margavriel (margavriel) wrote,

The Dayyenu Tune

For some time now, I’ve been wondering what the origin is of the tune for Dayyenu that is now used almost universally. My father once heard a friend say that they had seen in some article that “the Dayyenu tune is over 1,000 years old”, but this is obviously ignorance and folly. The tune sounds quite 20th century – hardly likely – late 19th century. There are a few old recordings of the text being chanted in lern niggen [the tune used for reading the Talmud], like the rest of the Haggada; I grew up with part of the text being chanted in the current tune, and the rest in lern niggen.


For the past few years, Phillip and I have each had a theory about the current tune, though neither of us had seen any evidence, other than “how the tune sounds”. Phillip guessed that the tune was from 1950s Israel, whereas I guessed that it was from 1920s-1930s New York (from the circle of people associated with institutions such as the Educational Alliance). By the late 1950s, one can certainly find many recordings of the tune, from Israel, the United States, and possibly also other countries.


In the past week or so, I have decided to search for more evidence. I remembered the existence of the dissertation The Music of the Passover Seder from Notated Sources (1644-1945) [University of Maryland, 1980]. This dissertation is not available on Proquest, but I knew that there was a copy at the JTS library. Unfortunately, though, the JTS library has been closed for the past week. However, it re-opened today, so I was excited to go to the library and check this out.

I got there today, quickly found the dissertation, and looked up “Dayyenu”. It said that the “common tune” is first found notated by Idelsohn, in his massive Hebräisch-Orientalischer Melodienschatz, volume IX, Der Volkgesang der Osteuropäischen Juden; and that it has been notated in zillions of places since then. (Newhouse’s dissertation focusses mainly on notated sources from before 1945, but she will occasionally make reference to later notated sources, if they parallel earlier sources.) It is clear that in a dissertation from 1980 America, a reference to “the common tune” for Dayyenu must be to the tune which is so familiar today.


This was surprising to me, because I tend to associate Idelsohn with the very early twentieth century, and this tune does not sound like it is from so early. (This is besides the fact that it was interesting to find that it went back to Eastern Europe, rather than Israel or the United States, as Phillip and I, respectively, had guessed.) However, when I went over to the Idelsohn volumes, I realized (and vaguely remembered) that Idelsohn had started out by doing ethnomusicological research in areas such as Iraq and Yemen; he got to the Ashkenazim only later on in his career, such that the volume in question, volume 9, is from 1932.


I opened that volume, and found that, sure enough, he had the tune, and it was identical to how it is commonly sung today. (Often, when one finds the first evidence of a particular tune, it is in a form quite different from the form known today.) On the page, Idelsohn provides no further information about the tune’s origin, and he does not seem to have anything about it in the introduction. And yet –


There was something interesting. As an ethnographer, Idelsohn was careful to transcribe words as they were actually pronounced by his informants. Yet for this tune, unlike for most others in the book, the words are transcribed not in any form of Ashkenazic Hebrew, but in Zionist, Sephardified Hebrew: “Il-lu na-tan la-nu et ha-to-ra, da-ye-nu.”


What could this mean? Presumably, the tune was from Eastern European Zionists. What (little) I know about the music of such people fits with the tune; and in fact, it fits rather well with the guesses made my Phillip and by me – the people who were Zionists in Eastern Europe in the early 1930s were often from the same circles as people who would later be in Israel in the 1950s, and even in New York in the 1920s or 30s. (OK, maybe the people in the Educational Alliance in the 1910s would have been more Bundists than Zionists – I don’t know exactly – but their tastes in music were probably similar.)


So, now we’ve got a hypothesis. It would be interesting to see if there’s any more evidence we can find.


[Incidentally, the refrain is transcribed by Idelsohn as “da da ye nu”, as commonly heard in cantorial recordings from the 1950s and 1960s, and not as “dai dai yenu”, as commonly heard today. This makes sense, too: while there is a dagesh hazaq in the yod, such that the first syllable would be dai, not da, in many pronunciations of Hebrew, Zionist Hebrew would hardly pronounce the word as dai ye nu, but rather as da ye nu. And so, when the first syllable is repeated, this becomes da da ye nu.]

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