Sunday, 22 December 2013

Can the music interpret the text?

In February I posted on today's passage from Isaiah 7. This morning, as well as reading from the not-so-bad-this-time Revised English Bible, I also sang the snippet on the Almah ha-rah in Hebrew as part of the reading. There is an interesting pair of triplet ornaments around the text (circled in the image). These act as an inclusio for the text.
The Mechon-Mamre cantillation is missing the final ornament. If one is going to see these marks as punctuation, I suppose one might frequently miss the point. The Max Letteris edition clearly has the closing ornament:
לָ֠כֵן יִתֵּ֨ן אֲדֹנָ֥י ה֛וּא לָכֶ֖ם א֑וֹת
הִנֵּ֣ה הָֽעַלְמָ֗ה הָרָה֙ וְיֹלֶ֣דֶת בֵּ֔ן
וְקָרָ֥את שְׁמ֖וֹ עִמָּ֥נוּ֩ אֵֽל

(therefore the Lord himself will give you(pl) a sign.
Behold, the young woman is with child and will birth a son,
and she will call his name God-with-us.)

Note how the ornaments (above the letters) and notes (below the letters) are related to the interpretation of the text. Could we, I wonder, do such a thing? Let music interpret the text?  The melody right in the middle of this inclusio under veyelodet ben - and will bear a son, is the same as that for the beginning of David's lament over Absalom in 2 Samuel 19:1 (18:33). This melody also occurs to open the song in Isaiah 26:1 - I wonder if it is a signal, the music recognizing implicitly the sorrow of the death of a child. In Isaiah 26 it is the impending doom over Israel.

This year I hope to read Isaiah in detail, using both Hebrew and Greek texts. I will keep my ears open for these aspects of 'punctuation' in the marks of taste in the Hebrew text.


  1. Hi Bob,
    Can you tell us something about the source of the cantillation, as compared to the text? (I'm coming quite late to your ongoing project, I know, so perhaps just a pointer?)

  2. Thanks for the question, Victoria. The project was begun some 70 or so years ago by Suzanne Haik Vantoura, a pupil of Marcel Dupre. Her book is online in both French and English - English is here. It would be a big book to read online. I was able to get an inter-library loan a few years ago, so there are copies available. There are some examples referenced in my all too brief article here.

  3. O.O

    Wow! Thank you, this is fabulous. I had never heard of any of this.