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How Time’s Arrow and the Phrygian Half-Step Make Jewish Music Holy

For centuries, Western classical music propelled listeners toward Christian salvation. Then Jewish music changed everything.

David P. Goldman
September 29, 2014
Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine
Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine
Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine
Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine

In his 1944 essay The Halakhic Mind, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik makes a striking assertion about the directionality of time:

The reversibility of time and of the causal order is fundamental in religion, for otherwise the principle of conversion would be sheer nonsense. The act of reconstructing past psychical life, of changing the arrow of time from a forward to a retrospective direction, is the main premise of penitence. One must admit with Kierkegaard that repetition is a basic religious category. The homo religiosus, oscillating between sin and remorse, flight from and return to God, frequently explores not only the traces of a bygone past retained in memory, but a living “past” which is consummated in his emergent time-consciousness. It is irrelevant whether reversibility is a transcendental act bordering on the miraculous, as Kierkegaard wants us to believe, or a natural phenomenon that has its roots in the unique structure of the religious act. The paradox of a directed yet reversible time concept remains.

R. Soloveitchik leaves open the issue of whether the reversibility of time is a “natural phenomenon” or not. The question is not as far-fetched as it sounds: Five years after R. Soloveitchik finished this essay, the great mathematician Kurt Gödel showed (in a contribution to Albert Einstein’s Festschrift) that General Relativity implies the reversibility of physical time under special conditions. In any case, physicists have not yet succeeded in making time run backwards.

Eastern European chazanim found means to reverse musical time, in the service of the religious requirement that R. Soloveitchik identified. This was not a “transcendental act bordering on the miraculous,” to be sure, but the next best thing. Chazanut in this view was one of the great Jewish religious innovations of the early modern period. It is not merely symbolic but evocative, turning an abstract point of theology into an artistic event.

The high musical culture of Eastern European chazanut is a uniquely Jewish art form, but it is not sealed off hermetically from the ambient Western musical culture. Nonetheless it is uniquely Jewish both in form and—decisively—in function. I shall argue that although chazanut draws on elements of Western musical culture, it employs them in an entirely original fashion for a uniquely Jewish religious purpose. Eastern European synagogue chant evokes the reversibility of time in its most characteristic gesture, namely the “Phrygian” or Freygisch descent from the flattened 2nd of the scale to the 1st degree, or tonic note. To hear this move in the Freygisch (Ahavah raba) mode as transformation of the directionality of time, we must hear it in the context of the tonality of Western music, with its clear sense of time’s forward motion. The Freygish flattened half-step, I will argue, functions as an ironic reversal of the most characteristic gesture in Western tonal music: the ascent of the sharpened 7th degree of the ordinary Western scale, or leading tone, to the tonic. This is the most characteristic pointer to the forward motion of time in Western music.

The tension evoked by the 7th tone of the scale is resolved in the final cadence on the tonic chord as the 7th tone moves by half-step up to the 8th, or tonic. We associate this resolution with the forward motion of time not only by habit, but through its functionality. The rising leading tone of Western music is the natural way to hear melodic direction. It is not the only way to hear melodic direction, to be sure, but it realizes the natural possibilities embodied in the relation of tonic and dominant, which nature gives us through the overtone series.

The flattened Freygisch half-step fulfills its religious purpose in Jewish music only when we hear it as a reversal of expectations learned from Western music. That is how the great chazanim employed Jewish modality: In common Ashkenazic practice, the presentation of Freygish is situated in the larger context of Western tonality. Caution is warranted in drawing parallels between Western music and Jewish liturgical chant, to be sure. The purpose of free melismatic improvisation in Jewish tradition is quite different from that of Western mensural music. The ordering of Western music according to measure and phrase creates an internal logic of departure and arrival. Goal-oriented tonal motion in Western music parallels the Christian idea of a journey toward salvation.


Free recitative depends on the text to set goals and points of arrival. Its liturgical purpose is to help the congregation fulfill the rabbinic injunction to perceive the Torah anew at each hearing. Goal-oriented voice leading in Western music creates its own sense of the future; the forward motion of melismatic recitative is bound to the text. Western composers employ variations in rhythm to convey a sense of the sacred. Starting with the sacred polyphony of the 15th century, Western classical music developed tools to compress and extend musical time, evoking in the listener a sense of sacred time in contrast to ordinary clock time. In the free recitative of synagogue chant, musical rhythm is less well defined. Melismatic recitative typically includes many sub-rhythms. But this rhythmic freedom has the advantage for Jewish liturgical purposes of suspending the forward motion of time such that time’s arrow can be made to point backwards.

A brief review of some basic musical concepts is in order here. No event exercises so powerful a pull in melody as the change from motion by whole-step to motion by half-step. The ascending leading tone “si” to “do” imparts a sense of arrival on the tonic that is fundamental to our experience of Western music (Example 1-A). The defining characteristic of Western music is to combine the motion from chords built on the 1st and 5th degrees of the scale (tonic and dominant) and back, with a melodic descent to the tonic, as in Example 1. All roads lead to the tonic: The leading tone “si” rises to “do” (in this case b to c), while the 2nd degree of the scale falls to the topic (in this case d to c) while the bass falls from V to I (in this case from G to C). Western music uniquely combines melodic and harmonic notion toward the tonic to create a sense of direction toward the tonic. In Western music this establishes firmly the forward direction of time’s arrow. The rising leading tone moves to the tonic in an inner voice (Example 1-B).

Example 1

So powerful is the pull of the half-step that Western music alters the tones of the minor scale in order to preserve it. The minor scale typically has different tones ascending and descending. What is usually called the “melodic minor” is actually a mixed mode—a minor scale that borrows from the major scale in ascent and a minor scale in descent (Example 2). The 6th and 7th steps of the scale in Example 2 are raised (from A♭ to A-natural and from B♭ to B-natural respectively) in order to allow the leading tone to ascend by half-step to the tonic, and in order to avoid a jarring augmented 2nd between the 6th and 7th steps.

The great Austrian-Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker taught that the Western major scale is “natural” (in that it derives from the circle of fifths) while the minor scale is artificial, that is, a work of human artifice. Human artifice is bound to nature insofar as the tonal resolution driven by the ascending leading tone in the major scale must be imported into the minor scale by raising the 7th step (B-natural instead of B♭ in Example 2). In order to avoid the melodic disruption that would ensue from a jump between the natural 6th step of the minor scale (in this case A♭) to the raised 7th step, the 6th step also is raised. The natural tones of the minor scale, by contrast, are retained when it descends.

Example 2: Melodic Minor Sharpens the 6th and 7th Steps Ascending but Not Descending

In the standard literature on Jewish music, Freygish is presented as a fixed set of tones, that is, as a minor scale with a flattened 2nd step (D♭ in Example 3) and a raised 3rd step (E-natural). This scale is found in the tuning of stringed instruments in Eastern European and Arabic folk music, and in that context the set of tones must remain fixed. As we will see, this folk mode is transformed into an altered form of Western tonality in the music of the great chazzanim.

Example 3: Freygish (Phrygian Dominant) Mode

There is a sound liturgical reason to chant sections of the liturgy within the modes with which they are associated. Freygish also bears the name of the Ahava Rabbah blessing preceding the Shema in the Shacharit service. Association of music with text is a powerful liturgical device, and it was traditional cantorial practice to sing this blessing in the mode with which it is associated. Example 4 below shows a setting of Ahava Rabbah by the Odessa cantor Solomon Rozumni (1866-1904).

Example 4: Solomon Rozumni, Ahava Rabbah

In practice, though, compositions with Freygish melodic lines often emulate the alteration of minor scales in Western music, but in reverse: rather than raise the 7th step in the ascent to the tonic, the popular setting of “L-Shanah Ha-Ba’ah” flattens the 2nd step in the descent to the tonic.

Example 5: L’Shanah Ha-Ba’ah

Such common variants of the Freygish mode point to a musical principle: What matters to the listener is not so much the fixed set of tones of a particular mode, as the kind of motion that these tones make possible. The descending leading tone on the 2nd degree of the scale is the raison d’etre of Freygish. It can be raised in ascending lines, as in the first measure of example 5, just as the ascending leading tone of the Western minor scale on the 7th degree is raised in ascending motion. As we shall see, great chazanim displayed profound insights into this musical principle and employed it to create a musical affect appropriate to the liturgy. A brief examination of the way in which Western composers manipulated the directionality of the leading tone will help clarify this.

The “natural” direction of the ascending leading tone can be changed for musical effect. If the leading tone is a marker for forward motion in musical time, manipulation of the leading tone’s direction can change our perception of musical time. So basic is the 7th-to-8th-step resolution in tonal music that any alternation of it has a musical meaning. When we hear the tonic 8th step descend to the 7th instead, for example, we sense a move “away from home.” When the 7th degree is supported harmonically in this descent by the III scale step in the bass, it is pulled downward, as it were away from the tonic. This has become a stock musical device to evoke nostalgia, first employed to my knowledge in Franz Schubert’s 1826 song “Im Frühling.” Every American has heard it countless times, in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and other popular songs.

Example 6: The Descending Leading Tone Evokes Nostalgia

Richard Wagner uses a similar device to evoke the suspension of time. In the last act of Wagner’s opera Siegfried, the third of the Ring series, the hero has broken his grandfather Wotan’s spear and braved the magic fire to find the sleeping Brünnhilde. He never has seen a woman before but quickly determines that she is not a man and vaguely recollects his mother. He kisses her, and the orchestra wanders into a loud B-major seventh chord announced in a grand crescendo over two measures in which the tempo slows to a stop. Wagner makes us hear the B-major seventh as the dominant of a loud E-minor chord that succeeds it. We seem to have arrived at the harmonic goal, except that the E-minor chord is sounded only by the brass in the middle register, which leaves room for doubt. The E-minor triad, “very slowly” according to the composer’s instruction, diminishes in volume and then resolves into C major. The tone B, which we first heard as an element of E minor, turns out to be the leading tone, or 7th step, in C major.

In retrospect, we hear the top tone of the E-minor chord b2 as a leading tone in C major, which resolves upward in the expected way; the E-minor chord that first was heard as a harmonic goal turns out not to have been a chord at all, but just support for passing motion of the 7th to the 8th step. We thought we were in E minor but find ourselves in quite a different place, namely C major. That evokes by musical means the change from a sleeping to a waking state.

Incidentally, Bob Dylan used a similar device in the chorus of the 1965 song, “Memphis Blues Again,” without Wagner’s elaborate harmonic preparation, to be sure.

Example 7: Wagner (and Bob Dylan) Play With Leading Tone Directionality

A more complex example is Schubert’s song “Aufenthalt,” as analyzed by Schenker’s student Oswald Jonas. The song depicts a despondent man in a forest by a stark cliff who declares that his heart remains eternally the same as the primeval rock. As Jonas observes, Schubert employs a musical means to depict a heart that is frozen in time. Schubert’s song is in D-minor, whose leading tone is C#. At the conclusion of the song, Schubert rewrites the C# as its enharmonic equivalent (the same note on the piano keyboard) of D♭. Instead of the dominant harmony of A as in the third measure of Example 5 below, Schubert supports the erstwhile leading tone with B♭-Minor in the last measure of the example.

Example 8: Schubert “Freezes” the Leading Tone by Enharmonic Alteration

The leading tone C# is wrenched out of direction by the new harmony, “freezing” the musical motion just as the protagonist’s heart is frozen, Jonas commented. This is not word-painting in the usual sense of the term, but the reproduction by strictly musical means of the content of the poem.

This is the ambient musical culture absorbed by Jews and gentiles. As noted, we encounter examples of the ironic use of the leading tone to alter time perceptions in popular music as well as classical music.

The usual presentation of the Freygisch mode identifies the sequence of tones in Jewish music as a fixed sequence of tones derived from Middle Eastern or Ukrainian folk modes. It is distinguished by the half-tone between the 1st and 2nd scale degrees and an augmented 2nd between the 2nd and 3rd scale degrees.

Some Eastern European chazanim used melismatic improvisation within the fixed set of tones of Freygish. An example is Rozumni’s setting of the Kedusha in the repetition of the Amidah prayer in the Shabbat Shacharit, shown in Example 9. All the tones in his extended setting belong to the Freygish mode.

Example 9: Kedusha, by Solomon Rozumni in Freygish mode, Opening Phrase

It is clear from context, though, that Rozumni intended the Freygish setting of the Kedusha to be heard against the background of Western tonal music. It is preceded by a setting of the preceding Avot, which unfolds a G-major triad. A tonal setting of Avot followed by an “Oriental” setting of Kedusha remains standard practice.

Example 10: Solomon Rozumni, Avot in G Major

Rozumni composed quite conventional tonal settings of other parts of the liturgy, for example this Lechoh Dodi.

Example 11: Solomon Rozumni Lekchoh Dodi

In Rozumni’s setting, the chorus follows a conventional antecedent-consequent structure in eight bars. This is perhaps the type of phrase most frequently encountered in tonal music.

The B-natural at “nekabeloh” in measure 4 tonicizes the 5th degree of the scale, in this case C, denoting the dominant as an intermediate goal. In the second half of the example, the B♭ native to the tonic key of F major returns. Whereas B-natural in measure 4 pointed upward to C, the B♭ in measure 8 points downward to the tonic tone F. The half-step pulls in two directions, but at two different times: the semi-cadence on the dominant at measure 4, and the cadence on the tonic at measure 8.

Chazanut typically juxtaposes melodies cast wholly in the mold of Western tonality with chromatic, modal, “Oriental” material. Context is everything in music, and an Orientalism in synagogue chant is no more a chance intrusion of a foreign musical element here than it is in Debussy: It is heard in the context of expectations set by Western tonality. This is clear from the succession of modes in the typical setting of the Shabbat Shacharit Amidah.

Against the backdrop of Western tonality, the flattened 2nd step descending to the tonic as a downward-pointing leading tone is heard ironically: If the ascent of the leading tone from the 7th- to the 8th-scale degree impels the forward motion of time, the descending leading tone from the flattened 2nd step to the 1st pulls time as it were backwards. As noted, the relationship between the leading tone and the direction of musical time was well understood by classical composers. Schubert and Wagner changed the way the leading tone was heard in order to suspend musical time. The greatest chazzanim did something else: The descending leading tone points to a change in the direction of time’s arrow.

In the practice of great Eastern European chazanim, we observe frequent alternation of the tones of the Freygish mode. These are not arbitrary, but they appear in the service of the musical representation of the liturgy. A master of this kind of improvisation was the Ukrainian chazan Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933). A number of transcriptions of Rosenblatt’s liturgical chant are in print and are available online. His transcribed Nekadesh, for example, modulates in tonal fashion, with F# in the third measure tonicizing G as the leading tone ascends in minor, reverting to F-natural in measure 4 as it descends. The fourth measure outlines a V7 chord in C. The only “Oriental” flavor is the retention of the augmented 2nd between E♭3 and F#3 in the third measure.

Example 12: Yossele Rosenblatt Nekadesh

The reversal of the Western convention for treatment of the leading tone is not restricted to the characteristic flattened 2nd scale degree in Freygisch. The great chazanim also reversed the direction of the ascending leading tone at the 7th degree of the scale. This move is not easily classifiable according to the traditional presentation of synagogue modes as fixed collections of tones. It reflects, rather, a deep understanding of the functionality of Western music and compositional boldness in changing this functionality in the service of liturgical poignancy.

Two examples from Yossele Rosenblatt’s 1928 book of recitatives illustrate this innovative practice. The first is shown occurs in Example 13, Rosenblatt’s setting of the Birkat HaHodesh (titled “Yhi Rotzon”). Most of the recitative is composed in Western tonality but shifts to Jewish modality at the conclusion. The initial statement occurs in an unambiguous C-minor. It is clearly “Western” in character. At the words “ve siten lono chayim aruchim” on the fourth staff, the introduction of D♭3 indicates a modulation to F-minor, the subdominant of the prevailing C-minor tonality. Rosenblatt proceeds in an ambiguous F-minor through the end of the eighth staff, raising the local ascending leading tone (E natural) as it ascends to the local tonic F, and flattening it in descent per conventional Western usage.

Example 13: Rosenblatt Yhi Rotzon

Then something quite different occurs (highlighted on the ninth staff). The local tonic shifts to G, with the introduction of its leading tone F#. At “shel ki lutz a tzomos” we hear a reversal of Western usage.

In the highlighted passage, the vocal line ascends to g3 from F-natural and descends through F#. We expect to hear the opposite: a sharpened ascending leading tone rising to the tonic and a flattened 7th step in descent. Rosenblatt turns the Western melodic minor inside-out, as it were. The local tonic in this passage is G. The ascending line from the 7th to the 8th scale degree F3-G3 is a whole tone, while the descending line uses the half-tone G3-F#3. The descent to E♭3 through an augmented 2nd further emphasizes the reversal of the direction of the half-tone. This is again emphasized by the ornament on tzomos.

Rosenblatt’s Yhi Rotzon returns to a Western tonality with a final on G (except, again, for the “Oriental” augmented 2nd between E♭ and F#).

A second and even bolder manipulation of leading-tone relationships is found in Example 14 from Rosenblatt’s partial setting of the High Holiday poem Unetaneh Tokef (Number 22 in Rosenblatt’s book, “Uvashofor Gadol”).

Example 14: Yossele Rosenblatt “Uvashofor Godol

Again, the opening statement in the first three staves occurs in G-minor, the notated key. Then something uncanny occurs, highlighted in the fourth staff at the words “hine yom ha din lifkod.” The tone G#2 on the word “din” is the Freygish flattened 2nd degree in enharmonic disguise. Preceded by the tones F-natural, E-natural and D on the text “hine yom,” the G# appears to announce a new local tonic, namely A-minor. But it does no such thing: After a long pause on G#, Rosenblatt descends by half-step to G-natural. Yom Din, the Day of Judgment, comes upon us unawares: The reproduction of the content of the text through purely musical functionality is ingenious. That is the kind of musical reflection on the text we find in Schubert.

The enharmonic irony with which Rosenblatt reverses the directionality of the G#/A♭ on “din” may be compared with the Schubert song in Example 8. Rosenblatt’s alternation between Western tonality and Jewish modality implies that the great chazan expected his listeners to hear these transformations with ears conditioned to Western musical functionality. These were not arbitrary outbursts of random emotion that we find in Rosenblatt’s recitatives, but rather carefully crafted musical ironies made possible by a deep knowledge of musical function.

The foregoing analysis raises some interesting questions both for the teaching and reception of chazanut. Although I do not favor the use of the Western classical style in Jewish liturgical music because of its Christian connotations, it is also the case that Ashkenazic chazanut is best heard by ears that understand the functionality of Western tonal music. Broader training in Western music therefore is a prerequisite for cantorial art at the highest level.

To the extent that Jewish congregations lose interest in Western classical music, moreover, the greatest work of chazanim like Yossele Rosenblatt will go unappreciated. In music as in so many other fields, Jews are in but not of Western culture. We cannot seal ourselves off from Western culture; nor can we adopt the ambient culture uncritically. The great Ashkenazic chazanim created a musical style that adapts the functionality of Western music to distinctly Jewish liturgical goals and set an example for Jewish engagement with Western culture that today is a challenge to sustain.

With thanks to Christine Magne for recorded musical interpretations.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.