The sacred music of Jerusalem’s Second Temple maintains legendary status among scholars. According to the Bible, this ancient holy site was built around 540 B.C. and featured music that many religion and music scholars believe directly influenced chant and other early Christian music. Both the music and temple, however, were lost for centuries. Until now.
The latest CD from San Antonio ensemble SAVAE—titled Ancient Echoes—brings together modern and ancient research to re-create the Second Temple’s music. This story reads like a historical mystery uniting ancient music and dialects with modern-day crises in politics and religion.
In the early 1900s, when Jews worldwide first returned to Palestine, musicologist Abraham Idelsohn documented first-hand the music of Jews from Turkey, Poland, Yemen… from wherever they came. He found common musical phrases among all the groups, who had lived in strict isolation for 2000 years, and postulated that these musical components pre-date the Jewish Diaspora in the 1st century. Idelsohn’s volumes were one of several keys that SAVAE used to open the mystery of this music.
The last three years have been a powerful journey for SAVAE founders Christopher and Covita Moroney. It started when they came across a book of mystical translations of prayers in Aramaic, a language spoken in the Middle East 2000 years ago. Their interest was piqued and, as early music scholars, they embarked on a journey into the music of that era. Their renewed spiritual interest emerged simultaneously as the current Intifada in Israel/Palestine. They began attending interfaith meetings about the crisis. They met Jews, Christians, and Muslims engaged in dialogue. Before they knew it, they were attending synagogues, taking private Hebrew lessons, running off to a Montana retreat to learn Aramaic from a Sufi Murshid, and chanting Arabic with a sheik from the West Bank. They enlisted friends and scholars to help gather all the information and instruments needed to create an authentic sound of an era in which Judaism was in crisis and Christianity was being spawned.
By luck, the Moroneys met an Egyptian phonetics teacher specializing in the Babylonian dialect used in the classical recitation of the Qur’an. Babylonia, whose empire encompassed what is now Baghdad, was home to a thriving Jewish community that maintained the closest ongoing ties with Jerusalem of any Diaspora settlement. Experts agree that the Babylonian dialect offers the most plausible approximation of the dialect of the sacred songs of Jerusalem. To this day, Muslims in Iraq have preserved this dialect fastidiously. The Moroneys spent hundreds of hours learning and applying this dialect to the Hebrew Torah texts and Aramaic texts from the Syriac New Testament.
For the musical compositions, SAVAE drew on Idelsohn’s records of the Babylonian Jews, borrowing these era-authentic musical phrases and motifs to set these texts to music. On one song, SAVAE uses the research of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura, a French music theorist who attempted to crack the code of the Torah’s te`amim (accents)—the earliest known form of music notation, consisting of symbolic signs above and below all of the Torah’s scriptural text. Each symbol represents hand gestures that were used by Biblical “conductors” to convey melodies to the Temple musicians who simultaneously interpreted and performed them. Another song uses text from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
This isn’t the first time SAVAE has employed historical research to re-create an ancient sound. The music of their Billboard-charting Guadalupe, Virgen de los Indios came from ancient deerskin-bound manuscripts that were discovered in the attic of a Guatemalan church and were composed shortly after the time of the sighting of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico five hundred years ago.
It is unclear what ancient traditions, archives, and architecture will be lost in today’s Middle Eastern crisis. But, for now, SAVAE may have provided the closest re-creation yet of music from the time of Jesus and the forever lost Second Temple of Jerusalem.
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