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An Aborted Renaissance

by Samuel Adler, PhD.

The following is a speech given by Samuel Adler  at a Conference on the Future of Jewish Music in Potsdam, Germany.

It was almost 90 years ago in 1921 when my father Hugo Chaim Adler took a position as second cantor at the Hauptsynagoge in Mannheim, Germany. He had graduated from the Seminary in Köln and the Hochschule für Musik in that city also and was ready to change the world. What did that mean?  Well, it meant to challenge the existing musical atmosphere in his new position. First of all he was the second cantor and it would be 10 years before he became the Oberkantor. Second, I guess he was too young and foolish to realize that the congregation, the board, as well as the rest of the clergy thought that the music being used in their Service was certainly from Sinai and under no circumstances could be altered.

Not caring about his position nor the firm convictions about music expressed to him on numerous occasions by his superiors, my father set about to change harmonies, alter recitatives as well as choral settings of the existing music. After his second season, the board warned him never to change another note or face the prospect of having to look for another position without ever obtaining a recommendation from the board of the Mannheim Liberal Gemeinde. Well, here he did the wisest thing in his young life, he decided to marry my mother whose father was a high ranking member of the board of the Gemeinde and after all who would dare fire a canter whose father-in-law occupied such a lofty position. Nevertheless, my grandfather begged him to lie low for a bit and just leave the music alone until he was better established. This was sage advice, for my father in the 20s began to formulate a new kind of cantata he called ‘Lehrkantate’ and began working on several of them. In 1930, two years after I was born he had his first great success with a work called LICHT UND VOLK, a cantata for Chanukah with a text by his senior rabbi Max Gruenewald. – Suddenly he became a force with which to recon since the work was a huge success with repeat performances all over Germany. The board nor his musical colleagues suddenly stopped complaining about his doctoring of Misinai tunes or harmonies and considered what he was doing at least tolerable.

Why would I tell this story when we are discussing the Renaissance which was happening in the United States in Jewish Music? The reason being is that when we arrived in New York in January of 1939 the atmosphere which greeted my father was the exact opposite he encountered upon his arrival in Mannheim only about 18 years earlier.

One week after we arrived, my father received a call from Cantor David Putterman, and Cantors Katchko and Rudinov, three of the most prominent cantors in the US at that time, asking him to arrange works for them and commissioning him to write new works for Park Avenue Synagogue, Anshe Chesed and Temple Emanu-El all in New York. He was shocked to say the least. Here was a climate fertile for new music for the Synagogue with cantors, and perhaps congregations eager to try new sounds, perhaps sounds of their own day and with concerns about expert treatments of traditional material.  A year later a new prayer book was to appear for the Reform Synagogue in America which contained prayers not previously contained.  The Central Conference of American Rabbis sponsored a competition for new settings of these Psalms and my father won and wrote a work entitled MUSIC FOR THE SYNAGOGUE.

Here I need to stop my somewhat personal saga and reexamine with you why this atmosphere was so different from the one prevailing in Germany after the revolution there which started with Sulzer and Lewandowsky and then settled into a comfortable imitative even though prolific period until the destruction of European Jewry during the Nazi Period.

In America, after the first two waves of immigration, the European traditions were judiciously observed. The Spanish-Portuguese, tradition as well as the German musical tradition was carefully maintained through efforts of the Rabbis as well as the few musicians such as Schlesinger and others. They published musical services which upheld these traditions carefully, especially the melodic material. In the Orthodox world this was of course also prevalent. Then in the early part of the 20th century a few native born composers started to appear on the scene. The most important one of these was surely A. W. Binder who set about to write music for the Reform and Conservative movements which was new and very expertly crafted. Certainly one of his most important contributions was the 1940 Union Hymnal which contained many tunes from the tradition newly harmonized plus many tunes Binder commissioned from such people as Heinrich Schalit, Joseph Achron and many others who had come to this country during the 20s and 30s. Binder also was concerned about making the Haftarah Trop available in a rather simplified form for the sudden ‘new’ practice of Bar Mitzvah and later Bat Mitzvah in the Reform ritual, therefore he published a book on the subject. Further, he wrote music for every possible occasion of the Jewish year.   While there were a few others who also contributed to this first burst of the Renaissance, Binder I think was the pioneer. One more name needs to be mentioned in this early push towards a “NEW” music in the Synagogue and that is Lazare Saminsky, the long time music director of Temple Emanu-El in NY. Saminsky was a member of the St. Petersburg Group, a group of composers all students of Rimsky-Korsakoff, who encouraged his Jewish students to explore their heritage. When Saminsky came to the U.S. he set about to bring to the attention of the music world some lost ‘jewels’ of ‘ancient’ music and, of course, to compose new works for his Congregation.

Up to this point in the development of music for the Synagogue in America there was only one publisher of renown who published some sacred music besides being mainly in the book publishing business and that was Bloch Publishing. They were not primarily interested in music so they really did not promote that part of their business. In the early thirties, a man immigrated to America who had been the CEO of a large German publishing house called Benjamin Verlag. His name was Joseph Freudenthal. He used his own resources to lunch a venture to publish the music of the composers writing new music for the Jewish Service. Freudenthal was a very experienced music publisher and also a very good business man. He really ‘made’ all the composers coming over to the US from Europe and some who were already in the US. He founded Transcontinental Music Publication and was greatly responsible for spreading the spirit of new service music throughout the country.

Now, who were these men and women, and what were their main concerns?

1.  They were all very well trained as composers

2.   They had all written successful secular music besides entering the sacred music field.

3.  They were all excellent pianists who could perform their own works and some of them were also organists active in Temple work themselves.

4.  There were some excellent composers whose names I will only mention who made their reputation in the general music field but also contributed some significant works to the synagogue repertoire such as Hugo Weisgall, Miriam Gideon, Lukas Foss, Leonard Bernstein, Frederick Jacoby, Judith Zaimont, Jacob Druckman, Yehudi Wyner Robert Starer and so many others. Here I need to mention the name of David Putterman again. He, as cantor in one of the most prestigious congregations in New York, the Park Avenue Synagogue started a commissioning scheme in the ‘30s that continued for many years. His aim was to convince every known composer in America whether Jewish or not to write works for the Synagogue. If not every composer complied a great many did and he was about to publish a huge anthology of individual works by some of the best known composers of that time as well as performing every year new complete Services by many of the finest composers in America.

The men who worked in the trenches, meaning that they served as music directors and organists in actual Temples, and really spearheaded this Renaissance were, Isadore Freed, Herbert Fromm, Heinrich Schalit, Hugo Adler, Herman Berlinsky, Julius Chajes, Frederick Pickett, and Max Janowsky. If I may I will also mention Lazare Weiner who was especially successful in writing fantastic arrangements of Yiddish Songs, but also wrote some music for the Service since he served as music director of Central Synagogue in NY.

What concerned these men?

1.  Traditional Jewish chant just like Gregorian Chant was homophonic how do we handle accompaniment of chants and also how do we harmonize traditional as well as new Jewish material.

2.  What is the role of the choir that sings significant parts in the liturgy and are no longer surrounding the cantor on the Bima?

3.  How does one handle the different modes and the Steigers in a new way?

4.  Incorporating Sephardic , Yemenite, Chasidic, and other traditions outside the Ashkenazic.

After 1948 should the American Jewish composer be concerned about the music of Israel?

All these questions were extremely difficult to answer, but since these were all composers who were extremely well trained in the art of composition, each one answered them according to his own expertise.

My father was the only cantor among them, and he was the one who clung closer to his (the German) tradition. He was very careful to preserve the mood of the prayer and the occasion on which it was recited. This meant that in his thinking there needed to be differences and traditional differences between prayers for Sabbath and Holydays. Yet these had to be treated with a modal harmonic system which allows the tunes to retain their modal origins. I would call my father’s style the most traditional of all of these composers.

11 Mogen Avot

01 Ma Tovu (Lewandowski)

Quite the opposite was his very close friend Herbert Fromm. Fromm tried to work out an entirely new system of harmony based completely on linear principles. Chant both in the solo part as well as in the chorus became very important to him and having been a student of Hindemith, he used that composer’s contrapuntal system to excellent advantage. Let me illustrate with two settings, one for solo and accompaniment and the other using his type of harmonic chant for chorus.

13 Grant Us Peace

10 Yism’chu

Heinrich Schalit, coming from a different background yet had the same concerns and solved them in a similar yet more traditional way. Let me illustrate again with the harmonization of a Sephardic chant and then a chant setting of Psalm 23.

09 V’ahavta

14 I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes

The next great contributor to the Renaissance was Isadore Freed. Here was a composer who told the unusual story to me of being encouraged to go into the field of sacred music by his teacher Nadia Boulanger, who asked him what he would do for his spiritual welfare when he returned from Paris to the States. He was hesitant, but she urged him to become an organist in a Temple and compose music for the Service. – He followed her advice, but never forgot her instruction nor the music which inspired him in France. His harmony, which is always exquisite, reflects the Provence and is very much in the style of another French-Jewish composer Darius Milhaud. Listen to this wonderful setting of L’cha Dodi and then of Yih’yu L’ratzon sung in English.

01 L’Cha Dodi

16 May the Words

Next I would like to introduce Julius Chajes, who was Viennese born and studied with a very curious composer and pedagogue Hugo Kauder, who felt that the answer to contemporary harmony was to disregard it altogether and worry only about counterpoint and when harmony is desperately needed to revert to the practice of Organum. Chajes learned his lesson well and writes terrific counterpoint and uses the organum technique of parallel fifths in the cleverest ways.

02 Adonai Malach

Another Russian influence more directly than from Saminsky came into the American Jewish musical canon came from the work of Max Helfman, who organized choruses and youth camps to spread the gospel. His harmony is more traditional though he mostly maintains a modal feeling. The Hashkivenu had become one of his most performed pieces, and illustrates his love for all things Russian in music.

07 Hashkivenu

Because of time constraints let me however play two more examples. These are by A. W. Binder. This is an original setting of the Adon Olam without any reference to a preexisting melody and the other his reference to traditional material and in his way a new handling of these.

Now I have entitled my talk AN ABORTED RENAISSANCE and I want to come back to that title. – In the summer of 1959 before he became president of the UAHC, Alexander Schindler asked Albert Freedlander and me to organize a Chagiga with him to see if we cannot get young people to sing the new great music which had been created for the Reform Movement. We invited 100 youngsters from all over the country and had a great time singing the music of the above mentioned composers. Alex was concerned that there was too little singing going on in the congregations since the 1940 Hymnal was being discarded and since many of the newly trained cantors favored folk type music and music influenced by popular music to the more traditional material. Well, he was right to be concerned. This was the first and last Chagiga of its kind. The next was celebrating the growth of YOUTH MUSIC rather than music composed by serious composers. This was the birth of the Youth Revolution in our congregations and pretty soon, the choir, the organ and the sermon hit the dust so to speak and we have the situation which confronts us now that the music of the camps has become the norm and except for the music for the High Holidays the music of the ‘renaissance has been completely stricken from the sounds heard in today’s Temples.

Now some of this is the fault of most of the creators of the excellent music or the renaissance. Except for the efforts of my father in his congregation, there was very little attempt during the 30s 40s 50s and 60s to start a congregational choir movement. Only the establishment of large choirs made up of congregants with some professional leaders in each section could the music have survived and been rendered in a way that would make it sound the way the composer created it. This did not happen, and therefore even if a congregation wanted to perpetuate this music it would have to hire a ‘professional’ chorus to do the job, and why go to this expense since they have hired a cantor who really is not in love with this ‘sort’ of music and would rather sing a Chasidic Niggunim which is really considered more ‘spiritual’ than any of that composed music.

And here is the second big reason for the demise of this incredible creative spurt of music for the Synagogue. The cantors being trained for both the Reform and the Conservative pulpit are not really being given the expertise to handle this music and therefore shy away from it except as I said for the High Holidays and then only minimally.

Do I look pessimistically into the future? Yes and no. Yes, because I see no way that this great music which was created in such quantities and with such excellence will ever make its way back into the regular repertory of congregations. No, because I see that secular choirs and especially in America many college choirs are suddenly discovering this great store of fine sacred music, and even though much of it is in Hebrew it does not matter to them because one of their staples has become the CHICHESTER PSALMS and the BLOCH SACRED SERVICE. Also I think a great boost has been given to that music by the Milken Archive of Jewish Music which has recorded a huge amount of that music and has made it possible for people all over the world to hear it and given choral directors an opportunity to examine this music as performed by the finest chorus in the world.

I would also hope that perhaps the establishment of schools for Rabbis and Cantors in Europe such as this one will provide on opportunity to introduce this music to a wider audience and once establish the vibrant Jewish music scene here which before the Nazi era was so very prominent.

These are all hopeful signs, and just like much music of the past, because this music has been published and recorded, it will live on and perhaps take on a new life for itself besides prolonging that very promising renaissance.

You can reach Sam Adler at his website.

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