The music of
the Bible revelead
- en français
After many years of research, Suzanne
Haïk Vantoura has discovered the true musical value of the
te'amim, i.e. the musical signs accompanying thebiblical text.
She explains how and why this discovery is extraordinary.
Alliance - What brought you to your research on the musical meaning
of the te'amim of the Biblical text ?
I had noticed them in the version of the Hebrew Bible
- I used to read. I had also read in a musical
encyclopaedia that these
- signs of cantillation dated back to antiquity
and that their real
- musical meaning was lost. This triggered
my curiosity. I had a vague
- hope that this account might contain true
and beautiful musical
- phrases hidden, which used to set off the
- A- Still the synagogue interpretation
of this cantillation exists.
- Aren't you satisfied with it?
- S-H-V: The synagogue cantillation technique
does not really constitute
- music. It is composed of successive vocal
formulae, without even a
- single note corresponding to a pronounced
stressed syllable, the other
- notes constituting mere ornamentation. These
vocal formulae only mark
- stresses in the text without any musical
logic. Moreover, these
- formulae vary from one community to the other,
from a book to another!
- There is nothing in common between those
formulas which are totally
- misfit to the text and the te'amim once correctly
- established according to a determined order.
Knowing that the musical
- meaning of the te'amim was lost, I could
not feel satisfied with this
- lack of music.
- A- Could you explain what the te'amim
are and where they are found?
- S. H.V.-: The te'amim are signs found in
the text of the Bible and
- placed below or above the Hebrew words among
the vowel-points and the
- other auxiliary signs. Here is a passage
of the Decalogue : Exodus 20
- in which you may find the te'amim marked
in a different colour.
- Here is the same passage with the te'amim
but without all the other
- A- How can we recognise the te'amim?
- S.H.V.: Here are the te'amim in random order:
19 supralinear and
- sublinear signs. These signs appear in all
the Hebrew texts of the
- A- In the prose texts as well as in the
- SHV.: That's correct. There are two sign
systems : the prose system
- and the psalm system. The prose system comprises
8 sublinear signs.
- The psalm system only comprises 7, the six
first being similar to
- those of the prose system. The prose system
comprises 8 supralinear
- signs (the psalm system comprises much less)
- A- How did you manage to identify the
- S.H.V. : I worked step by step. I first observed
that the sublinear
- signs were never absent from the text, while
entire verses are totally
- deprived of supralinear signs. I deduced
from that fact that the
- sublinear signs had to be more important
than the supralinear ones.
- For instance, here is a passage of Psalm
122 where only sublinear
- signs can be read. Still those signs constitute
wonderful music (of
- course I could not guess it at that time!)
- This conclusion was crucial and greatly helped
my research later. Then
- I focused on the prose te'amim system only.
- That system comprises 8 sublinear signs as
mentioned. I quickly
- thought that it could correspond to the eight
degrees of a musical
- scale, of a tonal scale. (The diatonic scale
- C,D, E, etc,- is the
- This hypothesis seemed to me to be supported
by the nearly systematic
- writing of a vertical sign at the end of
each verse. This sign, I
- thought, could work like an ending note,
and could be used to indicate
- the main note of a tune... It seemed plausible,
and I turned to be
- A- Still, it's only one sign out of 8!
- S.H.V. : On the basis of this deduction and
on the basis of the verbal
- sentence, I tried to determine if certain
sublinear signs would
- reappear at the hemistich more often than
others. I had in mind the
- two main degrees founding the tonality, the
4th and the 5th, known
- already for this function in the Antiquity,
and upon which a
- well-structured tonality is based while still
being opened. I found
- with surprise that there were two sublinear
signs often mentioned at
- the hemistich which seemed to fulfil this
- really started when I tried to find out which
was the 4th degree of
- the tonality and which one was the 5th. I
had to work on hundreds of
- verses. I finally identified the 4th degree
sign and the 5th degree. I
- had apparently identified three signs at
that point, but nothing was
- certain yet!
- A- How did you find out the 5 other signs?
- S.H.V. : I had to write endless tables of
concording sequences, trying
- out an impressive number of verse-pieces
; comparing even the shapes
- of signs
- I could finally discover the meaning of the
8 sublinear signs of the
- prose system.
- It took me more than six months of hard work!
but it was not in vain!
- bits and pieces of meaningful melodies emerged,
- expressive... As a definite demonstration
I managed to decipher the
- outline of the Song of the Red Sea which
lasts approximately five
- minutes. The 8 sublinear signs were identified
: they are the 8 notes
- of a scale. What was most interesting was
the fact that the key-note
- is a central note of the musical scale, which
is common in Antiquity.
- A- Why isn't there a sign under each syllable?
- SHV : Because the musicians who created and
wrote the text and the
- accompanying music were using an abbreviating
system : any note
- represented as a bottom sign is to be taken
into account as long as
- another bottom sign does not appear.
- Let's consider again the beginning of the
Song of the Red Sea : the
- dashes I placed here, set off when heard,
the sounds prolonged over
- the syllables originally deprived of signs.
- A- Yet I notice that in the Song of the
Red Sea, the first note of the verse has no corresponding sign.
Why is it so?
- SHV: because it is precisely the key-note
which usually starts a
- melody. Moreover this note, marked by the
sign " ", always appears at
- the end of the preceding verse.
- A- But here is a supralinear sign above
the first syllable of the
- verse. What does it correspond to?
- SHV: The signs also symbolise the pitch of
the notes. They do not
- stand for fixed pitch (part of a given scale),
but for the relative
- pitch of the note in relationship to the
current basic degree
- represented by the preceding sublinear sign
(like an ornamentation in
- our present system of musical notation).
I then discovered the second
- principle of such a precise yet abbreviated
system of notation : any
- supralinear sign has an effect only over
the syllable over which it is
- As soon as the next syllable appears, the
basic degree reappears,
- while the sublinear corresponding sign does
not necessarily reappear.
- On the basis of this definition, a supralinear
sign can be set at the
- beginning of the verse. Still the degree
it stands for is in relation
- to the key-note which is implicit at the
beginning of the verse.
- We may observe it in this example. Note that
the exact position of a
- supralinear sign at the beginning or at the
end of a syllable is not
- haphazard. On the contrary, it is highly
important. Once the key
- principle of the deciphering code is applied,
the melody unveiled is
- always more harmonious and expressive than
if one had not taken into
- account this delayed principle of notation.
No one had ever before
- taken into consideration this specificity
of the notation.
- The readers interested in the details linked
to the code-key should
- refer to the book : "Clé de Déchiffrement
- Musicaux de la Bible"
- A- I understand. Still I wish to ask you
: are there any accidentals?
- SHV: No, since accidentals did not appear
in ancient notation systems.
- One must mention that the modes used in the
Bible were not very
- numerous . One of them in particular was
characteristic of Middle
- Eastern music.
- It is like an E minor scale with a chromatic
- between the second and third degrees, and
is still used in Israel
- A- What about the rhythm?
- SHV- The rhythm of the retrieved Biblical
music hardly needs specific
- marks. In prose, it is connected to the natural
speech rhythm of
- words, to the words carried by the melody,
which is itself
- rhythmically stressed by the very expressive
accents of the words. The
- length of the notes cannot be determined,
and in that case it's
- untranslatable. In psalmody it's the opposite
case, because all the
- syllables have the same length, whether this
length be one or several
- notes long. This is also the principle of
- A - Nevertheless, what was the system
used to tell the cantors that one syllable rather than another
was sung for several notes?
- SHV: You are right to mention this point,
in particular since in the
- time of David and Solomon , no less than
288 musicians-cantors would
- sing the holy services. Of course the chief
cantors would beat the
- time with the help of percussion, like our
present conductors do. Yet
- one must add that the chief cantors would
also direct according to
- David's musical gestures, indicating as such
that one syllable, more
- than another, was to be continued for several
notes (other more
- ancient gestural system existed at that time)
- That gestural system was a living replica
of the notational system
- called for centuries "according to David's
- David and Solomon's times were the Golden
Age of the music of the
- A- Do you think that this very specific
technique may have lasted for centuries after the upheavals and
hardships endured by the Hebrews?
- SHV: Yes, because the Levites were musicians
from fathers to sons
- until the very beginning of this era. Historical
documents show that
- the Hebrews' sacred music was of great quality
until the first century
- of our era, although the number of musician
Levites in the holy
- services had greatly diminished (we find
only 12 instrumentalists and
- 12 cantors in the holy services at the time
- A- Then how do you explain the synagogal
- SHV : Since the ancestral cantilation of
the psalms could not be
- practised outside the Temple of Jerusalem,
during the exile of Babylon
- and after it, worshippers became accustomed
to singing in synagogues
- and to reading the holy texts according to
standard formulae which
- would be shortened or lengthened according
to the length of verses.
- The te'amim disappeared progressively. They
reappeared in the Biblical
- texts only at the 8th century. But the value
of the signs seems to
- have been lost completely by then. The Massorets
of Tiberias and
- Babylon used them again in manuscripts, the
political context of the
- 9th century being more favourable. (see Music
of the Bible Revealed
- and Complementary Data).
- Although it was quite allusive, Aaron Ben
Asher, who was the last
- master of the Biblical reading School of
Tiberias, gave an
- interpretation which imposed itself for lack
of any other. It is still
- being used today. Yet one must admit that
it is only for texts written
- in prose, since the te'amim of the psalms
could never be interpreted
- before. And one continues to hear psalms
sung in synagogues with the
- help of repetitive formulae which I mentioned
before. Moreover, in
- most of the ritual books of synagogues, the
signs of psalmody have
- been taken out of the text for lack of understanding
them, while the
- music of palms has such a powerful expression
that the whole world
- should sing it to join David's faith, whose
message is universal.
- A- How long did you need to experiment
on your music and on various texts before you were sure of the
correctness of your discovery?
- SHV: I first applied it to over several hundred
texts, but it was
- mostly the work accomplished since I published
my discovery in 1976,
- which makes it indubitable. More than 5000
verses are now "musically
- realised" and can be performed with
their music. My deciphering key
- has never proved wrong. Here it is, with
E as key-note.
- A- After all these years of work and exciting
discoveries, what is your conclusion?
- SHV: For all the reasons I mentioned before,
it is very sad that the
- interpretation of te'amim should be ignored,
denied by the Synagogue
- in general.
- On the other hand, I feel convinced of having
relived the most
- ancient musical notation ever known, which,
apart from the musical
- value it conveys to our modern world, gives
precision on the biblical
- punctuation. The Biblical authors were poet-composers
- themselves the music of their texts. Consequently,
- perfectly fits the meaning of the words and
enhances it. I was very
- sad to think that all this heritage of humanity
had been lost forever.
- The situation is different now with Internet
and thanks to the
- interest you show in my discovery, this music
will finally become
- integrated in our human patrimony. My wish
is that it will be so, for
- the good and happiness of everyone until
the end of Time !