On April 2, The Washington Post reported that a French musical authority, Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, has theorized that certain accent signs inserted into Hebrew scriptures in the eighth and ninth centuries could be interpreted as musical notations, indicating how the texts should be sung. In an edited commentary, Washington musicologist Herman Berlinski disputes her interpretation of these signs in the Masoretic Bible, as it is known.
The history of musical notation is so complex that the average layman trying to understand it will throw up his hands in despair.
The Hebrew Masoretic notational system, which Vantoura claims to have deciphered, presents additional difficulties. Unlike other notational systems, it has never matured into a full-fledged, exact musical notation. Consequently, our musical understanding of these signs is based on tradition, and not on well-documented musicological facts.
However, facts and documents are the only valid analytical tools of a true musiocologist. The rest is fantasy and speculation. Vantoura has not and could not have produced a single document that could have served as a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the Hebrew marks in the Masoretic Bible, which she claims to have done. Such doucments simply do not exist and Vantoura herself admits this in her book, "La Musique de la Bible revelee" (The Bible's Music Revealed).
Vantoura has done a great deal of research but it is not accidental that in her book she has studiously avoided the work of all the great accentuologists and works of Jewish scholars such as: Alfred Sendrey's "Music of Old Israel," Eric Werner's: "The Sacred Bridge," and Salomon Rosowsky's "The Cantillation of the Bible."
Vantoura approaches the problem at hand in a typically western fashion. The Masoretic system upon which her claims are based, orginated in the Middle East, a region already dominated by Islamic culture. The Islamic religion, however, did not develop a specified sacred music idiom.
In such a surrounding, the rabbis of the Masorah wanted to preserve whatever cantillatory [chanting] tradion may have existed in their time, as well as all other grammatical and acentual considerations pertaining to the Hebrew text of the Bible. They left behind a compendium that goes into great detail about the grammatical principles of their notation, but never mentions anything about their musical importance. That was exclusively the domain of the cantillator [torah chanter -- a role now often assigned to bat or bar mitzvah young people] or Hazzan, who interpreted the signs according to the many diverse geographical traditions, evolved over the centuries after the destruction of the temple. Not one of these traditions can be claimed as authentically Bibical, as Vantoura does.
A few 19th century German musicological crackpots have worked on theories similar to the ones explored by Mme. Vantoura. The music they found hovers between pious Protestant chorales and second-rate Mendelssohn. They are now part of what is called "musical curiosi" and Mme. Vantoura's "recreations" will soon join them.
Vantoura also claims that the members of the Masorah who worked for more than two generations did not know and understand the ultimate meaning of the signs they entered into the Biblical text. These signs, she insists, existed already in Biblilical tomes and yet she offers no evidence in her book for such a claim, nor can she point to a single notational document that has surfaced in the 900 years between the destruction of the Temple and the work of the Masorah.
Her key is purely the product of her own imagination. But even within the system she has developed, there are some inconsistencies. Under her system, for example, the most lyrical passages of the Bible would be sung to the same music as the genealogical charts of Noah's descendants.