Composer Marvin Hamlisch, who died this week, may be the last of the Broadway-Hollywood composers with a Hasidic soul. Hamlisch wasn’t Hasidic of course -- he grew up in a Reform Temple and didn’t appear to be particularly observant.
Neither was his music especially Jewish, though someone apparently once told him that his score to The Swimmer had a Jewish sound (I don’t hear it) and he did help Barbra Streisand record Avinu Malkeinu. But at its core, Hamlisch’s search for the perfect melody calls up the emotional and connective power of a good tune that the Hasidic tradition knows so much about.
At a family wedding recently, my husband and son had the honor of joining the groom’s tisch, or informal reception before the ceremony. A tisch is often accompanied by wordless melodies, as the groom’s male family and friends sing along and toast the groom’s upcoming journey. As I understand it, it was at the tisch, accompanied by the simplicity of Hasidic-inspired nigun melodies (wordless tunes), that some of the most moving tributes to the groom were given over the course of the wedding weekend. The unbeatable rhythms of Michael Jackson, the Black Eyed Peas, and Cee Lo Green awaited the guests on the dance floor. But it was the simple nigunim at the groom’s tisch that set the stage for the meeting of two beautiful souls later that evening.
In reflecting on his career, Hamlisch himself said, “I just hope people connect me somehow with music that had a kind of integrity, and that was melodic.”
My generation was raised on the search for a good beat. But no one can deny how haunting Hamlisch’s songs are, even for the 70s rock and 80s pop generation. It’s hard not to be enveloped by the strains of “Nobody Does it Better,” “What I Did For Love,” or “The Way We Were.”
Consider the opening bars of Barbra Streisand’s delivery of that striking ballad. As listeners will no doubt recall, Streisand opens “The Way We Were” by doing something unusual: before singing the opening verse, she hums the first few phrases. It’s as if to remind us of the power of a simple and beautiful melody, allowing us a few moments to meditate on aspirations and regret.
Not all of Hamlisch’s songs were as searingly simple as that one, though. I recall one high-intensity day at summer camp as a thirteen year-old trying to master the song “Nothing,” with Hebrew words written hastily for a performance of an all-Hebrew A Chorus Line later that night. It wasn’t a simple song, but it was still moving and memorable, the music itself managing to capture the anxiety of an aspiring stage actor.
Hamlisch taught us that beauty can be discovered if we shut our eyes and listen closely. In a fascinating minute towards the end of a half-hour interview on Shalom TV in October 2011, Hamlisch explains the genesis of the ballad “The Way We Were.”
Hamlisch had been asked to visit a college campus for the opening scenes of the film. Hamlisch recalls hearing bells chiming each hour. Returning to his home, he found himself imitating the bell tones on the piano. From the bells came additional chords and harmonies, and then higher notes for the melody. From a single chime came the song that’s formed the soundtrack to a generation or more. Through that, we are reminded of the power of listening to the everyday.
Maybe this is why Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi famously said that while words may be the pen of the heart, song is the pen of the soul.
It is of course true that words can be heartfelt and humane. But in the often polarized societies we live in, words too often fail us, as we chase each other to the edges of civil discourse.
What if we curbed the viciousness with which we verbally cut down our opponents? What if we separately and together searched for the melody more often? What if we sometimes sang together, putting aside the worry that we may not know the words?
Hamlisch chased that most precious atmospheric commodity: a gorgeously hummable song. And our souls are the richer for those he offered to us.
Follow Mira Sucharov on Twitter @sucharov
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