led back to the tonic, to the root note, to Doe. Now there was no king. No note to which all the others bent their heads in submission. In a sense Schoenberg was saying "All notes are equal! There is no pivotal note. There is no King! There is no Doe!"

Schoenberg refined his creation and brought it to perfection in the 1920's. After Schoenberg, composers became more interested in dissonance than in harmonious consonance. Once Arnold Schoenberg had "dethroned" the rules of diatonic composition, many other composers followed suit with their own compositional styles. The door was now open. These other composers didn't follow Schoenberg but invented their own rules of composition. Their methods and styles, including Schoenberg's twelve-tone music, are called "atonality".

Schoenberg unleashed a genie on the world. After he had breached the walls of the diatonic scale, eventually almost anything came to be called 'music.'

In 1943, Germany was burning a people, composing the darkest cacophony that man could conceive. In the world of music, John Cage achieved notoriety for his "prepared pianos." These were pianos, modified by jamming all types of materials -- from wood to screws to weather-stripping -- into pianos to alter their sound, and then having pianists strike the keys randomly. In other compositions, he used a variety of radios or altered tape recordings all playing simultaneously, or microphones attached to human bodies in motion.

His most famous composition was "4:33". A piece for the piano in which the pianist sat in silence in front of the keys of the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds.

Art reflects life. Music reflects life. Just as tonality became 'a-tonality', so monarchy became 'an-archy'.

Exit The King

As part of the Creation, Hashem wanted there to be a tangible symbol of His Kingship. From this symbol we would be able to catch the smallest glimpse, the most distant echo of the Glory of Heaven, its Awesomeness and its Majesty. For this reason, Hashem created monarchy. Earthly monarchy is the most distant whisper of the ineffable Majesty of the King of Kings.

A few hundred years ago, kings ruled with absolute authority in their lands. More recently, nations have been unwilling to give to their rulers unbounded dominion; rather the king was shackled by the rule of the state. Nowadays, the notion of kingship has been virtually extinguished. Now, so to speak, 'all pigs are equal."

There remain but a few nations who still conserve constitutional kingship, but even in those countries, the monarchy is but a pale puppet show - fodder for the tabloid press. Princes and princesses look and behave like creatures of the gutter. Gone is the whisper of Majesty.

Since monarchy was created only to give us a microcosmic semblance of the Heavenly Kingship, how should we understand this ebbing of the kings? In other words, if the earthly monarchy is no more than a reflection of Hashem's Kingship, and a means to make it easier for us to accept the dominion of Hashem upon ourselves, why has the power and the status of monarchy been allowed to wane?

Hashem relates to us through measure for measure. When the world at large believed in G-d, we were afforded an ever present representation of Hashem's Kingship in the form of the rule of kings. This was mirrored in the arts, in music, in the diatonic scale, where all notes led back to the king - to Doe. When the world turned to atheism, then Hashem withdrew the power of kings and there was a concomitant loss of tonality in music. Similarly in the visual arts, realism gave way to increasing abstraction and nihilism.

I remember as a small boy in 1953 watching one of the first postwar television broadcasts in England. It was of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It went on all day. And we watched it all day. We didn't get tired or bored. We squinted at that murky gray fishbowl in awe and fascination. Even in my short life, how has that most distant whisper of the divine Kingdom of Heaven become almost completely inaudible!

And there we stand on Rosh Hashana at the coronation of the King of Kings. We get tired and bored. It all seems too long. We struggle to have some feeling of connection to this most awesome of days...

The basic tenet of Judaism is that Hashem is One. When a king united his people he was also the symbol of their unity. Like the note to which all the other notes inevitably return.

Only when the world perceives the Oneness of Hashem will kingship return to mankind.

And only that "will bring us back to Doe..."

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