Born on July 24th, 1932, in Algiers among a family of musicians – his father Charles was director of a music school – Jean-Claude Sillamy is since his youngest age acquainted with all the works of the great composers.

At the age of nine, he conducts a small symphonic orchestra. Student, aged of 10, in an advanced class of solfeggio in Algiers’ music conservatory, he starts to study harmony and receives a first prize award for music composition with a work for string quartet.

Later on, interested by this young and talented musician, a patron gives him the means of continuing his studies in Paris. This is how he enters the National Music School of Paris, in the counterpoint and fugue class led by Noël Gallon.
In parallel, he works during three years in the École Normale de Musique de Paris, under the direction of Alice Pelliot, former teacher of Darius Milhaud and Arthur Honegger. He works also on harmony and choral singing at the Gregorian Institute under the direction of Edouard Souberbielle.

At the same time, he finishes his university studies (he is graduate of university, in psychology), and starts visiting the Jewish spheres, in particular Gilbert-Bloch d’Orsay school. Very interested by this Jewish studies center, he starts to develop biblical studies. What impresses most Jean-Claude Sillamy, are the traditional chants performed by Jewish students originary from various communities : North Africa, Eastern and Central Europe, Asia...

His curiosity is attracted by those strange signs above the biblical text. He has the feeling it is an old musical notation, allowing to restitute this music from Antiquity that was supposed to be forever lost. He suspects that these traditional chants are noted, black on white in antique musical signs, above or under the text of the Bible. This discovery shocks him. The Bible would thus be a sung and noted document? One would just decipher and perform these hieroglyphs, called in Hebrew « Taamim » (Taam in singular).

His career of musicologist starts here. In order to know better the working methods, he registers to the Paris Musicology Institute and works under the direction of his distinguished master Jacques Chailley. To show the filiation of Gregorian chanting to Hebrew chanting, he works in collaboration and under the direction of Solange Corbin, at the Institut des Hautes Études, in La Sorbonne. It’s in that period that he will do comparative charts between latin Neumes and Hebrew Taamim. He is accepted in the Société Française and the Société Internationale de Musicologie.

Equipped with a tape recorder, he goes to several countries, recording liturgical chants of many Jewish communities, sung following the Taamim. He will spend several years doing this work of studying his recordings. The tapes are deposited at the Phonothèque Nationale de Paris, as well as in Jerusalem’s University, in the musicology department, led then by Israel Adler.

Comparing the melodies, in order to find the original melody, he formulates the theory that the precise scales are at the start of the many melodies. He rolls up step by step the history of the music of the Hebew people, enlighted by the data from the Bible, visiting the greatest museums in order to find the ancient instruments which served to perform such a music, that the Bible says it was « tender and soft ».

Relying on the facts of history, musicology, archeology, notarikon, gematria, astronomy, acoustics, measuring the musical gaps in collaboration with the physician J. Sayag, rebuilding the instruments of the Antique period, he achieves to discover the music scales used for the reconstruction of the Hebrew melodies.

The study of the Hebrew Taamim reveals to him a musical technique extremely elaborated in the time of the first Kings of Israel, which consists in establishing a musical scale in function and from another. If the first scale is austere and diatonic, the second, built from the first, is chromatic and colored. Severe laws would thus be at the head of the birth of fundamental and complementary music scales.
Following this theory, those various musical scales : diatonic, chromatic, enharmonic, when coming from a same fundamental scale, have the possibility of matching together, which allows a surprising polyphony that we find still today in archaic Jewish communities in Yemen or Tunisia (Djerba).

Thus, opposed to the spread opinion which brings the birth of polyphony with Middle-Ages great cathedrals, Jean-Claude Sillamy comes to the conclusion that polyphony is largely used in the Great Temple of Jerusalem, in particular at the time of King David. That harmony is totally different of our Western harmony, based on thirds and the function : tense-rest – domining-tonic. Jean-Claude Sillamy therefore researched that harmony, doing abstraction of all knowledge learned in the Music Conservatory.

For him, all the music of the world, and moreover non-tempered music, possess virtually in themselves their proper harmonies. Trying to find back this musical and harmonical language from the Antiquity, adapting it to our Western tempered system, Jean-Claude Sillamy composes an original music.
This music, result of one composer, cannot enter any known traditional framework : serial music (Schönberg), concrete music (Pierre Schaeffer) ... It breaks with desagregation, burst of the melody, to revalorize « the cantilena », the singing, this immortal expression of the human soul.

From this work, Jean-Claude Sillamy dedicated himself to give a new rise and new expression to Jewish singing. He publishes several books and studies dedicated to Jewish music (Essai de reconstitution de la musique de la Bible, 1957 ; La musique dans l’ancien Orient (2 tomes), 1986 ; La musique des communautés juives d’Afrique du Nord, 1987 ; une étude sur Le principe de la modulation dans le fragment babylonien d’Ur : U.7/80 (XVIIIème siècle av. J.C.) (from a non-identified instrument of the time : the « gis za mi »)).

Surrounded by his loved ones, he passes away on July 29, 2016 in Ajaccio.

His archives, given to the European Institute for Jewish Music in November 2016 by his widow Lina Sillamy, gather around 80 documents (discs, field recordings, articles, books, photos…) unfindable for most of them.

Read the article about the Sillamy collection
Browse documents from the Sillamy collection

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