‘Without Music, Would We Even Be Jewish?’ by Norman Lebrecht
Amid the resurrective clamour, few grasped the leap that Cohen had made into the past. In the depths of despair, he had sought the “secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord” across three millennia of human creation, appealing as one lost Jew to an ancestor for the primal gift of music.
Commissioned by Radio 3 to create a “three-part series about music and the Jews,” Norman Lebrecht has written an introduction published in the Feb 28, 2014 edition of The Guardian that offers insights into the influence, implications, and significance of Jewish culture on Leonard Cohen’s songs that are far more more nuanced and musicologically specific than one routinely finds in the popular press.1
The following excerpt is representative of the granularity of the information:
… I became aware of the taboos and tensions that prevailed between Jews and music. I learned, for instance, that Jews, mourning the destruction of their temple in 70AD, were forbidden by rabbis to sing or play music, all the way down to Moses Maimonides in the 12th century.
I knew, too, that a woman’s voice was proscribed by the Talmud as “nakedness” and that hearing a woman sing was equivalent to having an illicit sexual liaison. Thrilling as that may have seemed to my boyish mind, women’s singing really was taboo. As was listening to music for seven and a half dark weeks of the year and at times of personal loss. In sorrow, music was the first thing to be switched off.
Yet, amid these constraints, music was everywhere. At any solemnity or celebration, someone would start a tune.
Cohen is by no means the only musician discussed but the discussions enlighten the understanding of his music whether Lebrecht cites Gershwin’s lyrics, quotes ex-BBC chair Michael Grade on “why Jews were so big in showbiz,” or analyzes Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
And consider this observation on the Jewish contribution to pop music, the genre in which Leonard Cohen thrives:
Around the same time [the end of the 19th century], on the front stoops of New York brownstones, the sons of Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms and of former African-Caribbean slaves from the deep south found an unsuspected common taste for busy rhythms, minor keys and blue notes. Their conversation signalled the birth of pop music.
This intriguing and interesting article is available at ‘Without Music, Would We Even Be Jewish?’
Note: Music and the Jews begins on Radio 3 on 9 March.
Credit Due Department: Mandy MacLeod alerted me to this piece and provided the scan of the article atop this post.