Music in the Synagogue

    May 2008            
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The Choir in Jewish History

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

King David is credited with establishing the first Israelite orchestra and choir, with the purpose of enhancing the spiritual mood of sacred services. Most of the musicians and singers David employed came from the tribe of Levi. As we read in I Chronicles 15: "David told the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brothers as singers to sing joyful songs, accompanied by musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals, joyfully making their voices heard."

The Mishnah (Ar. 2:6) states that, in Jerusalem's Second Temple, "There were never fewer than twelve Levites standing on the platform [as a choir] but there was no limit on the maximum number of singers." The singing of the Levitical choir was a constant accessory to the sacrificial ritual.

Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Rabbis abolished the sacrificial rite and its accompanying instrumental and vocal music. So, even as most other elements central to the Jewish tradition survived the destruction, the Levites refused to divulge their "trade secrets," and their musical culture was lost.

Still, the Jews longed for the elevating sounds of the choir. Even Maimonides, the great twelfth-century Jewish philosopher, permitted the choir to sing God's praise in the synagogue and at all religious feasts. In the Middle Ages, some Ashkenazi services included two singers who stood with the cantor, providing musical support. For the most part, the singers would hum chords or pedal points, rhythmic accompaniments, and other harmony lines.

Professional synagogue choirs were established as early as the sixteenth century, following the artistic model of the European churches. Choirs of six to eight members would sing prayers like "Aleinu," "Ein Keloheinu," and "Adon Olam." Not surprisingly, there were some who objected to this practice; but Solomon Hazzan of Metz, in his manual for cantors, argued that, "just as it is impossible for the earth to exist without wind," a cantor cannot exist without choristers.

Among the few synagogue choral composers of this period, the most celebrated was Salamone Rossi (1570-1630), court composer to the dukes of Mantua. Rossi published a collection of thirty-three Jewish motets, displaying the beauty and elegance of the late Italian Renaissance. But, it was not until the nineteenth century, with the emancipation and enlightenment of European Jewry, that choral singing became a regular feature of the synagogue.

The early Reform movement abolished the office of the cantor, giving musical responsibilities to choirs of men and women, who sang with an organ in the manner of a Lutheran service. Before long, a more moderate reform took hold, and synagogue musicians such as Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890) and Louis Lewandowski (1823-1894) composed music and conducted four-part choirs that complemented the cantors' solos. The nineteenth century also witnessed the creation of male a cappella choirs in Orthodox synagogues, following the example of modern German Orthodox leader, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), who introduced a professional choir in Frankfurt.

The first synagogue choir in the United States was organized in 1818, at New York's Congregation Shearith Israel. In 1897, the Reform movement published its first Union Hymnal, comprising 129 hymns for four-part choir. Though its musical style was virtually indistinguishable from Protestant hymns, the Union Hymnal sparked the enthusiastic development of synagogue choral music in America, which reached its highpoint in the mid-twentieth century, with composers like Max Helfman, Max Janowski, Samuel Adler, A. W. Binder, Herbert Fromm, and William Sharlin.

Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor at Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, NV, and co-editor of the book, Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Identity (Paragon House, 2008).


from theMay 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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