Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo by Tala Jarjour – Heleen Murre-van den Berg

By Heleen Murre-van den Berg Professor of Global Christianity, director Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (hlmvandenberg.me)

When I came across the announcement of Tala Jarjour’s study of the chanting in Saint George’s parish of the Syriac Orthodox in Aleppo, I hoped that it would provide me with the tools to better understand Syriac Orthodox ecclesiastical music. I had been listening – in churches and monasteries as well as via YouTube – to this music for a long time, and sensed that though I had grown to like it, even being able to hum along with some of the most common tunes – that I did not really understand what was going on. In the meantime, in addition to listening, reading and asking, I had also taken up learning to play the oud, in trying to experientially learn what ‘Arabic’ music entails. Despite my growing knowledge of the sounds and intricacies of the maqamat – the specific modes (to be compared to ‘major’ and ‘minor’ in Western musical scales) that characterize this music and which include a generous use of micro- and quartertones, I still found it difficult to hear and describe what was so different about it.

Sense and Sadness by Tala Jarjour

Tala Jarjour’s book is based on extensive fieldwork in a particular Syriac Orthodox congregation in Aleppo. Before the war this community was well known for its beautiful and characteristic singing. More than some of the other Syriac Orthodox or Suryani congregations in Syria and Lebanon, the Suryani from Urfa, living together in one neighborhood in Aleppo, succeeded in maintaining the distinct chanting traditions as they had developed over centuries in Edessa – ancient name of their Anatolian city which they collective left in the aftermath of the genocide of 1915.

It is these local variations of the Syriac Orthodox ritual chanting that Tala Jarjour went on to study in the years before the war in Syria started. She focuses her analysis of the week of the Passion, ḥasho in Syriac, during which the specific Edessan, ‘Rahawi’ way of chanting is most prominent – both as to the specific modes that are used and as to the way in which these chants are perceived as being characteristic for this particular community – by its members as well as outside observers. Jarjour’s discussion of these distinct chants, of their traditional forms and of the contemporary choir practice that has evolved around it, provides a timely description of a so far little understood musical practice in which both the actual chants with it melodic and modal characteristics, as well as its distinct Sitz im Leben is described in detail. Her narration in the monograph is complemented by recordings and musical transcriptions to be accessed via the website accompanying the book.

What Jarjour offers, however, is far more than a musicological description of the chants and the practices characterizing their performance. She adds a layer of interpretation by situating these distinct Urfalli chants in the self-understanding of a community that sees its music as an essential element of its Aramaic Edessan heritage, reaching back to the early phases of Christianity in the region, predating Islam. In an intricate back and forth throughout the book, Jarjour connects the various elements of the liturgy of the Passion week with crucial elements of this self-understanding of an embattled and marginalized community, focusing on the emotions that are expressed through the aesthetics of the chants. She thus reconstructs the ‘emotional economy of aesthetics’, showing convincingly how ‘sadness’ – the central element of the passion week, is performed by various actors, in various ways, throughout the week, in distinct melodies that nevertheless form a densely connected whole.

Her description of the community’s musical practice also brings out the complex hierarchical relations in the community, in which the embodied knowledge of the liturgy and the chants constitutes a crucial element. This mostly concerns the deacons, whose role is defined by their singing, and whose status therefore hinges on their knowledge of it. In a different way this is also true for the archbishop of Aleppo, Yuhanna Ibrahim of Aleppo was abducted early in the war (in April 2013), and has not been heard of since. The bishop, not being from Urfa himself, was generally admired for his leadership and knowledge of the tradition, but at the same time the Urfalli reminded each other and the researcher of the fact that he is not quite up to the intricacies of the particular performance practice of their community. At the other end of the spectrum is a woman who, despite not being a full deacon (women are ordained only at the lowest order of deacons), is considered one of the most knowledgeable in the community about the typically Urfalli singing. Jarjour subtly shows how Farida is allowed to teach and perform like a high ranking deacon while restricted time and again to what is considered proper for a woman.

@MvdB, Passion week in St Mark’s, Jerusalem

As important in Saint George’s musical practice and power dynamics is the role of mixed choir which over the years in which Jarjour participated in the community asserted its place in liturgical practice even more strongly. The choir directors developed new practices that innovated the performance of typical melodies and which significantly enlarged the role of the choir – appropriating chants that traditionally were sung by the male deacons. While on the one hand this led to a much stronger lay and female participation in the execution of the liturgy (also because the choir directors were often chosen and paid for by the lay council of the church) these new chanting practices tended to set the choir apart from the congregation – performing for the congregation rather than singing with the congregation.

The most important contribution of this study, however, lies in the fact that Jarjour gradually makes clear that understanding these musical practices is much less about modes and melodies (although she provides us with recordings and transcriptions that help to understand its characteristics), but about understanding how the emotions that are being expressed by this music in a ritualized and scripted way, are connected to how the chants are performed, when, and by whom. It is the link between this emotional economy and the specific aesthetics of the chants, that matters, and which only can be grasped by participating, listening and singing. In this way, although the aesthetics of the Urfalli Suryani of Aleppo are strikingly different from many other religious communities, Jarjour’s analysis will contribute to understand musical practices in other religious communities – music which never is just about specific melodies or specific modes. Like with the Suryani of Aleppo, such music so often is carefully scripted and rehearsed and precisely therefore eagerly anticipated and higly valued. It is these familiar and unique chants that allow every member of the congregation to fully participate in the ritualized sadness that characterizes the week of the passion.

Meanwhile, the war in Syria has silenced the Urfalli chants in Aleppo because most members of the congregation have fled the area. They have started new lives elsewhere, with some finding opportunities to continue their singing, some in the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, some in the churches of the Syriac Orthodox diaspora in Europe, Canada and the United States.

12 November 2018

Heleen Murre-van den Berg is Professor of Global Christianity and director of the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies (Instituut voor Oosters Christendom) at the Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands. You can follow Heleen Murre-van den Berg on her personal blog hlmvandenberg.me.

The Radboud University, Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies in cooperation with the Institute of Eastern Christian Studies last year started the project Rewriting Global Orthodoxy.