Monday, May 19, 2014

Bereshit - in the beginning of...

This is a summary with a simple example of what the work of Suzanne Haik Vantoura means to me. If you were going to write a book on this, which passages of Scripture would you include? 
Let’s begin with music. In the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and of the earth.

Pitch any of the music where it is comfortable for you. The opening is a major triad followed by the subdominant, doh, mi, sol, la. Then descend a major third to re where your mode includes the awkward augmented second from re to mi. Then back to re and back to doh. We have even fewer notes than the doh-re-mi song in The Sound of Music.

That is the first verse of Genesis.

What class of music is this? How many differing phrases are there? What does it say about the text? Does singing the text change its meaning?

There are so many possible things to notice about the text and the music. Note that I have put a caesura in this short phrase. A caesura is a pause. It means take a rest and think about what you are in the middle of. In English, it reads: in the beginning of God’s creating.


In the beginning of God’s creating what? Take up the tune again: the heavens and the earth. This second half of the verse is the direct object of the first half of the verse. We know that it is the direct object from the little word ‘eit’. This word is spelt alef-taf. It is comprised of the first (א) and last (ת) letters of the Hebrew consonant alphabet. It signifies that the direct object of the verb follows. There are two direct objects in the phrase, hashamayim, the heavens, and ha’arets, the earth. To match the rhythm of the Hebrew, we might translate the phrase as; of both the heavens and also the earth. But generally speaking, the direct object marker את is not translated.

Why didn’t I translate as usual: in the beginning, God created? There are a lot of good reasons. In Hebrew, it is often the case that a word ending in ‘t’ indicates a special form of the noun that says ‘more to come’. In this case, the single word bereshit, is ‘in the beginning of’, not just ‘in the beginning’. There is a suggestion in the form of this gerund from the verb ‘to begin’ that creation continues and that time is different from the time-line that we imagine. It is not as if God ‘created’ and then just let the clockwork happen.

Music is more than a single note. Music gathers words into a single phrase that holds the beginning in the end and makes time in a sense, stand still. We will have a lot to say about the heavens and our earth, our land, even our own individual piece of the ground which we know as body, a body with ears that can hear the music it sings, a body with heart that can know the singer of the music, a body with eyes that can process the information in the music, the text, and its history.

So bereshit is more than a distant big bang, and more than a distant act of speech. It is also a continuing presence and a promising end.

The text

This section is a bit more technical.

In our typical Latin-based texts, we have 26 letters and punctuation. Our letters are either vowels or consonants, a single letter (like Y or W) occasionally acting as either. Our punctuation is indicated through fewer than a dozen marks, comma, period, semicolon, colon, dashes, quotations, and so on. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are 22 consonants, a dozen or so vowels, and the te’amim, a set of 22 marks considered for the last 1000 years as punctuation. David Mitchell[1] dubs them “punctuation on steroids”. These accents make considerably more sense as music. Hebrew vowel sounds are indicated by dots and dashes under the consonantal letters. Both vowels and te’amim are under and over the letters of the text, like this letter bet with an ‘a’ under it, בָ pronounced ba or va.

guttural or nothing
b or v
g (hard)
d or th

וָ va וּ oo וֵ vei וֹ vo וִ vi וְ  וֶveh  וv
or nothing
ך כ

ם מ
ן נ
guttural deeper than alef
ף פ
p or f
ץ צ

The te’amim, called marks of taste[2], like this mark, בֽ, can be considered as disjunctive or conjunctive signs like punctuation, but they are also of sufficient complexity taken together to be hand signals or chironomy, signs indicating the movements of a conductor of music.

The te’amim consist of two overlapping sets of signs, one for the books of truth[3], Psalms, Proverbs, and the speeches of Job, and one for all the rest of the Hebrew Bible. For convenience, I will distinguish these two sets by the names poetry for the three, and prose for the remainder.

The Deciphering Key

The first thing to note about the te’amim is that there are exactly eight signs below the letters for the prose and seven for the poetry. What a musician immediately notices is that these could be applied to a musical scale, the full octave for the prose, and a modal scale for the poetry. The remaining signs, with some duplication of those used below the text, all occur above the letters. There are eleven in use for the prose and eight for the poetry. The overlap between the sets is quite comprehensible to a musician. It is feasible to learn to sight-read the music, much as a musician can sight-read tonic sol-fa or a musical staff.

Here is the first set of marks, the scale for the prose books as deciphered by Suzanne Haik-Vantoura (SHV).
ב֧ ב֤ ב֣ ב֑ ב֖ ב֥ בֽ ב֛
These she sets to correspond (reading left to right) exactly to a tonic sol-fa scale with a raised fifth. C D E F, G# A B C. Notice how close the poetry scale is: D# E F# G A B C.
ב֤ ב֣ ב֑ ב֖ ב֥ בֽ ב֢
All these pitches are relative to the tonic, the third note of the prose scale and the second note of the poetry scale.[4] The tonic is signified by the silluq ֽ under the letter. Readers of Hebrew will recognize that this sign occurs at the end of every verse. Each set also comes to rest on the A subdominant. Readers of Hebrew will recognize the sign, ֑ the atnah, as the primary disjunctive mark in many verses.

SHV interpreted the set of signs that occur above the letters as ornaments relative to the current pitch. The current pitch is determined by default as the tonic until a sign is encountered that changes it. The current pitch remains current until a new sign is encountered below the letters. The ornaments return to the current pitch either on the current syllable or on the next syllable. The determination is made based on placement of the sign and whether the pitch changes on the next syllable.

Here are the ornaments for the poetry books as they would be interpreted on a musical staff when the current pitch is A. On the right is the full scale. The full set is available here.
In all the many examples developed by SHV, she says she has applied these notes without exception to decipher the music from the Hebrew text.[5] She recommends using the Max HaLevi Letteris edition (1896). Mitchell (2013)[6] points out that her bias is not justified in that she likely never saw the more reliable Aleppo Codex. All the music in my recent posts has been derived from the Hebrew text of the Westminster Leningrad codex ( and edited where necessary and where available to agree with the Aleppo codex ( or (in a very few cases) the Letteris edition of 1946.

Back to the Beginning

Now that the technical part is dealt with, let’s put all the pieces together, the original Hebrew text, the syllables transcribed into Latin characters, and the musical signs for this first phrase of the Bible.

Music is more than notes. This opening snippet of music gathers 18 syllables into two phrases. The first word shows a change in reciting note on the third syllable. So we move from E to G#, from doh to mi. The second syllable of the second word shows a sign that moves us to sol (B). Then the first of this pair of phrases has a rest point in the middle (fa, A) marked by the atnah (^) on the third syllable of Elohim.

We rest on God’s creating. Even in the middle of a thought, we rest.

The fourth word, the single syllable direct object marker, shows that we move to F (re). Then the third syllable of hashamayim, the heavens, moves us back to G# (mi). The second syllable of the sixth word, the second direct object marker, moves us back to F (re), and then we reach the tonic doh, again on the silluq on the middle syllable of the seventh word.

So we have a musical movement from tonic to subdominant in the first phrase. Each stressed syllable follows the dashed bar line which always occurs at a change in reciting note. Then a musical movement from the rest point back to the tonic. Each phrase has three stresses and each leads to the end of the phrase as one would expect of music.

[1] published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36/3, March 2012.
[2] The word טעם ta’am, taste, from which the name of the signs is derived, can also mean a slight madness. Both these meanings are evident in the alphabetic acrostic poem, Psalm 34, verses 1 and 9 in the Hebrew numbering. In verse 1, David feigns his madness so he can escape from Abimelech, and in the first word of verse 9 (tet being the ninth letter of the alef-bet) the poet uses the same word to mean taste.
[3] So called from the first letters of each book: alef-mem-taf, meaning truth.
[4] The choice of E is arbitrary and may be adjusted to a lower pitch if singers or instruments require it.
[5] She is quite subjective at some points especially in mode 4, rejecting the A# where it suits her taste. Nonetheless, her consistency is very high if not as rigid as a computer program must be.
[6] David Mitchell (2013). How can we sing the Lord’s Song? Deciphering the Masoretic Cantillation in Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms: Conflict and Convergence, ed. Susan Gillingham, OUP.