gregorian chant, jesus fulfilling prophecy, and easy listening

Last Sunday’s “Kaddish” recording (kaddish_2010.12.19_veniEmmanuel) explores and tests how the nusach of “Kaddish” blends into Gregorian chant; see “a musicological view of kogan’s ‘kaddish’” and commentary passim for discussion.

Historical analysis

As I mentioned in the analysis, in Gregorian chant we see Catholic monks blending the Judeo- into the -Christian of the Judeo-Christian tradition. All the modal harmony and phrase-building, mostly syllabic plus some melismatic wandering on Greek and Hebrew texts morphs into the monks’ chants on Greek and Latin texts.

In the Christian liturgical calendar, it was the fourth Sunday in Advent. This is a day we’re likely to hear “O come, o come, Emmanuel,” on the classic Gregorian chant tune “Veni Emmanuel,” from Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, depending on your bias.

Why this bit of Jewish text popping up in Advent? Blame Matthew.

Matthew of Gospel fame made it his mission to tell the Jesus myth as fulfillment of prophecy, e.g. Matthew 1:22-23 “All this happened in order to fulfil what the Lord declared through  the prophet: ‘A virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel,’ a name which means ‘God is with us.'” Matthew is hearkening back to Isaiah 7:14, “Because you do, the Lord of his own accord will give you a sign; it is this: A young woman is with child, and she will give birth to a son and call him Immanuel.” (Texts from Oxford Study Bible.)

So thanks to Matthew’s obsession with the prophets, we hear “Veni Emmanuel” a lot in Advent, the period leading up to Christmas, which is, after you sift out all the calendar complications and pagan adaptations, vaguely the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Savior or Messiah or Christ or Son of God, or a guy from that era, depending on your preferences.

The text of “Veni Emmanuel” is, in translation, “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here until the son of god appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”  It’s pre-Passover Israel, stuck in Egypt, waiting for rescue and their flight with the unleavened bread—you know, the whole “they tried to kill us, we lived, let’s eat!” story.

This time, though, instead of Moses parting the Red Sea, we have a baby Jesus born to a “virgin” Mary (don’t get me started), and wise men, and stars in the east, and incense and myrrh, and Amahl the treble singing about sheep and visitors, and…

Well, you know that whole tale. We have a baby born among some livestock, to a so-called virgin. A bunch of wise men and kings bringing gifts after following special stars suggests that the whole world knows something epochal has happened, yada yada. But then all is quiet for a few decades while the kid grows up, and things apparently get back to normal (but that’s just because the gnostic gospels covering those pesky adolescent years were too messy, so they got thrown under the bus). Then suddenly we’ve got this dude in his twenties, hanging with Mary Magdalene, telling parables, collecting disciples, and generally rabble-rousing. Word gets around, and there’s a big stink with the Roman authorities, a Passover before a crucifixion gets loaded with symbolism, and before you know it, this punk from Nazareth is being hailed as another god of sorts, because there was some confusion with the body. Four hundred years later, church politics heat up to the point that they have to have a big council to figure it all out—in Nicea, where they come up with the “holy trinity” compromise, the “of one substance with the father” hedge, and other concessions to prevailing local pantheistic preferences.

But I’m getting off my topic.

Which is that Gregorian chant falls out of the Jewish psalmody tradition, as we can see in the kaddish_2010.12.19_veniEmmanuel recording. Last Sunday’s Kaddish opens in Adventian tradition with “Veni Emmanuel” and then segues into Lev Kogan’s “Kaddish.” I played “Kaddish” as written, to the extent that something so free is every played “as written,” except that in the stopped passage that we’ve been calling “that THING,” I took some liberty again and played another fragment of “Veni Emmanuel” rather than the written passage.

“Veni Emmanuel” is in a different but companionable mode, and I chose to play it on the same E (written horn pitch, A concert) that is the tonic for “Kaddish,” which is in E minor, mixolydian mode.

Performance and listening notes

In all our discussions of how to fit the Kaddish text to Kogan’s “Kaddish” music, the burning question is this: how would I play it differently, if I knew how the text fit the music? Previously I have considered technical details of performance that are molded to text: slurs vs articulation, breathing, phrase direction, etc. Without knowing how or whether the text and notes are related, though, I am not bound to any of those constraints.

But from constraints comes liberty. We often have more freedom when we work within limitations. I was startled to notice while playing and again while listening to playback last night that my phrasing for “Veni Emmanuel” was sure-footed in a way that many of the phrases in “Kaddish” are not.

Because I know the text.

It’s that simple. When I play “Veni Emmanuel,” I know that the notes represent “O come, o come…” as above. I am practically singing that text when I play the phrases. I know to pause at the periods and exclamation points. I observe but don’t pause for the commas. I breathe between thoughts. I blow through the phrases in accordance with the sentences. I keep it moving because of what the words mean.

No hesitation.

I’ve played “Veni Emmanuel” maybe half a dozen times as a hornist. I’ve sung it several dozen times at least.

I’ve recorded “Kaddish” already fifty times for this project, after having given it serious study and performance any number of times over the last twenty-four years.

Which piece do I know better?

Well, I’ve certainly put a lot more thought and effort into “Kaddish,” but it’s no contest. I know “Veni Emmanuel” better. And I can feel and hear that when I play it, and it’s because of the text. (Well, and it’s short. And easy. Monks weren’t exactly known for their coloratura virtuosity.)

I find this disturbing.

Kogan’s “Kaddish” is central to this project and even, although this sounds odd, to my identity as a hornist. “Veni Emmanuel” is a melody I’ve sung in church a bunch of times. “Kaddish” and the Jewish tradition of midrash are what I’m trying to wrap my brain around, because I find it considerably more rewarding.

“Veni Emmanuel” is nice enough, but the Christian tradition it represents is deeply unsatisfying to me.

I was a mercenary hornist last weekend, playing horn quartets in a nice little suburban Lutheran church. The sermon boiled down to, and I wish I were exaggerating, “Babies and kids are a pain, but try to see God’s love in them; that’s why Jesus came as a baby.”

The day’s gospel according to the Lutheran lectionary? Matthew 1:18–25, which begins with the thorny issue of Mary’s putative virgin pregnancy and continues with that bit about prophecy quoted above. Plenty of material for a meatier sermon, if you ask me. I would hope that an awful lot of churches heard something considerably more substantial than I did.

I’ve been trying ever since to remind myself that the commonplace tragedy of child abuse means that a few families in his church might have really needed to hear Pastor Jon’s message yesterday. If in fact Pastor Jon decided to pitch his sermon to just such a family or several, then I would say it was time well spent by all of us.


I just cannot stop myself from contrasting this with the sermon Reb Deb posted on her blog last week, on human rights. It’s a thoughtful, nuanced consideration of the human rights values upheld by Israel and abuses perpetrated by Israel against its neighbors, and alike of the values and failure to uphold them displayed by the U.S. and many other countries. And by any of us individuals, really. And how human rights are more about human responsibilities, and…

Well, go read it.

Reb Deb is really earning her keep here as the Project Rebbe. If what I heard yesterday was a sermon, this is a graduate-level thesis on one of the most complex geopolitical messes of our times,  including historical perspective and ecumenical compassion.

Her congregation a week ago was wrestling with that, and the congregation at my gig got folksy platitudes about Jesus being a baby so we should try to get over our annoyance with their diapers and see god’s love in babies. And people wonder why I’m a lapsed Lutheran Jew-wannabe!

But now something interesting happens in my Sunday. Mira’s listening notes arrive!

what were you thinking, and is it a different horn or set up?

without giving you my line by line —

it felt stronger, a little hasty at first
zip zip zip like you had somewhere to go
but then settled down and became lyrical. lyrical, strong, confident, with just a few questions in it

and then that echo part — I know you explained why it needs to be there,
but why does it need to be there?

I had the thought (up until that point)
and the thought was for the first time:
“I would listen to this again…”
and then you stumbled…
maybe tripping over my thought

Here’s what happened: “Veni Emmanuel” was the zip zip zip in Mira’s experience of it, and the “Kaddish” taking over is where Mira hears “lyrical, strong, confident.” And it seems to be working well for Mira, except for the echo part—where I had decided to slip a bit more “Veni” in. It didn’t work for either one of us. It didn’t belong.

But the rest of it did—to Mira’s ears, this piece was finally working.


Maybe that’s the point. That for me, the Christian dogma is just too easy, a bit too magical, and ultimately empty. Anyone can trot it out. But I know that the world I live in is complicated, and the smartest people I know can’t figure out what to do about the things that most of us would agree are important. The sermon at Random Lutheran was happy and easy. So was playing “Veni Emmanuel.” Because I know that text, I played it easily, but it was unsatisfying. Easy listening.

The sermon at Deb’s shul last week was difficult listening. Understanding Kaddish as a mourner’s prayer is difficult. And how to play Kogan’s “Kaddish” is also; I’m still trying to figure it out. So are most of the people who have joined our virtual minyan to listen to it, from what I can tell. While it is more difficult for all of us, though, it also feels a lot more worthwhile to me, and I think Mira heard that.

What did you hear?

By erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

2 replies on “gregorian chant, jesus fulfilling prophecy, and easy listening”

A picky point, Erin. This post is dated December 28 so the most recent past Sunday was December 26.

The 4th and last Sunday in Advent was December 18. December 26 was the first Sunday after Christmas.

True, but this post sat in drafts for a week seeking clarity that it never quite found. (Bad post! Lazy post!) I take it I must have missed a couple time references when I was updating it—thanks, will proof again.

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