Sounds of Kol Nidre

September 20, 2012Marsha Bryan Edelman

[Editor's Note: You can listen to the Kol Nidre melody free online, provided by Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.] 

What is the origin of the Kol Nidre melody?

The melody that stirs the heart of Ashkenazic Jews is of unknown origin, but is part of a body of music known as "MiSinai melodies" that emerged in Germany between the 11th and 15th centuries. "MiSinai" literally means "from Sinai." Of course, we know that none of these tunes came from anywhere in the Middle East, but the hold they have had on Ashkenazic Jews has made them as venerated as if they "came down from the mountain."

How would you describe the melody, musically?

It combines syllabic chanting, one note per syllable, with melismatic passages, in which one syllable may be extended over several notes. Many of the musical phrases used in Kol Nidre are related to (or at least reminiscent of) other themes that are used throughout the High Holy Day period. Observers say that the MiSinai melodies are "majestic" and "lofty" and are therefore appropriate to the liturgical themes of the day. In fact, the extensive use of melisma throughout the High Holy Days makes the period and its music quite distinctive. Given the importance of Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, and the emotional "baggage" that most people carry as we contemplate "who shall live and who shall die," this music adds a degree of theological weight to the service. When the Reformers of the 19th century abandoned the rest of traditional Ashkenazic nusach (the traditional melodies and motives for chanting the liturgy) as being too old fashioned and unsuited to congregational and choral singing, they still preserved the MiSinai melodies, most of which are associated with the High Holy Days.

Can you explain the marriage of this particular text and tune?

The text of Kol Nidre—the nullification of personal promises that cannot be fulfilled—has none of the beautiful poetry that characterizes so much of our liturgy (and it was not included in Reform prayer books until the 1978 publication of Gates of Repentance). So the question of why we have such a lofty melody for such a pedestrian text is a good one. The reason lies less in the actual text than in the significance of the moment. Since the beginning of Rosh Hashannah, we have been engaged in a period of self-reflection known as the "Ten Days of Repentance" (Aseret Y'mey Teshuvah). On Yom Kippur, we have reached the last lap in our spiritual marathon: it's now or never. There is a certain electricity in the air as the synagogue fills—usually to its full capacity. The recitation of Kol Nidre actually comes before Yom Kippur begins (since one is forbidden from negotiating business on a festival), but the custom is to repeat the chanting of Kol Nidre three times—both to fill the time until the sun sets, and to be sure that any latecomers to the service can hear it at least once. Obviously, the recitation of anything three times has a built-in capacity for boredom, so various customs have emerged to enhance the chanting. Typically the cantor will sing it softly the first time, and sing progressively louder with each repetition. It is also customary to raise the key with each repetition. As the music gets progressively louder and higher, there is an increased charge in the synagogue atmosphere. With all of this emotional drama playing out, it is not surprising that, over time, a fairly elaborate musical composition has emerged.

How have Reform synagogues shaped Kol Nidre?

Modern congregations have found ways to adapt the chanting of Kol Nidre to their evolving sensibilities about the role of music in the synagogue. Composers like Salomon Sulzer (Austria, 1804–1890) and Louis Lewandowski (Germany, 1821–1894) were among the first Jewish music professionals with organ accompaniment at their disposal. At the same time, both of these men—and apparently their Liberal congregations as well—appreciated the role of nusach in general, and the MiSinai tunes in particular. Lewandowski's setting of Kol Nidre for cantor, choir, and organ has become the standard in many congregations; composer Sholom Secunda's (1894–1974) setting (famously performed by opera singer Richard Tucker) is a somewhat more recent addition, still faithful to the original melody but with richer parts for the choir. It is also interesting to note that contemporary congregations have become increasingly open to the use of a wide variety of accompaniments for the service in general, and Kol Nidre in particular. Many congregations add winds and/or strings, and some include an adaptation of Max Bruch's (1838–1920) setting of Kol Nidre (for cello and orchestra) for at least one repetition of the text.

This post is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in Reform Judaism magazine. Read the full article.

Marsha Bryan Edelman, Ed.D. is Professor of Music and Education at Gratz College in Melrose Park, PA.

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