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posted Apr 25, 2017, 12:21 AM by David Mitchell

So on Good Friday we had our sixth annual Bach Passion. We did the great Matthäus again. It's never easy, coordinating 70+ singers and musicians, including a dozen wonderful children for the ripieno line. But we got there in the end. I've learned a few new lessons though. In the past, we have occasionally allowed players to play modern instruments strung with gut strings. But this year, one such instrument (a viola) was too strong for the rest of the string section. So from now on, the rule is strictly "Baroque players, Baroque instruments." I'll be booking next year's players this week. To get the best players, one needs to book early!

Just voices!

posted Apr 9, 2017, 3:56 PM by David Mitchell   [ updated Apr 9, 2017, 3:57 PM ]

Last Sunday (Passion Sunday) we had a total electricity failure in Holy Trinity. No lights, no microphones, no organ. Nothing. But our choir rose magnificently to the occasion. They sang the hymns in good strong SATB harmony throughout. They improvised harmonies for the worship songs. And the anthem -- Purcell's "Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts" -- sounded great. (Pastor Paul also did very well with no mic.) Many said afterwards how moving it was to hear the choir lead worship without any organ "interference".
    In some Christian traditions there is a beautiful old custom of reducing music to its simplest -- just voices -- during Lent. They did that in Bach's Leipzig until the time of the Good Friday Passion. Some suggested we should try that in HT next year. Well, we'll see. But while some folk think we should have DJs in church, and others think they need recorded music, for me the power of unaccompanied voices is something I love more and more. What better to proclaim God's praises than the voices of people made in his image?

Psalm 136 and the handsome prince

posted Mar 27, 2017, 5:48 AM by David Mitchell   [ updated Mar 27, 2017, 5:55 AM ]

Sorry to be so long incommunicado. These days, I am pulling together Holy Trinity's sixth Bach Passion. The choir are sounding great, and the orchestra will be excellent. If you would like to attend, you can find out all about it at our site, www.passiontoperform.eu. There are sponsor seats at €25, €15, and €7.50. There are also free seats. All details on the site. 
    My talk on the music of Psalm 136, at Pusey House, Oxford, went very well. One eminent academic, an expert on ancient Greek music, said he found my reconstruction of Psalm 136 "totally convincing". Meanwhile, it even got a feature in The Oxford Times, care of Edward Clarke, whose article is below. I am absolutely thrilled to learn that my deciphered version of Psalm 136 is the same as the one sung in an Italian cantoral tradition, and am following it up. If you want to know more about the handsome prince, you will find the text and illustrations of my talk on my Articles page or on my academia.edu page.

Psalm 136

TORCH: The Jerusalem Temple Song in the Cantillation of Psalms 136 and 137

posted Jan 17, 2017, 9:41 AM by David Mitchell   [ updated Jan 17, 2017, 9:42 AM ]

On 7 February I will give a talk called ‘The Jerusalem Temple Song in the Cantillation of Psalms 136 and 137’ for The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). It really outlines the next step following my SOTS paper two weeks ago. If the Masoretic cantillation really is the lost musical notation of the Temple psalmody, then how do we begin to decipher it. I will examine several of the issues surrounding this question, like “What sort of music would we expect?” and “Are the cantillational marks notes or niggunot (melismas)?” Then I will suggest the musical meaning of the six most fundamental signs: silluq, munah, etnah, merkha, tifha, and mehupakh. It takes place at 6.15pm in the Ursell Room of Pusey House and is, I understand, open to all. So come along if finding the lost music of ancient Israel interests you.

SOTS: The Origins of the Masoretic Cantillation

posted Jan 6, 2017, 1:15 PM by David Mitchell   [ updated Jan 12, 2017, 1:10 PM ]

I'm very grateful to the Society of Old Testament Studies for inviting me to read a paper called "The Origins of the Masoretic Cantillation" at their centenary conference earlier this week. I am also very grateful for the enthusiastic reception it received. I hope this paper will play a small part in bringing this important subject more to the fore in Biblical Studies. If you want to see a copy of the paper, you'll find it on my Articles page.

Seventeen reasons

posted Nov 28, 2016, 12:53 PM by David Mitchell

My forthcoming talk at the Society of Old Testament/Tanakh Studies Conference in Nottingham (January 2017) is called ‘The Origins of the Masoretic Cantillation’. There are several views on the origin of the cantillation signs in the Masoretic text, but they all credit the invention of the signs and symbols themselves to the Masoretes, and believe that the Masoretes in some way were recorded the form of biblical cantillation which they knew in medieval Palestine. 
    I shall propose that the signs do not represent medieval synagogue chant, which had already diverged considerably from its temple origin. Instead, the Masoretic signs were not invented by the Masoretes at all, but are musical notation from temple times, recording temple-period chant, which were codified and authorized by the Sanhedrin in the Persian and Greek periods. 
    I shall offer seventeen pieces of evidence why I think this is so, including the testimony of the Talmud and the Masoretes and much else. Seventeen is good, by my reckoning.

The Masoretes really were Karaites

posted Nov 25, 2016, 5:42 AM by David Mitchell   [ updated Jan 6, 2017, 1:10 PM ]

One of the incendiary issues in modern Masoretic scholarship and medieval Jewish studies is whether or not the Masoretes, and particularly Aharon ben Asher, the mastermind behind the Aleppo Codex, were ‘Orthodox’ Rabbanite Jews or Karaites, who reject the authority of rabbinic literature and accept only the Hebrew Bible as authoritative. It has led to hot confrontations in several recent academic conferences.
    Evidence that the Masoretes were Karaites was first advanced by Pinsker (1860) and endorsed by Graetz (1870). Later, Kahle and Klar found supporting evidence in the Cairo Genizah. The clincher was when Klar identified the Genizah document Essa Meshali with the anti-Karaite, anti-Ben Asher polemic which Sa‘adia Gaon was known to have written against Aharon ben Asher and the Karaites (as recorded by the Andalusian paytan, Labrat ben Dunash).
    The matter seemed settled until Dotan reopened it, first with a Hebrew article in 1957, and then with an English book on the subject in 1977. The book is sizeable and erudite, but its arguments are weak. Dotan begins simply by batting away the evidence. Yes, he says, the Cairo and Aleppo Codices were commissioned by Karaties. But a Karaite could have secretly commissioned them from Rabbanite Masoretes through a Rabbanite intermediary. Yes, maybe Sa‘adia did write a polemical tract against Ben Asher, but it must have been another Ben Asher. And so on. Then Dotan turns to his own ‘new’ evidence. Briefly summarized, it goes something like this: 'Maimonides and all our sages endorsed the Aleppo text. They were good Jews. Good Jews do not accept the work of Karaite heretics. Ergo, the Aleppo text was not the work of a Karaite.' As Rafael Zer says, ‘It goes without saying that this is not a valid argument and in any event does not prove anything.’
    Since 1977, Dotan’s view has been widely disregarded. Kahle ignored it. Yeivin said ‘in my opinion, the vocalizer of A[leppo Codex] was most certainly a Karaite’. Barthélemy published a refutation of Dotan’s work. Zeev Ben-Hayyim, in the new Encyclopaedia Judaica, says that comments in Aharon ben Asher’s Dikdukei ha-te‘amim about deducing halakhah from the prophets show that their author was certainly a Karaite. He further proposes that the entire Ben Asher clan were Karaites. Likewise Rafael Zer, on the basis of similar views in halakha in the Aleppo text margins, concludes that it can be “established quite surely that the Masorete of the Aleppo Codex was a Karaite”. Nuff said.
    If you want to know more, I refer you to Rafael Zer’s excellent article, available on the website of the Hebrew University, ‘Was the Masorete of the Aleppo Codex of Rabbanite or of Karaite Origin? (2009)

The Aleppo Codex

posted Oct 17, 2016, 7:27 AM by David Mitchell

We hear a lot of tragic news from Aleppo these days. Some of you will know, tho, that the most perfect of all Hebrew Bible manuscripts, called the Aleppo Codex, spent most of its 1100 year life there. It was completed in Tiberias around 920 by the master of Masoretes, the Karaite Rabbi Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher. It was then taken as booty at the end of the 11th century, either by the Seljuks in 1097 or by the Franks in 1099. It was taken to Cairo where it redeemed at great cost by the Jews of Fayyum. There it was consulted my Rambam (Maimonides) who declared it the most perfect of all Bible texts. From Cairo it went to the Karaite synagogue in Aleppo, where it stayed about six hundred years, as a master copy for all the Jewish Bible manuscripts and eventually printed Bibles (Soncino, Bomberg) in all the world. But, in 1947, at the partition of Palestine, there were anti-Jewish riots in Aleppo. The synagogue was ransacked and the codex disappeared. But, after many twists and turns it reappeared in the land of Israel, an operation headed by Israel's then president, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi. He consigned the priceless manuscript to a group dedicated to its oversight, the Ben-Zvi Institute. You can now see it online at www.aleppocodex.org.
    Now here is the interesting bit. What you see online is only about two-thirds of the codex. The rest, including most of the Torat Moshe, is missing. The Weizmann Institute always maintained that it was ripped off and stolen during the Aleppo riots, but virtually none of the stolen fragments were ever recovered, despite rewards offered. But, over the last few years the Karaite community have been firing lawsuits against the Weizmann Institute. They maintain they have eye-witness testimony that the codex was complete when it arrived in the land of Israel, and they maintain that the missing portions disappeared under the oversight of the Ben-Zvi Institute's director, Meir Benayahu. Well, if you want the whole story you'll find it here: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/176903/aleppo-codex. But the good news is that, if this is so, the chances of finding the missing portions do not depend on ravaged lost pages being returned, but on police investigation to track where stolen pages were sold. There is therefore a good chance of them being intact and recoverable. 

Musical function of the Masoretic accents

posted Sep 28, 2016, 2:44 AM by David Mitchell

Following on from my last blog, a little more explanation on the Masoretic te‘amim. The text of the Hebrew/Aramaic Bible is surrounded by a system of accents. There is much discussion as to their true meaning and function. But most authorities say that they have a threefold function, namely, word-stress, syntax, and chant.
    But a careful examination shows that the accents are not primarily stress markers. For although they are mostly positioned on stressed syllables, there are sufficiently many exceptions—where the accent is placed before or after the stressed syllable—that this cannot be the true function of the accentuation.
    Likewise, the accents are not syntax markers. For although they often show correct syntactical divisions, there are, again, so many exceptions that syntax cannot be the true function of the accents. 
    Since then the true function of the accents is not word-stress nor syntax, it follows that the third function, the musical one, is the true one. This was argued by Delitzsch, Kahle (1922; with some contradictions), who thought it might derive from Greek neumens, and by others since. 
    That solved then the really big question is Where did the Masoretes get these accents?

Oldest Christian hymn with music

posted Sep 26, 2016, 8:16 AM by David Mitchell   [ updated Sep 26, 2016, 8:23 AM ]

Did you know that the oldest Christian hymn accompanied with music notation exists in a manuscript dating from the late 3rd century AD? It was discovered among the papyri from Oxyrhynchus, in the Egyptian desert, near El Minya. Of course, although it was written in the 3rd century, it may be much older. Indeed, the ideas it contains, that all creation should be silent before the worship of the Creator, find their parallels not in third century Christian theology, but in earlier Greek philiosophy. This therefore seems to be a hymn of the earliest years of the church, as the first Christians expressed their worship in language borrowed from old Greek philosophy rather than new Christian theology. 
    Now, in this papyrus, the cantillation marks are written above the text. So now we have a whole series of Greek papyri, dating from a 3rd-century-BC portion of Euripides, through to the 3rd century AD and beyond featuring cantillation marks for singing written into the text. Yet defenders of current theories on the origins of the Masoretic cantillation would have it that what Greeks had from the 3rd century BC, what Christians had from the earliest centuries of the Christian era, what Arabs wrote into the Koran from early times, was not taken up by Jews until the ninth century. Surely this is difficult to believe? Much more reasonable, I think, is the view that cantillation of the Masoretic text came from the hand of the leaders of the music in the Jerusalem temple, and dates from the time when the psalms were still sung in the temple. That's what I am going to propose in my January talk. For more on the Oxyrhynchus hymn, check out the Wiki article.

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