The Timeless Melody Kol Nidrei

By Hayley Kobilinsky

How many Jewish holidays (or, for that matter, any religion’s holidays) can you name which are referred to by one prayer? Not many, I can assure you. Even though Kol Nidre is only once segment of the evening service, which is only the beginning of the Yom Kippur observance, we don’t call the evening service “Erev Yom Kippur,” like we do for others; we refer to the entire evening service as “Kol Nidre.” Surely such an example must indicate the importance of that piece of liturgy. Is the topic of annulling vows one is unable to fulfill, however, the most important part of Yom Kippur? Isn’t there some prayer on the topic of self-reflection or repentance which would be better suited to such an honor? Perhaps there is, but I must point out that while the text, oftentimes controversial, is meaningful and can be woven into so many sermons, it was not merely the text of Kol Nidre which has solely earned it longevity. It is equally, if not more so, due to the melody.

The haunting melody of the Kol Nidre… It is mysterious, somber and prayerful, both beautiful and mournful at the same time. On the night that begins the 25-hour-long repentance-fest (and fast) of Yom Kippur, one hears the Kol Nidre chanted three times and imagines it is designed to remind us of how sorry we are for our shortcomings. As the Torah scrolls are held in full view of the standing congregation, the melody dips, sinks, then returns. It gains momentum and creates suspense only to resolve to a temporary resting place. Then the words are embellished again and again with runs and arpeggios. Just when the congregation thinks the prayer has concluded, it begins again. And again. Kol Nidre’s musical themes seem at times ancient, hence its inclusion as one of the central “Misinai Tunes” (melodies which seem so old, authentic, and universal they are attributed to having been given along with the tablets at Mount Sinai). The themes are also so different from each other that at times the prayer seems mercurial. Nonetheless, the melody has persisted through the years, even when Jews were persecuted for a misconception of its text. At one time, the words were removed from the Yom Kippur liturgy, but the melody was too meaningful to lose, thus new text was paired to the Kol Nidre melody! Despite the evolution of Jewish music and the growing popularity of contemporary settings of liturgy, the Kol Nidre melody was never deemed too “old-fashioned” to alter for the synagogue service (although there are certainly variations to how each cantor sings it). There is an intangible, lasting power to the Kol Nidre, and that power does not emanate from its text, but rather its melody.

The custom to chant the full prayer three times helps increase suspense, but also provides an opportunity to make each repetition different and more intense. In the following example, the first appearance of the well-known opening melody is performed by a cello (LISTEN). Max Bruch notably set the melody of the Kol Nidre (and expanded upon it) for cello, which is echoed in the above example, by Herbert Fromm, arranged by Samuel Adler. True, the words aren’t spoken aloud, but the meditative nature of listening to the plaintive tones of the instrument allow for a unique time during which congregants can recite the words themselves or think about their meaning. Next, the cantor begins to chant the words to the same melody (LISTEN). Note that the key of this reiteration has risen by a full step. The modulation, getting higher and higher, contributes to the drama. The cantor is now accompanied by organ and a small choir. Finally, the third, and final time, the key has raised again by a full step (LISTEN). The organ accompaniment has become more complex and has introduced an element of dissonance, such that it seems at times as though an unpleasant sound has been added. The cello is also layered on top, and as the piece continues to its conclusion (not included here), the choir returns, larger and louder than before.

It would take a minimum of a 12-part “10 Minutes” article to do justice to the Kol Nidre. There are full-length books written on the topic! (Read an earlier article by Marsha Bryan Edelman, a professor of music, on the topic of the Kol Nidre chant). There is even a documentary film: 18 Voices Sing Kol Nidre. The film, which has aired on PBS, is not merely a video of person after person singing, but discussing different aspects pertaining to Kol Nidre: how it changed someone’s life, how it was used to discriminate against Jews, its musical ancestry, how modern artists have adapted and adopted it, and so on. To compose a definitive article about Kol Nidre which could be absorbed in 10 minutes is folly. (If it takes longer than 10 minutes to merely chant the Kol Nidre in your synagogue service this Yom Kippur, I would not be surprised.) Thus this article is limited to a small fragment of intriguing information.

The popular culture world tends to reference Judaism through music, and the Kol Nidre is no exception. In fact, the first “talkie,” that is, a movie with a synced soundtrack, included the chanting of the Kol Nidre. In The Jazz Singer, Al Jolson performed as the congregation was shown to be deeply moved. Neil Diamond reprised the role in the remake, which even included the repetitions of the prayer. The Jazz Singer’s use of Kol Nidre is particularly notable because the main character had chosen to perform secular music over religious, but symbolically returns to his roots just in time for the Kol Nidre. If one is so moved, one can hear Kol Nidre sung by Johnny MathisJerry LewisPerry Como, or a psychedelic rock version from 1968 by the Electric Prunes (The Electric Prunes’ version might not be a particularly literal one).

Interestingly, the Sephardic world uses entirely different melodies for the Kol Nidre, unrelated to the Ashkenazic melody described above. It is one of the ways ethnomusicologists can determine that although the melody is old, it does not likely pre-date the Babylonian exile, otherwise there would likely be remnants of the Ashkenazic chant in some communities.

The Kol Nidre text may be obtuse, but there is no question the melody has a deeper emotional connection to the holiday. It is our entrance to a different plane of consciousness. Listening to the melody, repeated again and again, assists us in taking a critical view of ourselves and our performance over the past year. We can extend beyond the text and think about the bigger picture. Of course, my voice is merely one. What does the Kol Nidre melody do for you?

Source: Fromm, H./arr. Adler, S. Kol Nidre. From Yamim Noraim Highlights – Days of Awe. Soloist: Cantor Howard Stahl. Transcontinental Music Publications, 1995. Track 13.

Hayley Kobilinsky has been the Cantor of Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk for eight years, and has been an adjunct faculty member of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music for two years. She is the president of Kol Hazzanim – Westchester’s Community of Cantors.

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