Dispatches from Brooklyn: Noah Schall: Part Two: “Development” in the cantorial recitative

9 min read

By Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience

In a discussion with an elder cantorial pedagogue, terms borrowed from Western musicology are transformed to suit the music of the synagogue.

On February 21, 2022, I had the privilege to spend the afternoon with cantorial composer and pedagogue Noah Schall, one of the leading experts on the field of khazones and an artist with almost a century of experience in synagogue music. For those readers unfamiliar with Schall and his work, please have a look at my blog post about him from a few months back. Schall is an elder cantorial pedagogue who has contributed deeply to the musical lives of many generations of cantors and who has helped create a sense of the substance and ideology of nusach hatefillah (Hebrew, the manner of prayer), a term that is used to describe the music of prayer and that provides a symbolic cornerstone of professional cantorial knowledge

Our conversation on this date perambulated between many areas, as is typical of Schall’s erudite and charming conversational style. In this article I will focus on part of our conversation in which we discussed one facet of his theories of Ashkenazi liturgical music.

As I mentioned in my previous post about Schall, he sometimes repurposes terms borrowed from European classical music in an allegorical fashion to describe cantorial music. For example, Noah uses the term “relative keys,” usually used to describe the relationship of major to minor in European music theory, in a special way in the Jewish context. According to Noah the tonic and subtonic are “relative” keys in Ashkenazi liturgical musical. This is evidenced in key examples from the liturgy such as the distinctive introductory passage of the Kaddish melody for Nilah, the concluding service for Yom Kippur, or the concluding khasima phrase heard in the Shalosh Regalim (festival) Amidah repetition. These melodic forms include distinctive downward stepwise movement for the finalis of phrases that blur the sense of a tonic center. Schall interprets these kinds of melodies as examples of a special relationship between musical points of gravity, using the term “relative” to connote a heightened sensitivity between not only two pitches but two ways of hearing the modal center of phrases.

In our recent meeting, Schall expanded on his music theory analogies, using the term “development” in a novel way to describe movements to new pitch areas, or tonal centers, in cantorial recitatives. [1] In European art music, the development in sonata form is a contrasting section in a piece of music that usually features new musical material that references harmonic and melodic themes introduced in the expository opening section. The development is characterized by a movement to new tonal centers prepared and controlled by the conventions of tonality and tonic-dominant relationships. For a characteristic example, listen to the development section introduced in the Allegro con brio, the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony. Here, the four-note opening phrase heard in the exposition is reconfigured through a variety of harmonic shifts and melodic transformations.

In this 2012 video of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, the exposition begins at 3:11, after the opening exposition section has been played twice.

The development section of the classical symphony is considered the showcase for compositional authority and greatness. A discourse around creative genius in European art music is heavily focused on the achievements and musical innovations associated with the concept of development. By appropriating the term, Noah Schall plays a thought-provoking game. He has taken this most august and prestigious element of the art music vocabulary and repurposed it to describe the musical creativity of cantors. In this way, he is both domesticating Western music theory to support the needs of Jewish music for a descriptive theoretical vocabulary and simultaneously appropriating the prestige of non-Jewish art music to elevate the perception of the seriousness and intellectual acuity of cantors and Jewish music.

In Jewish prayer leading, a bal tefilo [Hebrew, master of prayer, usually a non-professional prayer leader] recites the prescribed prayer texts usually using a distinctive set of melodic patterns with some degree of variation and musical specificity for different moments in the prayer text. Bal tefilo style prayer leading is generally characterized by a pedal-point drone quality, with one tonal center of gravity anchoring long stretched of prayer leading with only a minimal sense of movement to new tonal centers. In the vocabulary of Western art music (an inadequate language for describing the music of Jewish prayer), there is minimal harmonic movement in the sounds of bal tefilos. The primary source of musical expressiveness is in melodic variation and the implementation of distinctive vocal timbre sequences.

In a normative conception of cantorial skill held by elder cantors such as Schall, professional cantors are expected to have a greater repertoire of musical techniques in their improvisatory prayer leading, and especially in their compositions. One of the markers of cantorial knowledge, in this concept of cantorial professionalism and artfulness, is the ability to interpolate new material in different tonal centers, moving beyond the tonic. In our conversation, Schall used the term “development” to describe the sections in cantorial pieces where there is a shift to a new melodic center.

As I furiously scribbled down notes in my notebook, Schall played through a set of examples of what he calls development in cantorial recitatives. I have transcribed these jottings into a simplified explanatory chart and will offer some explanatory notes on six examples of development in the cantorial recitative that he touched upon in our conversation. His conception of development to describe implied harmonic movement in cantorial prayer leading is not sui generis. On the contrary, it fits into a well-worn conversation among cantors and Jewish musicologists about how to best apply Western triadic harmony to synagogue music. [2] Noah’s idiosyncratic approach to this concept reflects his own musical experiences and creative proclivities.

Noah Schall’s descriptive analysis of “development” in the cantorial recitative

Example 1. In this most common movement of harmonic gravity in cantorial recitatives, the pitch center moves from the tonic to the fourth scale degree. In pieces with a minor melodic pitch series, a new minor melodic series is built on the fourth scale degree. Sometimes this movement is further developed by a move to the “freygish” mode (characterized by an augmented 2nd interval and major third), also built on the fourth scale degree. This kind of development is heard on countless recordings of “golden age” early 20th century cantors. For a typical example, listen to “Hanshamo Loch” by Zawel Kwartin. After an “expository” section on the tonic, the development section (i.e. the move to a new tonal center on the 4th scale degree) occurs at 1:18 in the recording. Then, a secondary development, with a move to the parallel freygish (also on the 4th scale degree) begins at 2:07. The piece ends in the new tonal center area, as is typical of cantorial recitatives. In general, cantors do not return to the initial pitch area after the initiation of a development section.

Zawel Kwartin sings Hanshamo Loch (1927)

Example 2. This development expands on Example 1, building another movement up a fourth onto the first transposition, resulting in movement to the seventh scale degree as the destination of the final tonal center. For a typical example, listen to “Rachmono Deonei” by Ben-Zion Kapov-Kagan. After an expository section, in this case, employing a freygish modality, the harmonic center shifts to the fourth at 1:20, using a minor melodic pitch profile. At 2:44 the melody shifts to a “parallel” freygish pitch group built on the fourth scale degree, subtly moving back and forth between major and minor thirds in deftly inventive melodic passages. At 5:48, the melody moves up a fourth again to the seventh (i.e. the fourth scale degree of the four) building a minor melodic scheme on this new center.  This new tonal center is less stable and pivots between a minor melody built on the seventh, and a freygish melodic center on the fourth.

Ben-Zion Kapov-Kagan sings Rachmono Deonei (1938)

Example 3. This development scheme, which results in a move from the tonic to the second scale degree as the center of musical gravity, is less obviously present in the archive of old cantorial records. Schall suggested that this is a harmonic movement that cantors might employ in the context of prayer leading in order to create contrast or heightened dramatic tension by moving up a pitch stepwise. The first move, from a minor pitch group on the tonic to a major pitch group on the fourth, is typical of cantorial development, as seen in Examples 1 and 2. The next move from the fourth down to the second borrows a harmonic movement from Western art music: the second is the relative minor of the fourth. However, this relationship is given a particular Jewish liturgical flavor through the melodic phrase that Noah suggested could be employed to perform this shift. The melody, indicated here in the eighth note passage shown in the second bar, references a familiar Jewish melodic form heard in the melody for the piyut (liturgical poem) Akdamus that is recited on the Shavuos festival. Through this melodic allusion, a recitative can be transposed up a step.

Yisroel Gordon, a singer in the Chabad community, sings a Yiddish language version of Akdamus.

Example 4. This example is typical of development in pieces that employ the volokhl modality, a variant of a minor pitch group that features a raised fourth scale degree. Movement from scale degree one to scale degree two as the center of musical gravity is frequently heard, although perhaps it is less prevalent as a structural building block in cantorial recitatives than Examples 1 and 2. The volokhol on scale degree one shares the same pitches as the freygish built on scale degree two, rendering the shift less of a strikingly dramatic reorientation of the ear. For an example of this kind of movement, listen to the beginning of David Roitman’s “Al Tiroh.” The typical movement from a volokhol melody on scale degree one to a freygish built on scale degree two occurs at 1:07. [David Roitman sing Al Tiro Mipachad Pisom (1922)]

Example 5. Like Example 3, this movement up a step seems to be a style of transposition for dramatic effect that Schall has heard performed by cantors live, rather than a prevalent compositional motif heard in examples from archival sources. In this development concept, a descending melodic line provides the basis for an implied dominant to tonic relationship, outlined in the quarter notes in bar 2. Tonic-dominant relationships are the signature harmonic concept of common practice music theory. Here, Schall references the ways in which cantorial singing can appropriate melodic movement and harmonic concepts that are typical of western art music.

Example 6. This example offers a development concept that results in a stepwise motion upwards, but that achieves this dramatic heightening with a move through the fifth scale degree. Schall offered melodic figuration that centered on the fifth scale degree that implied a volokhl-like pitch group, resulting in the movement to a freygish melodic figure built on the second scale degree, similar to Example 4.

These examples are far from exhaustive and are not unique to Schall—they offer a thumbnail sketch of what he considers to be important examples of how cantors use liturgical music motifs and ideas to create variety in compositions. The primary interest of this impromptu collection of musical ideas lies in 1. the conceptual framework of development that Schall offers, and 2. the imaginative approaches to harmonic movement that he touches upon, some of which are novel and may possibly derive from Schall’s own compositions.

Schall’s theoretical musings, like his music, offer an idiosyncratic and personal approach to Jewish music but couch this musical individuality in a discourse of universalism. Schall does not talk about his work as a creative process—instead, he talks about accurately representing tradition and obeying the rules of Jewish liturgy. There is a suggestive and subversive wisdom in the way in which he deflects his own hand in the work that he does. Jewish liturgical music is “traditional” in its circulation of commonly held musical ideas and beliefs about music, but the tradition is constantly being invented by its practitioners. It is in the nature of the tradition to obscure its creators, favoring an image of timelessness over an acknowledgment of the hand of creative practitioners. This image of tradition grants cantors a special symbolic power as the emissaries of the Jewish sonic past.

Schall plays with this useful fiction of traditionalism in his use of music theory terminology borrowed from western art music. By considering the compositions of cantors using the same terminological devices as are used in the analysis of prestigious genres of western classical music, the insightfulness and creativity of cantorial music is brought into focus. In his brief exegesis on cantorial “development,” Schall manages to elevate the artistry of cantors, even as he maintains the perception that the music precedes the artists who make it. Jewish liturgical music derives from an unseen past rather than from the artists, like Schall himself, who we can see right in front of us.


[1] The term recitative, originally used to describe parlando arias in opera and oratorios, is repurposed in the cantorial context as a broad descriptor for an idiomatically specific style of non-metered devotional solo vocal music. See my discussion of cantorial recitatives in Jeremiah Lockwood, “A Cantorial Lesson: the lineage of a learning encounter,” Studies in American Jewish Literature, Special Issue: American Jews and Music (2019).

[2] For classic discussions of harmonizing the so-called “prayer modes,” see A. Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in its Historical Development (New York: Shocken Books, 1975 [1929]), 478-492; B.J. Cohon, “The Structure of the Synagogue Prayer-Chant,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 3 no.1 (Spring 1950), 17-32; Isadore Freed, Harmonizing the Jewish Modes (New York: Sacred Music Press, 1958); Max Wohlberg, “The History of the Musical Modes of the Ashkenazic Synagogue, and their Usage,” Journal of Synagogue Music 6 nos. 1-2 (April 1972), 46-61.


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