Elisa Bray

Shul music has given me a taste for melancholia

Every synagogue has a different approach, but I’m grateful I grew up with a choir and organ


Leonard Cohen

April 03, 2024 09:04

Of all the things that crossed my mind before having children, one that didn’t was that I would never again get to choose the music on long car journeys. Sleepless nights? Par for the course. Less freedom? No problem. But listening to the relentlessly bouncy Meghan Trainor’s Better When I’m Dancin’ and other such saccharine pop on repeat, ad nauseam? Now that’s a new circle of hell I’d never envisaged.

This might not bother most people, but I must disclose at this point that I am also a music journalist, and a discernment for music naturally comes with the job. Gone are coastal drives to the haunting folk-rock of Fleet Foxes, the wistful indie-folk of Basia Bulat, the contemplative poeticism of Leonard Cohen, the introspective alt-rock of Thom Yorke. Chopin’s Nocturnes or Faure’s Requiem? Forget it. Now it’s Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars or, worse still, the exact same nursery-rhyme playlists we had on repeat for our first born. Music so purposefully joyful it feels like you’ve ingested all the Haribo in one sitting. Children, it turns out, like happy music to which they can dance.

I blame my melancholic tastes on the music that I grew up hearing at shul. Specifically, that which I heard during the High Holidays. Long after leaving the building, I’d hum those tunes. So full of yearning and emotion.

Different shuls do music differently, as I would discover when we moved – a fact that Geraldine Auerbach’s From Our Lips festival of synagogue music is currently celebrating. But it’s said that our most formative years for acquiring music taste are in our childhood, and I spent plenty of mine at West London Synagogue and Edgware District Reform, with its lush four-part choir and organ. And while the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Abba made their way onto my parents’ stereo, among the most memorable musical moments of my childhood were the deeply moving and spiritual services we attended.

Malcolm Singer, a conductor and composition teacher, tells me he always asks his students about the earliest sounds that they recall and encourages them to think about whether that’s influencing the music they’re writing. “For most of us, music is in our psyche, because we grew up with that. Someone who grew up in the church has very different kinds of early experiences from someone who grew up in a synagogue. There is something very different about the kind of chanting we have in synagogue, and we have Jewish modes, which have this melancholic flavour to them to some extent.”

Most of what is sung in British Ashkenazi synagogues is eastern European, and that flavour, Singer says, is “very distinctive and stays with us”. He adds, “I don’t doubt for a moment that many people will find some of our chanting melancholic and it’s partly to do with the falling intervals that we use.”

This scale, or modes, used in Jewish music, is what gives way to my interpretation of “melancholic” and “contemplative”. And it is, of course, entirely subjective.

But there is also, says renowned klezmer musician Frank London, great joy and festivity as well as mourning. “It’s a very deep, rich tradition, like all world music traditions.” The question, he says, is how the music expresses that and how that is unique among other musical traditions.

When we are talking about Yiddish, or Ashkenazi, music, which includes klezmer, London says a lot of it has “historically carried with it the memories of a world that is gone: pre-Holocaust, pre-pogrom east Europe, shtetl existence — and it evokes that just because that’s where it came from”. And this, he agrees, can lead to a sense of melancholy. “Part of the power of this music is that it makes us think and feel about a time long gone.”

And the fact that the music not only doesn’t follow the Western major and minor scales that people are used to, but also mixes them up, adds to the effect. “It throws off our sensibility from the happy major and the sad minor – it’s got elements of both, which one could say leads to melancholy but also great joy at the same time, and that’s another one of the powers of this music.”

My children attend services at Alyth shul, where they hear something quite different. They hear recent Israeli and American music, sometimes featuring guitar, which gives it a lighter vibe. Perhaps saccharine pop is fated to soundtrack our journeys for years to come.

April 03, 2024 09:04

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