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The Influence of Hebrew Liturgical Chant on the Music of Porgy and Bess

Updated on June 18, 2015

Jewish Heritage Through Music

Music is an integral and essential aspect of Jewish life. The Hebrew Bible features some of the earliest documented cases of music practices. Some such examples include the Song of the Sea which can be found in Exodus, chapter fifteen, an accounting of the music that would be played in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant which can be found in Second Chronicles, chapter five, and one of the first documented cases of music therapy when David was able to heal Saul's ailment by playing the harp which can be found in First Samuel, chapter sixteen.

Notice how the Song of the Sea is not only a piece of text from the Torah, but is also a concrete poem showing the  Israelites (represented by the middle column) walking through the Red Sea (represented by the columns on the left and right)
Notice how the Song of the Sea is not only a piece of text from the Torah, but is also a concrete poem showing the Israelites (represented by the middle column) walking through the Red Sea (represented by the columns on the left and right) | Source

Ancient Hebrew cantorials also played a role in developing plainchant, or what Pope Gregory I would call Gregorian chant.[1] As the evolution of music progressed, composers such as Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume de Machaut, and Josquin des Prez would further develop Gregorian chant to form masses, motets, and chansons. These composers and their compositions would further lead to what is known today as Western counterpoint and harmony. Given this fact, one could say that the ancient Israelites played an intricate role in the evolutionary process of Western music.

Hebrew Words (Amen and Hallelujah) in Gregorian Chant

However, that is not to say that Jewish music ceases to play a role outside the music of the Church. Throughout history, there are many examples that can be referenced in which Jewish musical figures play an instrumental role in shaping Western music. Lorenzo da Ponte was one such example. As Mozart's librettist, he wrote the text for Don Giovani, The Marriage of Figaro, and Cosi fan Tutte. Another example would include Felix Mendelssohn. Although he was baptized just after birth in the hopes that he would be able to lead a better life as a Christian, he has the distinction of being the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the father of Reform Judaism. Other examples include Gustav Mahler whose Symphony no. 3 was influenced by the Jewish musical style klezmer, William Schuman who won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1943 for his Secular Cantata No. 2: A Free Song, and Aaron Copland who also won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1945 for his ballet, Appalachian Spring.[2]

Portrait of Lorenzo da Ponte
Portrait of Lorenzo da Ponte | Source

Although the influence of Jewish composers in the concert hall was rather evident, Jewish musicians also played a significant role in the development of Broadway musical theater. Among these artists were Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Al Jolson, Marc Blitzstein, and Leonard Bernstein. While all of these men were prolific figures in their own right, the focus of this document will fixate on two first-generation-American Jews named George and Ira Gershwin and the music of their opera, Porgy and Bess. Just as Hebrew liturgy impacted the development of Pope Gregory I's plainchant, so too did Hebrew liturgical chant influence the music of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Jewish Influence on Broadway Music

Musical Style of Porgy and Bess

The music of Porgy and Bess has been described as “a curious and unique amalgam of Broadway parlance and figures suggested by Hebraic and Oriental chants, with a surface sprinkling of Negro or pseudo-Negro jazz, religious, and minstrel-show elements.”[3] It seems that much of the traditional Jewish musical style called klezmer shares many characteristics with jazz. Both styles of music rely on improvisation, minor chromatics such as the lowering of the third, sixth, and seventh scale degrees by a half step, and syncopation, but more specifically the movement of the emphasis of the music to and from the down-beat and the up-beat. Furthermore, the strong emphasis on the clarinet and the cornet are equally important to both styles of music.[4] Because of the strong relationship between klezmer and jazz, it is easy to pass off melodies and harmonies that have been influenced by Hebrew cantorials as jazz, a style of music that at the time was generally thought of as African-American music.

Hebrew liturgical chant also contains within it a tradition of utilizing melisma, “a series of notes sung to a single syllable.”[5] The use of melisma in Hebrew cantorials is also frequently found in the music of African-American spirituals which Gershwin would have heard being sung in the churches in Harlem. The fact that these distinctly Jewish and African-American styles of music share many of the same characteristics is significant in the score for Porgy and Bess because the setting of the story is based on an African-American community in Charleston, South Carolina, called Cabbage Row. The influence of Hebrew cantorials can be found in three musical works within Porgy and Bess which include “Summertime,” “It Take a Long Pull to Get There,” and “It Ain't Necessarily So.”


The Evidence

The first example, “Summertime,” features a long mournful sounding melisma on the first word of the song, summer. The melody for this word has the vocalist sing three notes for the two syllable word. This occurs again later in the song on the phrase “Don't you cry” in which the melody has the vocalist sing two notes each on don't and cry both of which are one syllable words. Gershwin's use of melisma greatly affected the show's African-American cast. Ruby Elzy, the actress that played Selena, was rehearsing the prayer scene one day, and Tod Duncan, the actor who was playing Porgy, who was there listening described Elzy's singing as “the most glorious tones and wails with accompanying amens and hallelujahs for our sick Bess that I ever hope to experience.”[6] At that moment, Gershwin “knew that he had put down on paper accurately and truthfully something from the depth of the soul of a South Carolina Negro woman who feels the need of help and carries her troubles to her God.”[7]


The melody of the second example, “It Take a Long Pull to Get There” bears a striking resemblance to the Hebrew folk tune “Havenu Shalom Aleichem.”[8] One can hear the shared melody in the recurring phrases “It take a long pull to get there,” and the first and third occurrences of the phrase “Havenu shalom aleichem.”

It Take a Long Pull to Get There

Finally, the melody of the third example, “It Ain't Necessarily So,” seems to share the same melody as the blessings recited before the chanting of the Torah during a part of the Monday, Thursday, and Saturday morning services called K'riat HaTorah, or the Torah Service. The shared melody can be heard in the recurring phrase “It ain't necessarily so,” and the phrase “Barchu et Ado[shem] hamvorach.”

Torah Blessings Followed by Miles Davis' Rendition of It Ain't Necessarily So

It has also been suggested that the phrase “It ain't necessarily so” shares the same rhythmic pattern as the phrase “Avinu malkeinu” from the prayer “Avinu Malkeinu,” a prayer recited only on Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Awe, and the Fast of Gedaliah.[9] Although it is true that these two phrases share the same rhythmic pattern, it is very possible that this is coincidence. The rhythmic pattern of six eighth notes followed by a dotted half note spread over two measures in a 6/8 time signature is far from being uniquely characteristic of Hebrew liturgical chant. Despite this, the shared melodies of “It Ain't Necessarily So” and the blessings before the recitation of the Torah cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence.


It is clearly evident that George and Ira Gershwin both relied on their Jewish background for musical material. However, one certainly cannot exclude the fact that the Gershwins utilized other musical elements in the making of Porgy and Bess such as jazz heard in the New York City area and African-American folk music heard in Cabbage Row, South Carolina. This demonstrates the Gershwins' abilities to take elements from several different musical styles and utilize them in the score of Porgy and Bess. Such versatility has garnered them high praise and prestige in the field of music and in the view of the public. They are now listed among the greatest American composers for their work on and off Broadway having been credited for pioneering an innovative style of music composition.

Gershwin Musical Works

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[1] Mark Bonds, “Prologue: Antiquity” in A History of Music in Western Culture (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006), 3-28.

[2] Pulitzer Prize Board, “The Pulitzer Prizes in Music,” Colombia University, (accessed November 12, 2013).

[3] Cesil Smith, Musical Comedy in America, (New York City: Theatre Arts Books, 1950), 284-85.

[4] Gerald Mast, Can’t Help Singin’: The American Musical on Stage and Screen, (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1987), 36-7.

[5] Michael Kennedy and Joyce Kennedy, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, (New York City: Oxford University Press, 2007), 484.

[6] Jill Wright, Creating America on Stage: How Jewish Composers and Lyricists Pioneered American Musical Theater, (Ann Arbor: ProQuest Learning and Information Company, 2003), 117.

[7] Hollis Alpert, The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess: The Story of an American Classic, (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 104.

[8] Stephen Whitfield, In Search of American Jewish Culture, (Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 1999), 63.

[9] Joseph Vass, Gershwin the Klezmer, performed by Michael Paul Levin, Maggie Burton, Bruce Henry, and Prudence Johnson, California State University (CD), 2001.


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    • Malcolm Massiah profile image

      Malcolm Massiah 

      4 years ago from Bristol, England

      A fascinating and interesting hub.


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