Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: A. Hadas

The Music of Dialogue

From Chant to Polyphony: An Esthetic Reflection on Encountering the Other 

In his account of the relationship between the self and the other, Emmanuel Levinas describes the mode of discourse as one that respects the uniqueness of the two parties involved: “As non-violence, it [the encounter] nonetheless maintains the plurality of the same and the other. It is peace.”1

Dialogue has too often been misquoted in contexts of rhetorical persuasion or dismissed with polite nods of indifference. Yet, the virtues of tolerance or of solid convictions, although certainly laudable in other contexts, hardly contribute to the fruitfulness of dialogue. Indeed, the “tolerant” partner, who “accepts” his interlocutor’s opposing views without necessarily changing his position, is no different from the “intolerant” one, who remains firm in his convictions, whatever the argumentation. In both cases, there is no true exchange, just an accidental overlap of views; there is no cohesion, indeed, no dialogue. This type of “dialogue” is monophonic in essence. The voices involved either silenced each other or let the other one ring unanswered. In any case, the result is monophonic: only one voice is heard.

And, indeed, there is a certain charm to monophony. The virtues of Gregorian chant are being acknowledged today with renewed interest. The beauty of these lone voices and their solid unity rings true in our crowded, hectic, and fragmented daily lives. Indeed, monophony is somewhat reassuring. There are no conflicting voices. Diversity is minimized; order and discipline are maximized. The absence of dialogue is an attractive notion and is often adopted as a protective stance, in an instinct of self-preservation. It is better to maintain what one has than put it up for debate, knowing that one might well lose it all. Yet, it is precisely this fear of diversity that was the root cause of the short-livedness of monophony. Indeed, the chant was short-lived because there was no room for growth. A melody can be spun to a certain point, but it has its limitations. One can hence safely say that polyphony “grew” out of monophony. It is the introduction in music of harmony, of chords, that led to its development. It is the chords of a piece that carry the melody to heretofore unattainable heights. It is the harmonic progression of a piece that assures its growth, hence its viability. Polyphony, or the dialogue between different voices, holds the keys to life. Without it, the lone voice is destined to die as it falls from the lips that uttered it. In polyphony (and we think specifically of chamber music), that voice is answered by the others; it is even further developed by the others. Musical dialogue follows certain guidelines that may be extrapolated to any type of dialogue: the two voices maintain their uniqueness, yet they harmonize, they agree, and they form a cohesive whole. Further, the intermingling of the two voices assures a progression, a development, and a dynamism that characterizes life itself and would be impossible to attain with one voice alone.

Musical Sketches

For there to be fruitful musical dialogue, all voices must be heard, and all voices must tell their own story. Were all the voices to tell the same story, we would fall back into the monotony of chanting; they would sing in unison. This is what Levinas meant in the opening paragraph of his description of dialogue as that which “maintains the plurality of the same and the other." 2 Indeed, the specificity of the parties must be preserved for there to be genuine dialogue. In Judeo-Christian dialogue, both voices must be heard. One cannot “convert” the other into itself; one cannot speak for the other. And yet, this must not lead to cacophony; the two voices must somehow “blend.”

The Composition

Indeed, the cohesion of the voices necessitates a common ground. Musically, this is achieved by thematic means. Indeed, the theme is what unites the different voices, which either incorporate or develop it. For example, in Borodin’s quartet number 2, the cello introduces the theme. This theme is then incorporated into the other voices differently. Likewise, in fruitful dialogue, the parties involved need not express the issue in the exact same terms. Indeed, each party incorporates the “theme” differently. Each gives the theme a slightly different ring, but it is still the same theme. Judeo-Christian dialogue might benefit from a search of the common themes and go from there. Of course, the quest for common themes necessitates that one learn from the other. In order to find the common elements between Judaism and Christianity, one must have in-depth knowledge of both. True dialogue occurs only between partners who know each other.

Polyphony as a Life Form

The theme lives through the voices that carry it. In musical dialogue, the theme is constantly reformulated and developed. Through dialogue, the truths of both Judaism and Christianity can see themselves developed and enriched by each other. Were the two faiths to attempt a dialogue, the themes they treasured would stop sounding like stern plain-chant and swell into the textured and colorful polyphony of life.

1 Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Dordrecht; Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), 203.

2 Ibid.


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