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Over a period of two days in November 1987, the Jewish Theological Seminary hosted its first full-scale academic Jewish music conference, devised and chaired by this writer and titled “Varied Voices” in reflection of its theme of historical variety in Jewish musical traditions. Papers were delivered, symposia held, and workshops conducted on subjects ranging from the development of Hebrew and Yiddish art song to the musical heritage of the German Synagogue, from the current state of cantorial art and practice in the American Synagogue to eastern European Yiddish love song folk repertoires, from fresh considerations of the Wiener Ritus of Salomon Sulzer to folk music vis-à-vis the urbanizing German-Jewish community at the end of the 19th century, and from contemporary approaches to synagogue music to Sephardi and oriental Jewish musical traditions and customs.
On the opening night of the conference, a formal cantorial-choral concert (Memories of a Golden Age) was presented and was open to the general public as well as to the delegates. The conference committee planned to precede the concert with a weekday evening (ma’ariv) worship service. Especially in view of the many cantors, synagogue choirmasters and music directors, Jewish music scholars, cantorial students, and Jewish music aficianados who were expected to be in attendance—and with the student choir of the seminary’s cantorial school eager to participate vocally—the committee sought to offer a musically interesting, elaborate, and creative evening service that would transcend the formulaic nature of a typical acquittal of the requisite evening liturgy and at the same time provide a culturally educational experience in the context of the conference theme.
Cantor Aaron Bensoussan had recently graduated from the school, where he had worked tutorially with this writer to identify and preserve his native Moroccan cantorial traditions—which he knew well and could render with astounding virtuosity as well as authenticity. The dean of the Cantors Institute (now the H. L. Miller Cantorial School), Rabbi Morton Leifman, had feared that this tradition might ultimately become diluted, if not lost, as a natural result of acculturation. In a moment of inspiration during a conference planning session, Rabbi Leifman and this writer asked an intriguing question: Why not invite the recently invested Cantor Bensoussan to create a replication of a special, festive weekday ma’ariv service—using his storehouse of Moroccan synagogal as well as his family traditions—as such a service might have been presented, with choir, during the peak years of Moroccan Jewry to honor, for example, a visiting foreign dignitary or in celebration of some special communal occasion. Thus was born Arvit Morocco.
The score would be notated by this writer, based on the melodic and modal substance as well as emblematic ornamentations that Cantor Bensoussan would demonstrate during consultation sessions, which would then be arranged for the choir with historically appropriate textural sparseness and modal observance. To prepare and select the materials for the service, Cantor Bensoussan wanted to weed out any similar but not authentically Moroccan elements that he knew might have crept into his renditions. Before and during his student years, he had developed associations with the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn and had become accustomed to some of their inherited melos; and he had even served as a cantor there on occasion. Also, he had mingled with Jewish émigrés from other North African communities and countries, some of whose liturgical modal and chant idioms could easily become absorbed into—and inadvertently commingled with—his own. And, from a class in ethnomusicology at the seminary with the noted Jewish ethnomusicologist Johanna Spector, he was aware that—more than seventeen years removed from his Moroccan surroundings, no matter how jealously he had guarded his Moroccan liturgical heritage—complete immunity from acculturation and cross-cultural influence was unlikely.
For this project, whose aim was to present the Moroccan tradition in as unalloyed a fashion as possible, he first consulted closely with his older brother. With his brother’s assistance and advice, he was able to avoid and eliminate any unwanted accretions of elements or variants from other Sephardi traditions, to confirm recollections from his youth, and to arrive at a fully restored, accurate rendition of all the prayers to be intoned in this special weekday ma’ariv—or arvit—service.
Of course, in any service that might have been sung in Morocco at a former time (or in synagogues of Moroccon émigrés), a supporting, mostly unison (or octave) choir—which would have accompanied the cantor only for a highly special occasion—would not have included women’s voices, or any such departure from orthodoxy; nor would it have included professional or otherwise trained voices with Western vocal techniques. It would have consisted of adult male singers, with or without unchanged boys’ voices. The cantorial school choir that sang in the premiere of Arvit Morocco did include women’s voices (women had just recently become eligible for the Conservative cantorate), but the women were asked to avoid vibrato as much as possible and to try to replicate the characteristic sound of boys’ voices—which they did with surprising success. And in arranging the choral parameters, keys were chosen—and the music so arranged—to avoid high registers. The Milken Archive recording of excerpts, however, used men’s voices (Schola Hebraeica) that were able to adapt to some extent to non-Western vocal timbre, together with a small subgroup of boys from the New London Children’s choir.
Characteristically, the choir is used in Arvit Morocco principally for brief interludal melodic passages; for simple responses; and for support, both heterophonically and as a form of pedal point underpinning against the improvisatory, intricately ornamented solo cantorial lines. Much of the choral singing is unharmonized in the Western sense (Western four-part harmony is not part of Moroccon tradition), employing unisons and open octaves. Linear voicing or quasi-harmony emphasizes open intervals—fourths and fifths—while avoiding thirds and raised sevenths or leading tones. Moments of historically informed simple two-part writing involve only elementary counterpoint, including some imitation between voices; but any such contrapuntal procedures appear only fleetingly and are abandoned without being further developed.
Only five excerpts of Arvit Morocco, which in its entirety comprises the liturgy of the complete evening service together with some traditionally optional components, were recorded for the Milken Archive. These include ozreni el ḥai, a discretionary 19th-century North African Sephardi piyyut (liturgical poem) that is not part of Ashkenazi ritual; v’hu raḥum (And He who is merciful . . .); ahavat olam (With everlasting love [You have loved the house of Israel through Your teachings . . . ]), the second of the two prayers that introduce the recitation of the monotheistic credo sh’ma yisrae’el (Listen, Israel!), the fourth excerpt here; and mi khamokha (Who [even] among the mighty can even be compared with You?), whose setting here begins with the words leading into it from the preceding text, ra’u vanim . . . [v’ra’u vanav].
The poem ozreni el ḥai (Help us, living God) was written by Rabbi Raphael Antebi (1830–1919), who was born in Aleppo [Haleb], in present-day Syria. Blind, thus requiring the assistance of his students at the beit midrash (house of study) avud haran, where he taught poetry and song, Antebi is known to have composed more than four hundred poems and songs. Some of his students became well-recognized liturgical poets in their own right, such as Rabbi Moshe Eshkar ha’Kohen and Rabbi Hayyim Sha’ul Avud. Relatively late in life, Rabbi Antebi emigrated to Egypt, where he died in Cairo. His first collection of poems/songs, Shira ḥadasha (A New Song), was issued in 1888. Many of them, as well as those composed subsequently, became popular in North African and other Mediterranean Sephardi circles.
The tune of ozreni el ḥai was adapted from an Arabic melody—a common practice followed by liturgical poets. The poem’s heading reads: ”l’aseret y’mei t’shuva” (For the Ten Days of Repentance [i.e., from and including Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur]). This would suggest its specific application to the High Holy Days. However, inasmuch as it expresses in more general terms a plea to God to help man overcome his natural yetzer hara—the so-called evil impulse or evil inclination—and to repent the occurrences of its emergence in conflict with his equally and divinely endowed yetzer hatov (the human inclination toward good), this poem has also been used in various eastern Sephardi traditions for liturgical as well as other occasions throughout the year. These include Sabbaths (especially as a prelude to the Sabbath evening service), festivals, and even weekdays. With its tuneful, optimistic musical parameter, ozreni encapsulates a sentiment not necessarily confined to the High Holy Days: the assurance that confession and genuine regret over one’s transgressions invite God’s forgiveness.
As Cantor Bensoussan has explained, there was historical precedence—both in Morocco and in Jerusalem—for introducing a weekday ma’ariv service with the initial three lines of ozreni (the complete poem contains eight lines) on special or festive occasions. The tune is in the Arabic mode known as makam hidjaz, a prominent feature of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Hebrew liturgical traditions.
Cantor Bensoussan’s rendition of the ma’ariv service proper here reflects a few minor text variations that depart from Ashkenazi rites but are found in many Sephardi prayerbooks. In ahavat olam, the word talmud appears before toratekha; and the passage preceding the words mi khamokha begins ra’u vanim et g’vurato rather than the more familiar variant in Ashkenazi prayerbooks, v’ra’u vanav g’vurato (And when the children [of Israel] beheld His might . . .).
In fashioning this rendition, Cantor Bensoussan actually combined melodic and modal elements of Sabbath and weekday Moroccan liturgical traditions—a procedure that harked back to similar weekday ma’ariv renditions for special festive occasions.