Composers of Classical Music of Jewish Descent

By Luttmann, Stephen | Notes, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Composers of Classical Music of Jewish Descent


Luttmann, Stephen, Notes


Composers of Classical Music of Jewish Descent. By Lewis Stevens. London; Portland, OR: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003. [xxiii, 384 p. ISBN 0-85303-486-6. $62.95.] Illustrations, index.

Few would question the propriety of a work of this nature; fewer still would question its potential usefulness. A reference work largely devoted to biographical sketches of "composers of classical music of Jewish descent" has to address three fairly prickly issues at the outset, however: What is classical music?; Who should be considered a composer of classical music?; and Who should be considered Jewish? The author, Lewis Stevens, has the perspicacity to answer all three questions at the outset, and while one may not be wholly satisfied with the answers, one must at least admire the clarity with which Stevens demarcates his territory. Classical music is "music that has sprung broadly from the European musical tradition, and is generally included in standard works on classical music" (p. 2)-yes to the motet, no to jazz and klezmer. He tleliiies composers Lo lhc extent thai musicians best known as performers or scholars are included if they composed within the classical music tradition. As for the matter of who is a Jew-certainly the question most likely to arouse passionate discussion-Stevens respectfully rejects Jewish law as too restrictive, and includes those with at least one Jewish grandparent, regardless of their religious practice or sense of fewishness. Although he does not say so, this does strengthen his work considerably by allowing readers to compare the relationship of composers to their cultures and matters of faith in a given place or time.

The book divides into two parts: a series of introductory essays running just shy of a hundred pages, and the biographical sketches themselves. The essays are wellmeaning but otherwise have little to recommend them. Already the second sentence of chapter 1, in which the author feels compelled to footnote his observation that neumes were in use before the tenth century, raises the suspicion that Stevens is neither comfortable writing about music, nor especially equipped to do so. This is in fact one of the book's two fatal weaknesses; confirmation of the suspicion is delivered repeatedly in the next few pages. With regard to the relationship of notation and polyphony, he writes:

An important change that occurred from the time of the Middle Ages was that musical tradition was no longer an oral tradition. Whilst monophonie music (a single melodic line) can be learned and handed down orally, it is all but impossible to memorise polyphonic music, which not only requires remembering each line, but also how they fit together. For the development of complex polyphonic music, a system of notation was a prerequisite, (pp. 12-13)

Buried in this farrago of naïveté, false assumption, and non sequitur is a hint of the book's other fatal weakness: the absence of all but the most cursory attempt at editing beyond page layout ("change that occurred from the time"; "each line . . . they").

What should have been a useful description of the Jewish liturgical modes is an unintentionally virtuosic display of musical ignorance and terminological carelessness. Stevens notes (pp. 16-17) that there are five principal modes, two ibr use with scriptural texts and three for other devotional texts, and identifies the pitch sequences of all five, following to the letter the description in Alfred Sendrey's The Music of the Jews in the Disaspora (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1970). Both Stevens and Sendrey refer to the first two as "Pentateuch modes," one associated with the Sephardim, the other with the Ashkenazim. So far so good. Just a few pages earlier, however, Stevens refers to these two modes as "Pentatonic Sephardic" and "Pentatonic Ashkenazic" in a comparative graph of church, diatonic, and synagogue modes. They are, of course, not pentatonic at all, as they are formed by addition of tetrachords to form heptalonic scales. …

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