... And David Danced Before the Lord
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In fashioning a complete kabbalat shabbat and Sabbath eve service on a foundation of combined jazz and blues idioms—in tandem with traditional Hebrew liturgical and biblical chant motifs—Davidson trailblazed new territory in 1966 with the completion of ... And David Danced Before the Lord. The work was a watershed event in the progressive development of American synagogue music and became yet another document of intercultural threads in the American Jewish experience.
Rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements of jazz and blues can be found in a few previous individual liturgical pieces, such as Kurt Weill’s Kiddush, from more than two decades earlier, or Gershon Kingsley’s Jazz Psalms, written more or less in the same year as Davidson’s work; and here or there one can discern some imprints of jazz in the harmonic and rhythmic language in liturgical settings, such as in individual movements of Darius Milhaud’s Service Sacré (1947). But Davidson’s work is an overt foray into jazz and blues for an entire artistically unified service, complete with a traditional jazz combo. Apart from its aesthetic merit, the successful reception of ... And David Danced soon inspired other composers to turn to jazz and blues as potential media of expression for the Hebrew liturgy.
The 1960s were fertile ground for some adventurous experiments with jazz and blues in Christian services—not only among those less formalized denominations where grassroots populist and folk traditions had long informed the music of worship, but even in some of the so-called mainstream or established churches, Roman Catholic as well as Protestant. The trend may have had some connection to the now-forgotten strains of “liberation theology” that made headlines in the 1960s and 1970s, but those musical experiments probably grew more out of new generational sensibilities and the search for “relevance”—the mantra of those decades—than it did from radical theological-political movements. Sheer aesthetic variety was an important consideration as well. An indigenous American music such as jazz would seem to have been a logical resource on which to draw for the American synagogue, and although much Jewish sacred music in nearly every period has incorporated and reflected American cultural and popular elements, by the beginning of the 1960s it still remained for Jewish liturgical composers to address jazz or blues in a full-length work.
... And David Danced Before the Lord was written and first performed in 1966 on commission from Cantor Richard Botton, who sensed some Jewish interest in further exploration into the contemporaneous experiments in church services. The world premiere, in Long Beach, New York, was televised for the CBS program Lamp Unto My Feet. In the congregation that night was a teenage Billy Crystal, on whom the work made so great an impression that he requested it years later for his own daughter’s bat mitzvah in California.
The title of this work is derived from the incident in II Samuel 6, where King David, following one of his military campaigns against the Philistines, has retrieved the Holy Ark from them and brought it back into Jerusalem with enormous joy and public celebration. He dances without inhibitions “before the Lord with all his might.” But when his wife, Michal (daughter of the former King Saul), sees him “leaping and dancing” in front of the common people at the expense of his royal dignity, she is put off (“and she despised him in her heart”). She admonishes him for his behavior and asks how the King of Israel could have earned honor and respect by “uncovering himself [to dance] shamelessly,” especially in the presence of “handmaids of his servants,” like an ordinary, vulgar man. David replies defiantly that it was “before the Lord” that he danced and celebrated, and that he will continue to do so—even more so: “I will be yet more vulgar than this.”
Although there is a larger orchestration for stage band—which was performed at Detroit’s Temple Israel and at a music festival at the Interlochen Arts Academy in the early 1980s—in the original version, recorded here, Davidson employs a small ensemble. The intimacy of the reduced forces, he feels, facilitates the rendition of improvisatory passages for individual instruments “in much the same way as Indian raga instrumentalists can look at one another as they play and feel the direction and flow of the music as it develops.”
Davidson chose to commence the service with a setting of passages from shir hashirim (Song of Songs), which would not normally occur in or introduce an American synagogue service for Sabbath eve. It reflects a custom that dates to the Kabbalists in Safed, who used to chant hymns to the cantillation motifs of shir hashirim as a way of welcoming the Sabbath on Friday afternoon—before the Sabbath. Davidson quotes traditional biblical cantillation motifs in the solo cantorial line, which is supported by blues chords and rhythmic impulses. Bass and vibraphone improvise in true jazz fashion, while the flute echoes the melodic pattern of the solo line at various points.
L’kha dodi (a phrase and title itself borrowed from shir hashirim, 7:12) is generally the musical centerpiece of a formal kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service, which precedes the evening service proper. The text is attributed to the 16th-century kabbalistic poet Solomon Halevi Alkabetz (1505–84) and is a mosaic of scriptural phrases and references—from Judges, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Psalms. The Sabbath is personified and compared to a bride, as is the people Israel, and the refrain—which also serves as the introductory strophe—is based on a talmudic passage (Shabbat 119a). So complicated are aspects of this poem and its history, with cryptic references, metaphors, and images, that entire volumes have been devoted to it. The musical approach here combines a light jazz style with one of the traditional Ashkenazi prayer modes (known in cantorial parlance as adonai malakh, whose scale is in some respects akin to major), which applies traditionally to other texts of the kabbalat shabbat service. But unlike those other texts, this mode is not required by tradition for l’kha dodi—nor is any, since this poem is the one section of the service for which there is no prescribed musical tradition. It has therefore always been an invitation for free musical expression and composition. The sprightly congregational refrains provide contrast with the cantorially rendered strophes, mirroring the poetic structure. A countermelody is played by the flute, and there is a strong rhythmic bass line. The close relationship between words and music is particularly exemplified in the fifth strophe (hitor’ri—“Awaken!”), where the music is punctuated by syncopated, descending seventh and nineth chords from the instrumental ensemble.
A cantorial tradition of preceding important prayers with vocalises dates at least to the Baroque, from which period we have ample notated documentation, but it probably extends centuries further back. In a service based on jazz and blues idioms, a “scat” reinterpretation of that custom seemed appropriate to the composer for the invitation to worship contained in the opening prayer of the evening service proper, bar’khu. In that sense the device falls well within tradition. Although precise written notes are provided in the score, the cantor is given license to improvise and expand on them, which adds a manifestly cantorial parameter.
Ahavat olam is introduced with what the composer calls a “slow, riverboat blues” in the piano, which sets the mood for the ensuing reflective and moving choral line. Throughout this setting, he aimed at a “lushly romantic sound that would reflect the text’s message of God’s eternal love for us.”
“A driving, polytonal, and syncopated note-cluster in vibes, piano, and string bass,” wrote the composer of the sh’ma yisra’el setting, “prepare the ear for the Hebrew declamation” of this pronouncement of God’s uniqueness and eternal oneness, sometimes called the “watchword of the Jewish people.” A custom of concluding the declamation of the final word, eḥad (one), on a high note is reflected here as the solo line moves abruptly from its low E flat through G to a high, sustained D. The choir becomes a “speaking chorus” under the legato solo line at the words “And you shall love the Lord your God,” and the solo line alternates between male and female voices.
Mi khamokha begins with a robust, syncopated pattern that suggests the urgency of the exodus from Egypt depicted in this prayer text, with its reflection of the desperation experienced by the fleeing Israelites and the pursuing Egyptians. There is also the subsequent rejoicing and boundless praise for God’s intercession when the Israelites are safe after crossing the parted Sea of Reeds. The vocal line is based on an Arabic maqam (a particular type of tune formula or tune pattern in Arabic and Arabic-influenced Persian and other Near Eastern musics), which in this case is known as siga. This lends the setting a Near Eastern flavor that is entirely an arbitrary artistic choice; it is not meant to suggest any historical aesthetic connection to ancient Egypt. The concluding b’rakha (benediction, or expression of worship for God) quotes a melodic pattern from the musical tradition of the Three Festivals, most recognizable from its use in the Festival kiddush (sanctification recited over wine). Davidson incorporated this melodic material to stress the connection between Passover—one of the Three Festivals when this kiddush melody occurs in Ashkenazi tradition—and the Exodus.
The musical mood of v’sham’ru reflects the desiderata of Sabbath peace. Against an instrumental pattern of seventh and nineth chords, the soloist states the theme in a relaxed, easygoing duple meter (4/4), with unison-octave choral responses. Particularly interesting is the polytonal conclusion: G-minor 9 with D-flat 7.
The ḥatzi kaddish divides sections of liturgy and in this service introduces the silently recited core section known as the amida (“standing,” since it is thus recited). This setting commences with a musical quotation from a traditional Ashkenazi signature tune for the Festival of Shavuot. Although that tune permeates the Shavuot services, it is usually associated in particular and by label with the piyyut (inserted liturgical poem) known as akdamut, sung before the biblical readings in the morning services of that Festival. In addition, the kaddish setting incorporates biblical cantillation figures and also pays homage to a familiar melody for the text’s occurrence on Sabbath eve. But the imaginative chromatic modulations give that melody a fresh character.
Grant Us Peace is the English adaptation of sim shalom, which occurs only in morning and afternoon services in traditional synagogues. Except for the liturgical rite known as nusaḥ ari, which is followed in most Hassidic communities, that Hebrew text is replaced with a similar one, shalom rav, in evening services. American classic Reform ritual, however, as reflected by its once nearly exclusive reliance on the Union Prayer Book (now superseded in many Reform congregations by newer Reform prayerbooks), retained sim shalom for evening services as well; and the English adaptation has been a frequent feature.
Yih’yu l’ratzon, which follows the amida as a summary request that the just-recited prayers be accepted, was composed specifically for a female solo voice. Its vocal line is based almost entirely on a three-note figure and its permutations.
An’im z’mirot is a piyyut usually recited in traditional Ashkenazi ritual at the conclusion of the Sabbath morning services, but its use in this service is a legitimate aesthetic decision. The tune on which this setting is based is one of the most familiar versions for this poem and is amplified by the subtly sharp dissonances in the accompanying chords.
The 5/4 meter and cross-rhythms in the instrumental ensemble for the kiddush setting create the jazz parameter, which is juxtaposed against a more traditional and more familiar cantorial line. The incipit of the opening b’rakha again reflects the tune usually heard in Festival kiddush renditions, which in turn is derived from the akdamut melodic incipit. The simultaneous combination of two rhythms between the solo line and the accompaniment lends a feeling of excitement.
Davidson has referred to his setting of aleinu as “a jazz waltz, moving quickly to the choral climax” that reflects the majestic tone of the words “His greatness is manifest throughout the world. He is our God, there is none other".
The concluding hymn, adon olam, frequently has been subjected to contrafact (adaptation of secular tunes to liturgical texts), a practice to which its iambic prosody lends itself easily. Especially in American synagogues after the 1950s, such contrafacts have included lighthearted and even pop tunes. So Davidson felt free to “conclude with a groovy setting that was fun to write and—I hope—is fun to sing.” A twelve-measure standard blues pattern over a basso ostinato allows the solo cantor and choir a degree of vocal freedom and an opportunity to “swing.” The grand gesture at the end is ubiquitous in American jazz.