Singing it old school
Samantha and Samara, and Rachel and Reut, and some of the other girls in the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy high school choir swear to me that the Passover music they will be performing later that night at the Richmond Hill Centre for Performing Arts is “cool,” “awesome,” and “enthralling.”
Mostly, though, it is old. Extremely old, and rare — as in Medieval old and Medieval rare. Johannes Rittangel, an obscure 17th-century Christian scholar with a fascination for Judaism had a particular fascination with the Haggadah — the liturgy of the Passover night Seder meal.
He translated it into Latin, a rare enough feat, but even rarer, in historical terms, was his decision to include the musical notation to the traditional Passover songs — a musical artifact that promptly got lost for 400 years until it popped up on a website devoted to Jewish historical curiosities in January.
It was spotted there by Paul Shaviv, a Jew, a history nut and the head of the Tanenbaum academy. He had a wild idea: why not feature two pieces of music that have not been heard since 1644 at the suburban Toronto school’s 2012 Sounds of Spring Concert?
“As far as the school has been able to find these songs have not been sung for 400 years, and it has been suggested to us that when they were written down they were already old, and may even date from the 13th or 14th century,” Mr. Shaviv says.
“The people that performed this, who actually wrote it down, did so before there was a Canada. And if you look at it from their point of view, could they ever imagine Canadian kids in sweatpants and sneakers singing it?”
Short answer: probably not.
It is rehearsal time. Tuesday night is the big night. Kids are asking questions, moving music stands, checking to see if the piano is tuned, straightening chairs and straightening their yarmulkes.
“We want you to sing so Rittangel can hear you,” Mr. Shaviv says. “Remember: Rittangel has been dead for 400 years.”
Jacklyn Klimitz, a music teacher, is the conductor.
“I want a quick posture check,” she says. “Hands behind your backs. Backs straight. Sing to the back of the wall.”
And … they sing, a pair of tunes in tremulous, teenage voices that gather strength and confidence on a second take. The words to the songs are familiar to the singers, and to any Jew who celebrates the Passover Seder. The actual words have not changed, not in a few thousand years.
But the music has evolved through the centuries. And the music filling the theatre is a definite throwback.
“It is not exactly what I would describe as jaunty,” says Zev Steinfeld, a Jewish Studies teacher. “It is more of a dirge than a toe-tapper, but it is an interesting way to look at our peoples’ history, to engage with it, rather than just read about it in a book.”
The songs, to the ears of a non-practising Catholic, are not destined for the Top 40. They are something else: something old, and pious sounding, and something that would not sound out of place around the Medieval supper table.
Rittangel, the man who wrote them down, was a Lutheran-Protestant. There is speculation among some scholars that he had a Jewish mother. At the time of his writing Europe, beyond some Jewish ghettoes in Italy, and Amsterdam, which was the hub of European religious freedom, was a landscape devoid of Jews.
They were banished from England in the 13th century and persecuted and expelled from every place else.
“Rittangel would have regarded the Old Testament as kind of the New Testament in disguise,” says Philip Beitchman, a retired lecturer at St. John’s University in New York who is familiar with Rittangel’s work. “What he would have been trying to do was convert Jews — the argument being that the early Christians were in fact the true Jews.”
Rittangel’s campaign of conversion was, of course, unsuccessful. What has lasted, however, and resurfaced amid a 21st-century high school choir at a Jewish private school in Toronto is powerful stuff: the sound of Passover’s past.
The Medieval Haggadah is a musical relic and a reminder that, while the music might change, the songs — and the faith — endure.
And so, too, will Johannes Rittangel and the 2012 Sounds of Spring Concert. A videographer from the school is taping the performance.
The plan is to put it on Youtube.
* National Post article: http://bit.ly/GVruMH
* Youtube video of the songs being performed in rehearsal: http://bit.ly/GXh3XA
* Original On the Main Line article: http://bit.ly/HfBQVh and follow-up: http://bit.ly/HXKgb5