CHARACTERISTICS OF ANCIENT ISRAELITE SAMARITAN MUSIC

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samaritan music
Performing Samaritans in Milan

Introduction

Samaritan music is unique. Despite study since the beginning of the 20th century, musicologists have found no similar music anywhere in the world. Its unique nature stems from its origins in ancient Israelite music. For scholars it represents a link with an ancient music which no longer exists.

This is striking when we consider that the Samaritans lived under many different rulers and alongside many different peoples in Israel. Yet no hint of foreign influence has been found in the music. There is no similarity between Samaritan music and Eastern, Western, Christian or Asian music. The music thrills professional listeners when they first hear it.
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Vocal Music

Samaritan music is a cappella, purely vocal, with no instrumental accompaniment. Each generation of the Israelite Samaritan people has passed the music down to the next. They pass it on through prayer services at the synagogue every Sabbath and festival, as well as through formal study. After their regular school day, every Samaritan boy and girl studies for about an hour at the Community Centre. They learn reading, liturgy and poetry, in Ancient Hebrew and also in the Aramaic dialect still used today by Samaritans today.

In this way, the musical tradition is preserved, with its thousand different songs and melodies. Samaritans sing it in prayer services and secular ceremonies, on the Sabbath, during festivals, and on joyous and sombre occasions. Some of the songs have come down directly from ancient Israelite song. Others were written by Samaritan composers between 500 and 1500 CE.

Samaritan music consists in part of variations and phrases which are not amenable to conventional musical notation. However, the rhythmic unity of the parts does make the notation of scores and arrangements feasible. Musicologists have tried their hand at this, with varying degrees of success.
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Left and Right Singing

samaritan music
Left and Right Singing

We divide those who pray in the synagogue into two groups. Firstly, the Rightists, located on the right side of the synagogue. Secondly, the group on the left side of the synagogue, called Leftists.

There are prayer hymns with 22 stanzas, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, each stanza having 4 short lines. The Rightists begin singing the first verse, and when they reach the beginning of the third line, the Leftists begin to sing the second stanza. All the congregants continue singing to the end of the hymn, each side singing its own verses. The Rightists sing the odd-numbered stanzas, while the Leftists sing the even-numbered ones. The cantor of the synagogue always joins the Rightists.
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Trills: Adding Syllables Not in the Text

Trills are a special characteristic of Samaritan music. The singers perform a given version of a song, but embellish it with many syllables not found in the text. In this way, singers may extend two words for over two minutes, by adding a variety of syllables and trills. For example, we sing  the word ‘kamoo’ from the ancient Hebrew verse: “Yaradu bammasot kamoo aaben” [Exodus 15:5 “The depths have covered them: they sank to the bottom like stone”], as follows:
kaawaanuwwa’awwa’aaawwanuwwa’aamu’oooau’aoo’unwoo’aoo.
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Singing a Given Text with a Variety of Melodies

We sing many texts with different melodies according to the occasion: secular, Sabbath, festival or pilgrimage. For example, we can sing The Song of the Sea with more than ten different melodies.

samaritan music
Performing in Milan
samaritan music
Benny Tsedaka, Choir Director, Milan
samaritan music
Performing in Milan
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Closing the Circle

The enormous interest of scholars led to the formation of The Samaritan Singers. In 1980 this choir began to take part in concerts and festivals in Israel, Europe and the United States. The Choir performed at the annual Musica Sacra International Festival in Europe, and the Fifth World Symposium of Choral Music in Rotterdam, in 1999.

The Choir appeared at Marktoberdorf and Osnabruck (1992), Tokyo (2005), as well as New York, Paris and Berlin. Following one of these a musicologist approached the conductor and introduced herself. Then, moved by the music, and with tears in her eyes, she explained that she was a member of an international research team. The team had been trying to formulate the common music of the future, extrapolating from the musical forms known today. To her great surprise, the ancient sounds that she heard in Samaritan singing, passed down through more than 130 generations, were very similar to the sounds formulated by the team.
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Recordings of Samaritan Music

R Lachman of Vienna and A Z Idelson of Jerusalem made the first recordings of Samaritan music. Subsequently, Geshuri, Valbeh, Hoffman, Katz and Herzog made recordings In the 1950s and 1960s. However, the composer K Penderetzki initiated the current wave of interest in Samaritan music. A key event occurred in 1975, when Penderetzki took a commission to write a symphony for the 200th Anniversary celebrations of the founding of the United States. He decided to base his work on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Accordingly, he began to search for special tones to represent the creation of the world. He focused on the Middle East, particularly Israel. Helped by colleagues in Israel, he met with representatives of various Jewish communities.

samaritan music
Backstage, Milan
samaritan music
Performing Samaritans in Milan
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Penderetzki Meets The Samaritans

Finally, Penderetzki’s friend Mr Hanoch Ron, music critic at one of the largest Israeli newspapers, brought him to the Samaritans. The Samaritan Singers performed The Song of the Sea for him, and The Song of Miriam the Prophetess, sister of Moses, sung by the Children of Israel when they crossed the Reed Sea. After less than two minutes Penderetzski jumped out of his seat with enthusiasm, crying like Archimedes: “Eureka! I’ve found it!”

So, the United States’ bicentennial celebrations opened to the sound of Samaritan notes.
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Noam Sherif

At the present time, the well-known Israeli composer Noam Sherif fulfils a similar role for our music. Sherif uses Samaritan sounds in works such as Tehila LeYerushalayim (Praise To Jerusalem) and Mechayei Hametim (Resurrection). Concert halls in the USA, Europe and Israel have opened their doors to concerts of Samaritan music. The Samaritan Singers have made independent performances, and have also appeared in programmes of ancient and contemporary music and song.

Abridged from Benyamim Tsedaka’s notes accompanying the DvD The Sounds of Samaritan Music and The Samaritan Choir. We hope to re-release the DvD in late 2016 or early 2017. Details will appear here and on the front page of the site.
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Photographs of the Samaritan Singers in Milan, where they performed Yuval Avital’s opera Samaritans: Ori Orhof

 

Samaritan HISTORY

 

Samaritan RELIGION

 

Samaritan FESTIVALS

 

Tehilah le Moshe

 

Samaritan Priests Chanting

 

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MUSIC

 

3 Responses

  1. Ye'oosha Ben Abraahm

    A melodia shomrey vem de uma base bastante sólida, por isso é confiável cantar cada palavra; shalom chaverim.

    Samaritan melody comes from a very solid foundation, so you can reliably sing every word.
    Shalom Friends

  2. Niall McLaughlin

    Greetings from Glasgow, Scotland. Do you know where I can purchase CDs of Samaritan singing?
    Many Thanks,
    Niall.

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