Thursday, August 25, 2011

Saul Levin: The Traditional Chironomy of Hebrew Scripture (1966)

Since 1993 I have owned a documentary made in 1966 at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem by Prof. Saul Levin of SUNY - Binghampton. The film sought to preserve three different versions of synagogue chironomy (the use of gestures to represent musical values) before they perished from use.

Some years ago I met Prof. Levin at a meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and discussed with him the one medieval source that preserves many of the original gestures behind the musical accents (te`amim) of the Masoretic Text: the 12th-century "reader's manual" translated into French by J. Derenbourg as the "Manuel du Lecteur" (1870). Prof. Levin was interested in what that text said, and he also graciously sent me a VHS copy of the documentary he made. A few years ago I had that transferred to DVD, and now I've converted it to .WMV format and uploaded it in four pieces to YouTube. You can see all four parts of the YouTube series on this page of my personal blog.

Curiously (or is it so curious?), not even the Yemenite chironomy featured in this documentary matches consistently the indications of the Manuel du Lecteur, perhaps because the manual was hidden for a long time and forgotten. In any case the chants you will hear, the names of the accents (in some cases) you will see documented, and most of the gestures you will see performed, demonstrably have no bearing on the original meaning of the accent system. Since we have a "deciphering key" to the accentuation that passes such a close shave with Occam's Razor, and for historical and musicological reasons too, we can affirm this statement.

- John Wheeler (יוחנן רכב)

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