(This is a followup to my earlier piece, “The Music of Tisha b’Av I”:

Gregorian Chant

     I’ve loved the sound of Gregorian Chant since the early ‘70’s. I’d been playing and studying music since I was a child. But after I began to do Transcendental Meditation (’71), I found myself reacting to many things differently – especially music.

   The outward simplicity of Gregorian Chant seemed very calming and purifying after the overwhelming power and complexity that most other music aims for (even popular music, in its own way). The emotional tone of almost all Gregorian Chant is the same; that’s part of its musical purpose and identity.

     I never really followed the text, beyond reading it to better hear what words were being sung, but not to consider their meaning. I found myself particularly attentive to the text in this case; my eye jumping back and forth between the Latin text and the English translation.

       Listening to this recording of some verses from “Lamentations,” I noticed the lack of the repetition of words (very unlike later musical periods and composers). It seemed almost “ballad-like” – the musical style supporting the story-telling, without causing a distraction.

      I’m no expert on Chant, but I understand that there are “purists,” – the monks of the abbey of Solesmes, France, for example – who retain the style most traditionally. One of the traditional qualities is a lack of emotional “abandon.” This particular recording was done by a skillful singer, but one who added some subtle emotionalism; using Chant as an exotic form of Romantic melody, one might say.

      This particular melody, which was repeated for each stanza, was even simpler than other Chant melodies I’ve heard; even simpler than the trop that’s heard in the synagogue, too. Afterwards, I realized that it reminded me of a theme from the 2nd movement, “Variazioni,” of  “Capriccio Espagnol,” a Romantic orchestral piece by Rimsky-Korsakov. Curious, I looked up some online information about the latter piece, and found that it was based on “Spanish folk melodies.” Spain being a country with a long, strong Catholic tradition, it’s not at all impossible that some of those “folk melodies” were originally Gregorian Chants – later “borrowed” by a Russian to invoke his impressions of his visit to Spain.

     Borrowing Gregorian Chant melodies for other uses shouldn’t surprise us, though. The melody of the first few verses of  “Aleinu l’sha’bei’ach…” is derived from there, too.

     Anyway, it opened up the possibility of employing a more Gregorian-like melody to “tell the story” of destruction of Jerusalem.


      Palestrina is a late Renaissance composer. His music is always gorgeous, whether you pay attention to the text or not. The music can go almost anywhere. The text was often simply an “excuse” for a musical bouquet. Typical for the period, each stanza is set differently (unlike the Gregorian Chant version I listened to). Words are repeated (unlike Gregorian Chant and Synagogue practice), but not necessarily for emphasis. Rather, it has to do with what the composer wants to do musically.

      Still, there was some somberness to the mood, but certainly not to the degree that the text conveys.

      Unlike the Gregorian Chant, which was always sung “in unison” – all voices singing the same melody – Palestrina’s setting was “polyphonic” – multiple vocal lines sung together and intertwining in various ways. Beautiful to listen to. But probably out of character for “Tisha b’Av.” Still, if one can listen to it and feel more connected with the historical event that Tisha b’Av commemorates — go for it!

      Could there be some appropriate way to add the use of musical harmony to the reading of “Eichah” in synagogue? Could there be room for soft congregational singing, even harmony? Depends on the congregation, certainly. But even so, I think it would also depend on the melody and how it was handled.

      Finally, another CD I found had selections of “Lamentations” settings from a very nice range of composers – but no text in the accompanying booklet; not even mention of which verses were being sung, or in what language. Just notes on the composers. It hearkens back to what I’d noticed as a music student: texts weren’t looked at closely, except insofar as they were related to what the composer chose to do with them.

     Here’s a major difference in how music is used in the recitation of “Eichah”: the importance of the text is dominant. So, even if we set the Hebrew text, or an English translation of it, to some other musical form or style, it’s the words that are most important when used in Jewish worship.

(My thoughts on this topic are continued in:

To hear the megillah (“Eichah”/ “Lamentations”) reading and other musical features of Tisha b’Av: