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What Can We Learn from a Chasidic Melody?

What Can We Learn from a Chasidic Melody?

G-clef and musical notes written in chalk on a blackboard

Nigunim are more than you have been taught. Sometimes they are, as we usually experience them, simple wordless melodies easily sung by a community. Other times they are complex constructions with many parts, deeply philosophical words, and intended as an individual meditation. Some nigunim are fast and energetic, others are ponderous and slow, and still others dance back and forth between emotional poles of joy and sorrow.

While there are many exceptions to this rule, classically, Chasidic nigunim come in three parts. The first section stays low in the voice and has the simplest rhythm. The second section draws inspiration from the first, but climbs a little higher and demands more energy. The third section is the emotional peak of the nigun and requires a vocal stretch up to some higher notes (maybe even sometimes uncomfortably high!).  Nigunim do not, however, end with this peak, nor do they return to the start. Traditionally, Chasidic nigunim return to, and then finish with, a repetition of the second, middle, section. The form is called ABCB – and you won’t find it in too many other genres of music around the world.

Let’s take a close look at one nigun.

Though many nigunim are known to derive from specific composers, cities, or holidays, this one has none of that background. I found it in Sefer Ha Nigunim, a book of melodies published by Chabad in 1948, in which it is listed as “#77 – Nigun for Shabbat and Festivals.”

The direction in the book says “Moderato ritmico,” meaning, sing this piece in a medium tempo and keep the beat going. The melody fits precisely into the ABCB framework and uses the Jewish musical mode often called “Ahavah Rabba” or “Freygish” (a Yiddish-ized version of the church mode, Phrygian, which, although different, shares some elements with Freygish). You might recognize the mode from the popular Shabbat morning melody for “Yism’chu” or you might just think sounds as Jewish as gefilte fish and kugel.

The first section of the nigun (from the beginning until 0:28) is a short four measures (with a repeat), lays low in the voice, uses a lot of repeated notes, and asks very little of the singer. It calls to you – meeting you just in the space between silence and music – rather than demanding you jump right in with full energy and motion. This might be a nigun for times when you’re not sure you can sing, but want to test the waters a bit.

The second section (from 0:28 to 0:56) starts out like the first one – just a little bit higher (up a fourth for the musically inclined). This section takes a bit more commitment; by now you know you are singing and that you need to put some effort into it. The work of making this nigun happen doesn’t stop in your throat – it reaches into your psyche. If you know where you are headed, this section feels like preparation for where we are about to go.

The third section (from 0:57-1:49) is the climax – and it doesn’t disappoint. It is eight measures (with a repeat) – twice as long as the other sections. It opens much as we do – in fits and starts. Three different times it goes from the middle ground of the second section back to the low notes of the first section. It is so human!

Just when we need to summon our greatest forces, we often end up falling before we can rise up. Once it gets going though, the melody pushes to its highest note (a full octave from where we started), coming back down, again in fits and starts, as if it wants to resist the need for a descent back to normalcy.

By now, when we return to the second section (1:50 to the end), the nigun feels different to us. Rather than winding ourselves up, we are allowing ourselves to gently come back down – but not all the way down. Spiritually or emotionally, if you let the nigun do its work, you might find yourself one notch higher than where you started. What a brilliant model of life experience! It’s like the difference between walking to and from the gym – the road may be the same but you are not.

Nigunim do not solve problems nor change the world, but they can – if only for a moment – change you. Find the nigun that lifts you up and use it when you need it so that you, one notch higher than when you started, can change the world yourself.

Cantor David Berger is the cantor at KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago, IL, a board member of the American Conference of Cantors, and a Ph.D. student at the Chicago Theological Seminary. Learn more about him, his music, and his teaching at CantorDavidBerger.com.

Cantor David Berger
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