The Hush of Midnight
An American S'liḥot Service (1968 Archival Recording)
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The Hebrew word s’liḥot refers to the collective penitential liturgy, the daily recitation of which commences prior to Rosh Hashana and continues through Yom Kippur. The s’liḥot are generally recited just prior to dawn as vigils (ashmurot), preceding shaharit, or the morning service. In Ashkenazi custom (outside specifically Hassidic circles and some communities in Israel), the first such recitation has come to take the form of a formal service, beginning at or just after midnight on the Saturday night—technically, Sunday morning—prior to Rosh Hashana. It thus serves as an inauguration of the penitential season. (If Rosh Hashana falls on a Monday or Tuesday, that service is held on the previous Saturday midnight.) In common parlance, this inaugural service is often called simply s’liḥot, although its proper title is either “the First s’liḥot” or “s’liḥot for the First Day [of s’liḥot recitations],” since it actually marks the first of the series of those daily predawn recitations in spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days and their focus on repentance and renewal. A full discussion of this service from traditional perspectives, as well as the history of the s’liḥot liturgy, will be found in the explanatory notes in Volume 3, which includes a complete “first s’liḥot” service according to Orthodox and traditional practice.
Charles Davidson’s 1966 The Hush of Midnight could not be more divergent in its musical reinterpretation, illustrating the broad range of styles and approaches to synagogue music that has characterized the composite American Jewish experience. In this modern adaptation of the s’liḥot service—which includes only a small portion of the s’liḥot liturgy, along with new verse by the 20th-century poet Ruth Brin (1921–2009)—the composer reveals aesthetic originality and explores late-1960s popular music trends and sensibilities, all within the scope of a unified service. “A combination of traditional cantorial chant with the musical vernacular of our day,” is how Davidson has described the work.
The Hush of Midnight is marked by the well-crafted employment of melodic repetition and rhythm, elements of cantorial intonation, reference to the traditionally prescribed prayer modes, and a musical flexibility that mirrors the fluctuating accentuation of the Hebrew texts. Its overall style falls under the umbrella of “folk rock” music, although Davidson has characterized it as “a rock-cantorial prayer experience.”
At the time of its conception, Davidson referred to this work as “a service for our time,” calling for an “assembly youthful in spirit,” cantor or cantorial solo, guitars, piano, and drums. “The poignant cries of past suffering and the suggestion of bodies swaying in prayer do not lurk unabashedly in the background,” he has explained. “They proclaim themselves over the beating of drums and the throbbing electric guitars.”
Davidson’s objective in this work was to transform a collection of the s’liḥot that, when combined with Brin’s reflective poetry, would produce a unified prayer experience that reflects the tone of the midnight service. “Above all, it is a service designed for participation,” he underscores, “with the intent of trying to establish a dialogue between man and his Creator.”