During Foss’s tenure from 1972 to 1976 as music director of the Kol Yisrael Orchestra in Jerusalem, he learned from Israeli musicologists about the existence of the two oldest-known Hebrew manuscript fragments containing musically notated prayer texts. Believed to date to the 12th century, these manuscripts—one of which had been discovered within only a decade of Foss’s Jerusalem period—constitute our oldest written or musically notated evidence of Judaic music of any type. Authorities have now confirmed (also only as of the 1960s) the attribution of their notation or inscription to a medieval convert to Judaism known as Ovadia ha’ger, or Obadiah the Proselyte.
Foss was fascinated with the antiquity of these manuscripts, and with their historical as well as spiritual ramifications. Necessarily subjective and interpretative but scholarly sound modern transcriptions made by Israel Adler, one of Israel’s foremost musicologists, were shown to him in Jerusalem. These transcriptions inspired Foss to fashion a contemporary, highly personal, and imaginative work around them. The result was Lammdeni, an aleatoric piece for mixed chorus together with a selection of percussion or quasi-percussive-sounding instruments to be made by the conductor—all preferably amplified. While the published score (1975) specifies “plucked and beaten sounds (any mixture),” Foss—after considerable prodding—articulated his current suggestion of mallet instruments for the Milken Archive recording in 2000, still leaving the precise designation to us. Although he wholeheartedly endorsed our ultimate selection, it would hardly have been out of character for Foss to have articulated a different vision at another time.
The journey of these two obscure and long-dormant medieval manuscript fragments from oblivion to publication—and from esoteric scholarly scrutiny to contemporary artistic expression—forms an intriguing detective tale. Both documents lay hidden for centuries among the contents of an Egyptian repository, the Cairo Geniza, and were not even known to exist until their discovery in the 20th century. A geniza (lit., storing or storage, or hiding place, whose Hebrew root in turn derives from a Persian word meaning “treasury,” and whose Hebrew root corresponds to “conceal,” “hide,” or “preserve”) is a concealed repository of discarded sacred books and other writings, as well as ritual objects that have become unusable owing to wear or damage, which, according to Jewish law, cannot be destroyed because of their sacred references or content—especially if they contain God’s name. Over many centuries, such items have therefore been placed in these repositories to prevent further profanation either by intentional destruction or inadvertent mutilation. Additional rationales for geniza storage included the preservation of meritorious items from harm and the prevention of dangerous items from causing harm. Books considered heretical, for example, have therefore also been hidden in genizas. It has long been customary to designate an unused room of a synagogue as a geniza, from which, periodically, the contents (at least some of the most sacred ones) are supposed to be removed and buried. That practice, however, has not always been observed, and it was not done so with regard to the Cairo Geniza—undoubtedly the most famous of all such repositories.
Although the Cairo Geniza (in Fostat [Fusṭāṭ], Old Cairo) had been seen and reported by a few European travelers to the Near East as early as 1753, it was in effect rediscovered by the celebrated scholar Solomon Schechter (1847–1915) at the end of the 19th century. The early visitors were not permitted to examine its contents, apart from occasional exceptions when small numbers of items were sold—unofficially or without permission—to various collectors. In 1896, upon viewing a few purchased fragments shown to him by two Christian travelers, Schechter became aware of the overwhelming significance and scholarly potential of the Cairo Geniza, and he traveled to Egypt for an intensive exploration. There, in the geniza, he found an immensely rich treasure trove of Hebrew manuscripts that far exceeded previous expectations. In 1897–98 he succeeded in transporting to Cambridge University, England, where he held the rank of Reader in Rabbinics, a substantial portion of its holdings—estimated to be the equivalent of 100,000 to 140,000 items or pages. Subsequently, researchers discovered approximately another 100,000 pages or leaves, which are now preserved in a number of libraries.
One of the visitors to the Cairo Geniza who preceded Schechter was the Judaic bibliophile Elkan Nathan Adler (no relation to Israel Adler), who was permitted to take a much smaller but still significant number of its items to Cambridge in 1896. Circa 1918–20, the manuscript fragment that—more than fifty years later—became the basis for Foss’s third movement of Lammdeni (which is now preserved in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York) was found in a folio leaf in that Elkan Nathan Adler collection of Cairo Geniza items. It was observed to contain a theretofore unknown piyyut (liturgical poem, often inserted or interpolated into the regular order of liturgy) inscribed in Hebrew characters together with medieval neumatic musical notation on a four-line stave. Its adopted title was assigned later according to its opening words, mi al har ḥorev.
During the period roughly framed by the 8th and 14th centuries, neumatic musical notation appertained in the Western Church. This is its most common connotation and association, even though such neumatic notation also applied to other, similar Eastern Christian chant systems, such as those in the Byzantine and the Armenian Church during that same time frame. Neumatic notation preceded the development of our modern musical notation; and it involved the use of notational signs, or “neumes,” which provided for fixed singing or chanting of Christian liturgies, or plainsong. The aggregate inventory of these signs included neumes for single tones as well as those denoting groups of two, three, or more tones. Their rhythmic parameter poses more complicated issues of interpretation, which have been the subject of focused scholarly debate.
Prior to the discovery of this manuscript, no such aesthetic joining of Hebrew with what was, for all practical purposes, church music notation had come down to us; nor was it known to have occurred. The document therefore ignited a modest thunderbolt in the academy. That single fragment—hereinafter referenced as MS.I—and the other subsequently discovered folio (MS.II) that Foss also used for the first and second movements of Lammdeni, have generated hundreds of pages of scholarly discourse over the ensuing years, with much still likely to come. (A second version of the text of MS.I was also discovered later.)
Shortly after its discovery, which presented an immediate enigma and challenge to scholars of medieval Judaica, MS.I was sent for possible elucidation to the Benedictine fathers of Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. During the Third Republic, owing to religious persecution, they had been forced to relocate there in 1903 from their monastic community at the abbey of Solesmes, in France, which was long known for its restoration of authentic Gregorian chant and for its scholastic expertise in that field. They responded with a finding that the neumes in MS.I dated from the 13th, or possibly the end of the 12th, century and were of the type derived from the southern Italian school, then labeled Lombardic—and later, more accurately, Beneventan (developed by the monks of Benevento)—notation. (Israel Adler has since cautioned that the erroneous use of the term Lombardic in place of Beneventan has often resulted in the incorrect classification of southern Italian manuscripts as northern Italian.) When, more than four decades after the discovery of MS.I, scholars also arrived at the identity of its scribe, it was confirmed—from the chronology of his life and the maximum reasonable extent of his life span—that both MS.I and MS.II date to no later than the early 13th century, and probably to the 12th century. Some scholars then revisited the typology of the neumes and questioned the Beneventan designation altogether. The Israeli musicologist Hanoch Avenary, for example, preferred to describe them as the Norman type that had been transplanted to southern Italy in the 11th century—on the grounds that the region in which Beneventan script was used was still north of the scribe’s birthplace. In any case, the neumes on this manuscript are written backward, to accommodate the Hebrew. (The virgas, however, are written normally—i.e., with note stems still to the right, not to the left, of the heads.)
Apart from the consultation with the Benedictine fathers, and apart from some preliminary study of MS.I by A. M. Friedlander, attention was first called to its existence by Elkan Nathan Adler in an appendix to a catalogue he published in 1921. He appropriately described the text as a eulogy for—or on the death of—Moses.
On the basis of the double acrostic form of the poem of MS.I, Adler also suggested that it was the creation of Abu-‘Amr Ibn Sahl (died ca. 1124), although that attribution has been challenged subsequently and is no longer universally accepted. Various articles about MS.I were written and published in the following four decades, including some attempts at deciphering the musical riddle posed by the unusual clef: the Hebrew consonant letter dalet, which is the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and corresponds in sound to the Roman character D. Varying opinions about the significance and meaning of that clef and which tone of the scale it represents resulted in differing transcriptions, and thus in opposing propositions of how the music might actually sound when reconstructed. But the source of the melody, whatever its equivalent in modern notation—and whether or not its scribe was also its composer—could only be supposed. And the identity of that scribe remained even beyond conjecture until the 1960s.
Further mystery resided in the observation that, although the neumes were Italian in style and therefore ecclesiastically associated with the Western Church, the manuscript itself (MS.I) eventually appeared to paleographers to have come from, or been inscribed in, the Levant. The style of the Hebrew characters withstood no paleographic association with southern or western Europe. Indeed, they were determined to exhibit oriental, or eastern, Hebrew handwriting. The paper was traceable to Egyptian origin and was identified as a type often found among geniza manuscripts. Thus MS.I could be seen as representing a fusion of eastern Hebraic and western Christian musical characteristics—the first known evidence of any such phenomenon of that period. Still, the question of why an eastern Hebraic manuscript would contain clearly western Christian musical notation remained a vexing and seemingly insoluble puzzle. In fact, until the identity of the scribe and his Near Eastern sojourns were known, it was still reasonable for some historians to place the manuscript’s origins entirely in Europe, notwithstanding its acknowledged eastern parameters. Among them was the Moravian-born American musicologist Eric Werner, one of the leading Judaic music scholars of the 20th century. Despite its Cairo terminus, and even though he assessed the Hebrew script as reflecting Byzantine influence, Werner imagined that the manuscript might have originated in or near Ravenna, Italy—a stance from which he naturally retreated when contrary information was later revealed.
Moreover, accepting Elkan Nathan Adler’s attribution of the text to Ibn Sahl, Werner went further to suppose that the poet had also “probably” composed the music, since many paytanim (authors of piyyutim) did in fact fashion tunes for their own poems—a position he also later abandoned. But he also seized upon the apparent raw stylistic and generic similarities between the musical parameter of the manuscript and Gregorian plainsong, noting that the former was “very much akin to the more elaborate types of Gregorian chant.” That comparison fitted neatly into Werner’s overall thesis that Western Church chant in general had drawn heavily, if not predominantly, upon the earlier liturgical music practices and modal systems of ancient Israel.
The poem of MS.I is strophic, comprising rhymed couplets set to a repeated melody that shows only slight variations among its repetitions. Each couplet leads into the refrain, k’moshe (“like Moses” or “as Moses”); and there is an unrelated nonstrophic epilogue whose text is nearly a direct quotation from the Book of Isaiah (60:1). As suggested by the Benedictines, the pause symbols at various points might have been intended to signify responsorial chant (solo vs. choir)—a format that Foss followed liberally.
Opposing opinions about the geographic origin of the poem have included both southern and northern France, and Italy. The text, which celebrates Moses as the transmitter of the Law (“Moses the Lawgiver”), is believed to have been created as a supplementary liturgical expression either for the Festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the revelation and giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai following the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, or for Simhat Torah, the holyday that, immediately following the Festival of Sukkot, marks the completion of the annual cycle of readings from the Torah in the synagogue. In either case, the connection to Moses as both teacher and transmitter is clear.
In 1964, suddenly and coincidentally, the scribe of MS.I was identified beyond all doubt by two scholars who had been working independently of each other: Alexander Scheiber (1913–85), an authority on oriental Hebrew Judaica who was also director of the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest; and Norman Golb, a professor of medieval Jewish studies at the University of Chicago. By comparing MS.I with an autograph fragment of a 12th-century prayerbook in the Cairo Geniza holdings at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati—whose scribe had already been established as Ovadia ha’ger—both realized that the handwriting and script of both documents are identical. The colophon of that prayerbook reads “Obadiah the Norman Proselyte who entered the covenant of the God of Israel in the month of Ellul, in the year 1413 of [the era of] documents [i.e., 1102 C.E.], which corresponds to 4826 [on the Jewish calendar] of Creation, he, Obadiah the proselyte, has written [this book of prayers] in his own hand.” (It remains uncertain, however, whether or not Ovadia authored any of the book’s liturgical texts as well.) Moreover, examination of the script in substantial extant fragments of Ovadia’s autobiographical memoirs, which are written in biblical Hebrew, confirmed Scheiber’s and Golb’s conclusions. Generally known as the “Scroll of Obadiah,” those memoirs recount Ovadia’s birth and youth in southern Italy, as well as his journeys in the Near East following his conversion to Judaism. It remained, however—and remains still—to determine Ovadia’s role, if any, in the actual composition of the music, apart from its inscription. But once Ovadia was thus identified as the scribe of MS.I (and soon afterward, of MS.II), the earlier apparent paradox—oriental Hebrew script and paper combined with western Christian musical notation—evaporated. Even in the absence of certainty concerning the chronology of the various stages that resulted in the manuscript, it was at least logical to suspect that Ovadia could have combined the musical notation he had learned in Europe before his conversion with the Hebrew writing he learned later in the Near East.
The scion of a distinguished noble Norman family, Ovadia was born in Oppido, Apulia (now Lucano), Italy—not to be confused with the present Oppido Mamertina, Calabria—sometime during the third quarter of the 11th century. Various specific years of his birth have been proposed (Golb gives it as ca. 1070). His given name was Johannes, or Giovanni [Jean?], both of which he spelled in Hebrew characters in his memoirs, and his father’s name was Dreu(x) or Dracos ( also both spelled in Hebrew in Ovadia’s account). Since his older (“older twin”) brother pursued a professional military life, as was common for the eldest in those circumstances, Ovadia was directed toward the clergy. It was a typical path for the second son among European nobility of that era—not always necessarily or primarily out of purely religious motivations, but because it often provided the only substantive means to higher learning—not least because books and other writings resided chiefly in monasteries. It is therefore probable that Ovadia was associated at some point with a monastery—perhaps even as a monk or friar—where he would also have acquired his knowledge of both musical notation and chant idioms. We do not know where his 1102 conversion occurred, at which time he adopted the Hebrew name Ovadia ha’ger (Italy and Constantino- ple have been suggested), but such conversion by a prominent European Christian, even a clergyman, was not without precedence in the 11th and early 12th centuries—a phenomenon for which there is ample documentation in at least several instances.
Following his conversion, Ovadia left Europe and traveled extensively in Babylonia, Syria, and the Holy Land, after which he apparently settled in Fustät Misr sometime after 1121. The factors that prompted his quick exodus from Europe are uncertain, but it is generally assumed that his conversion from Christianity, especially given his monastic affiliation, could have cost him his life as a capital crime, and that he anticipated Jewish hospitality in communities of Moslem-dominated lands. In addition, Werner conjectured that he might have gravitated eventually toward Egypt, not only because of its thriving Jewish population but also because the Crusaders had no foothold there.
Ovadia did in fact obtain Jewish communal support in Baghdad, probably his first stop in the Near East, where he learned to read and write Hebrew while engaging in biblical studies in a class or school together with orphaned boys. We do not know the date of his death, although it is reasonably assumed that it could not have been later than ca. 1150. Thus, while MS.I was initially estimated to date to the 13th or late 12th century, the discovery of Ovadia as its scribe also reestablished its date (and that of MS. II) as the first half of the 12th century.
The other of our two manuscript sources (MS.II) for Lammdeni was discovered early in 1965 by the Israeli scholar Nehemiah Allony. Also among the Cambridge holdings from the Cairo Geniza, each of the two sides of this folio represents only a fragment of a larger whole whose other parts are no longer extant. But Allony viewed the text content of the two sides together as a single “poetic entity,” even though they do represent distinct poems and melodies or chants, which suggests that, in their original entirety, one was intended to lead into the other in vocal rendition. Like MS.I, this manuscript contains liturgical or quasi-liturgical text inscribed in Hebrew characters together with neumes. Since the handwriting as well as the style of the neumes matches up precisely with MS.I, this second discovery was immediately recognized as another inscription by Ovadia ha’ger.
The recto (the side of a folio leaf corresponding to a “first side”) begins with the words va’eda ma (And so that I would know), which are believed to begin the last part of an unknown poem. In its entirety that poem apparently consisted of biblical verses, references, or paraphrases that commenced on preceding folio leaves. But the text in general seems to have been inspired largely by Psalm verses that refer to God as teacher and guide. This surviving fragment is a simple request to God to let the petitioner know what (or how) to speak and how to conduct himself in the “place of judgment”—i.e., probably a court of law. Hence, the concluding word, lammdeni (teach me)—which also forms the final cadence and from which the title of Foss’s piece is drawn. Hanoch Avenary has compared the surviving text fragment with Psalm 25 as its possible model. Indeed, the word lammdeni occurs in similar contexts in a number of places in the Book of Psalms. The phrase va’eda ma derives from the Torah and also appears with a slight variation in Psalms 39:5.
Like MS.I, the musical parameter of the recto of MS.II follows the stylistic features of medieval western monody. Even though these actual melodies or chants are not found per se in Gregorian or other European chant sources (such as Byzantine), they do exude an overall aural ambience that can be generically reminiscent of Church chant, and Israel Adler has even discerned in the recto of MS.II a few typical Gregorian formulaic elements. Golb’s first impulse was to assume that these melodies were in fact Gregorian chants that Ovadia had adapted to fit the Hebrew texts, and consultation with a few American musicologists initially did not dissuade him. He even imagined that a European convert in Moslem lands might deliberately have wanted to introduce some of the aesthetic elements of his former religion to his newly adopted one, in which case it is entirely possible that Jewish audiences in the Near East—for whom the negative connotations and associations of Western Church aesthetics might have appeared less distasteful than to European Jewry—might have been ready to receive such fusions as a welcome bit of exotica from the European world. It is more likely, however, that those Gregorian or quasi-Gregorian characteristics and flavor simply reflect the aesthetic frame of reference and the natural musical influences that were exerted either on Ovadia (if he was the composer) or on any other composer or paytan who might have lived or grown up in a European environment where these aesthetic features were ubiquitous even beyond the confines of specific Christian worship. Moreover, both Eric Werner and Israel Adler doubted that Ovadia, as a convert who had renounced his former Christianity, would have reverted by consciously borrowing a Church chant—or even Church elements—for Hebrew expression in his new life. Yet that view might presuppose more modern sensibilities vis-á-vis a sometimes over-zealous attitude toward discarded past orientation by converts to Judaism. Ultimately, either scenario is plausible with regard to the perceived Church chant flavor of these melodies, and further judgment might depend on knowledge about an individual personality to which we have no access.
Whereas both MS.I and the recto of MS.II belong to the piyyutim category, the verso (the reverse side of a folio leaf) of the MS.II fragment, which begins with the words barukh haggever (Blessed is the man [who trusts in the Lord]), contains a type of psalmody or cantillation of various actual biblical verses. The custos (a sign such as a check mark, mordant, or other symbol at the end of a line to indicate the first pitch of the next) at the end of the last staff tells us that there was a continuation on a succeeding folio leaf, so that this is probably not the entire text.
The music notation on the verso is not considered an actual composition. Rather, it has been shown to relate musically to earlier Hebraic psalmody or cantillation, and it may even be a written record of a traditional eastern synagogue cantillation that Ovadia learned in the Near East. Israel Adler has maintained that by Ovadia’s time, it may already have represented a part of Jewish tradition that dated to antiquity. Skeletal similarities have been discerned in the preserved modern-era chant patterns in certain oriental and Mediterranean Jewish communities. And parallels have been drawn by various observers to a cantillation of Syrian Jews for the Book of Proverbs; to psalmody among oriental Sephardim; to a Hebrew psalmody on the island of Djerba; to cantillations for Jeremiah and for the b’rakha prior to the haftara (prophetic readings) in some Italian traditions; and to a rendition of the Hymn of Moses as heard in Florence. Although these do not constitute precise note-for-note or pitch-for-pitch correlations, they do suggest an umbrella “cantillation family” whose arch and skeleton are properties held in common. And in this case the vocal line differs from Gregorian chant or plainsong in a number of significant details; it represents in several respects a recitation according to psalmody more than a chant. Avenary went so far so as to propose that with regard to this verso, “Obadiah has noted down a genuine Jewish melody that was common in his days.”
The precise liturgical occasion for which MS.II (recto and verso) was intended has not been established with certainty. Allony has suggested that it was sung on Shavuot, on the basis that the biblical verses have in common the principal theme of praising faith in God and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Avenary has pointed to the penitential season (the days leading up to Rosh Hashana and between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) as another possibility.
Foss reversed the order of the recto and the verso in the sense that he utilized the verso for the opening movement, barukh haggever, and built the second movement on the recto—va’eda ma. Since Israel Adler, whose transcriptions he used, had no doubt that the side containing va’eda ma was indeed the recto, we must assume that Foss’s order of movements represented a purely artistic decision.
The first mystery of the tripartite puzzle—the identity of the scribe and the age of his manuscripts—was solved when Ovadia was identified. But the solution to the second mystery—the interpretation of the dalet clef—remains subject to opposing viewpoints. Yet no transcription for modern performance can be accomplished without a reasoned position on the matter. Apart from Israel Adler, other opinions or theories have included assigning the dalet clef to (a) the tone re (according to the system of solfeggio), the second tone of the scale; (b) the specific pitch D as the fourth tone of a scale beginning on A; (c) sol, the fifth tone of the scale, which Werner embraced at one time without explanation. Much later, Werner also informally raised the question whether yet another possibility should at least be considered: that the dalet, with its numerical equivalent of 4, might have been intended to stipulate the fourth Church mode in the medieval ecclesiastical chant system. Adler, however, transcribed the manuscripts according to his firm conviction that the dalet should be interpreted as fa, the fourth tone of the scale. Lammdeni is therefore wedded to that premise in its specific succession of pitches and intervals. Even if this does not represent the sole and unchallenged solution, it is nonetheless one well-grounded solution.
But the third mystery concerns the composer(s), even if we accept that barukh haggever was notated from oral tradition. That mystery remains unsolved, open only to reasoned supposition.
Still, if we eliminate the possibility of borrowed or adapted Church chants from Europe, notwithstanding that it is well known that adoption for the synagogue of tunes sung for Christian liturgies did occur during that time frame—and that the practice was the subject of rabbinical discourse—at least four other possibilities remain:
Lammdeni was composed in 1973 for Testimonium, an Israeli music festival, and was premiered in Jerusalem the following year. It is dedicated to Recha Freier (1892–1984), the founder of an organization that rescued thousands of children during the Holocaust and brought them to Palestine.
Foss treated the chants with bold imagination, relying on them primarily as a nucleic basis for an array of deliberately jumbled and overlapping entrances, vocal echo effects, whispers, and almost intoxicating rhythmic figurations in the unusual accompanying instrumental underlay. The aleatoric nature of the piece provides freshness to each performance and invites the conductor and even the choir in on the compositional process.
Sung in Hebrew
I. BARUKH HAGGEVER
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord; his trust being only in the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:7)
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)
“Be aware of Him in all your dealings, and He will straighten all your paths.” (Proverbs 3:6)
“Happy is the man who finds wisdom and the man who attains understanding.” (Proverbs 3:13)
“See how happy the man that God censures becomes. Do not, then, turn away from the Lord’s discipline.” (Job 5:17)
II. VA'EDA MA
...And so that I will know what to speak in the gates, what to say, what to put forth,
III. MI AL HAR ḤOREV
Who stood on Mount Horeb with me and listened—as Moses did? In the desert he led my flock, he fed them manna, got water from the well; who, like Moses, could calm me, could remind me of my own qualities of graciousness and mercy, who whispered softly to me on Mound Horeb, “Have mercy!”?
Who had visions of law for entire nations, and saw them clearly without puzzles and riddles like Moses?
Who taught Torah well honed and with sharpness like Moses?
Who was privileged to enter into the holy cloud like Moses?
Who went up to heaven for forty days and lived without food or drink like Moses?
[As it is written] “And Moses ascended to God.” (Exodus 19:3)
Arise, my people, for your light approaches; the glory of the
Lord shines upon you.
Performers: Michael Brewer, Conductor; Laudibus, Choir; Percussion Ensemble
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
Translation by Rabbi Morton M. Leifman
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