CANTOR ELIHU FELDMAN
Louis Lewandowski Spearheads the Formation of the Modern Jewish Choir
After Solomone Rossi, the most prominent force in Jewish choral music was
Louis Lewandowski.In the year 1840 in the city of Berlin, Louis Lewandowski
became the first choir director in the history of the modern European
synagogue. At the Heiderautergasse Temple, and later at the new
Oranienburgerstrasse Temple, Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894) conducted the
music of his Viennese mentor, the great Cantor Salomon Sulzer, as well as
his own compositions. The music of German synagogues had for centuries
consisted of cantorial recitatives and congregational responses, and
Lewandowski's choral compositions introduced a new and popular type of
Louis Lewandowski was born in the Polish town of Wreschen. At the age of
twelve, after his mother's death and because of his family's extreme
poverty, he left for Berlin where he became an apprentice for Cantor Asher
Lion. Soon Lewandowski's musical ambition reached out beyond the ghetto.
With the help of Alexander Mendelssohn (cousin of the composer Felix
Mendelssohn), Lewandowski became the first Jew to attend the Berlin Academy
of the Arts.
But after showing great promise in the field of secular music (including a
prize for composition from the prestigious Berlin Singakademie), Lewandowski
succumbed to a serious depression
and was forced to relinquish his scholarship and abandon his studies. It was
after his partial recovery that he decided to devote himself fully to the
music of the synagogue.
For twenty-four years Lewandowski worked as choirmaster at the
Heidereutergasse Temple in Berlin, conducting the music of Salomon Sulzer.
But in 1864 the building of the Oranienburgerstrasse Temple, which was
equipped with an organ, offered Lewandowski the opportunity of creating an
entire new service with organ accompaniment, a task never before undertaken.
The culmination of his career came in 1882 with the publication of his
magnum opus, Todah ve-Zimrah (Thanks and Song), a setting of the entire
liturgical cycle for four soloists, cantor and organ.
Lewandowski was among the most significant composers of synagogue music,
reproducing the traditional melodies in a more classical form and giving
freer treatment to the organ music than his distinguished predecessor Cantor
Sulzer had. He exerted a strong influence on Western Ashkenazi synagogue
music through his activities as a teacher at the Jewish Free School and the
Jewish Teachers' Seminary in Berlin. He based his compositions on the
liturgical tradition of the Old Synagogue, on the one hand, and on the East
European tunes he received from immigrant cantors, on the other. His choral
settings followed the style of Mendelssohn's oratorios and works for choir.
Among Lewandowski's principal works are Kol Rina u-Tfillah (1871), Todah
ve-Zimrah for four soloists, cantor and organ (1876-1882), and 18 liturgical
Psalms for solo, choir and organ.
Although Lewandowki's influence dominated choral music in the synagogue, at
the end of the nineteenth century the European Jewish community was divided
into several factions. For some Jews, life would continue exactly as it had
for countless centuries. They had no use for the secular world; the
spiritual realm guided their every move. For others, a more liberal attitude
on the part of civil authorities signaled an opportunity for them to end
their age-old isolation. Many of these individuals attempted to abandon as
much of the Jewish way of life as was possible, and others attempted to
adapt Jewish practices to modern times.
Inspired by the dreams and efforts of such men as Theodore Herzl and Eliezer
Ben-Yehudah,Jews began to assert their identity in national as well as
religious terms, and to reestablish their connection with the ancient
homeland and its language. Seeking new modes of expression,
Jews began to experiment with new forms of cultural nationalism. Among these
were: Jewish Orchestras, Jewish music concerts, and synagogue choirs.
Rumshinsky describes the first Jewish Music concert in his autobiography,
"After the concert was announced, within three days the
tickets were sold out, eagerly snatched up by those Zionists and
In 1899 a Jewish attorney, N. Shapiro, petitioned the governor of Lodz (in
Poland) for permission to establish a Jewish choral organization.
Anticipating the hostile reaction with which government officials greeted
any gathering that smacked of political sedition, Shapiro asserted
that his organization would serve patriotic aims by keeping the young people
of Lodz away from the revolutionary and antigovernment assemblies that were
poisoning their minds. He ended his petition with the words, "Let these
young kids amuse themselves with choral singing, then there will be none of
that revolutionary foolishness on their minds."
Not only did the governor grant the petition, he instructed the police not
to interfere with the choir's rehearsals or to interrupt them in any way
from their patriotic work. Jacob Hartenstein was appointed the choir's
conductor, but after a few rehearsals it became apparent that
someone with more professional expertise would be needed. It was at this
point that the 18-year old Joseph Rumshinksy was engaged to become the first
permanent conductor of the chorus. Rumshinsky later recalled of that first
rehearsal in his autobiography, "When we stood up and
started to sing, a holy musical fire was kindled by the first Jewish choral
ensemble in the world."
But all was not smooth sailing for the fledgling chorus; hostility was
encountered on many fronts. The Zionist activists couldn't understand the
purpose of choral singing as a form of nationalistic expression. The
assimilated Jews derided the "Zhidn" who wanted to waste time singing their
"Mah Yufis" (a derogatory term for Jewish songs). And the Hasidim were
outraged that young men and women would be meeting together in the same
room. But after the first concert, the opposition seemed to melt away. The
chorus was named Ha-zomir which in English means The Nightingale and a
concert was a given in a major concert hall.
Hazomir soon had branches in the major cities of Russia and Poland. In 1914
the first Jewish choirs in the United States were founded: the Chicago
Jewish Folk Chorus, directed by Jacob Schaefer, and the Patterson (New
Jersey) Jewish Folk Chorus, directed by Jacob Beimel.
As immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe increased, Yiddish choruses began
to appear all across the United States. In 1921, Jacob Beimel called a
conference of Jewish singing societies in America and Canada with the
purpose of establishing a central organization of Jewish choral societies
and of publishing choral compositions in Yiddish, Hebrew and English with
Jewish textual content.
Unfortunately, the United Jewish Choral Societies had a brief history,
dissolving after all but three years of existence. But in its final days it
organized the largest Jewish Chorus ever seen in America. On April 15, 1923
a concert was given at the Hippodrome in New York City featuring nine
singing societies, totaling over six hundred singers! With the slackening of
immigration and the assimilation of most Jews into the cultural fabric of
American life, one by one the Yiddish Folk Choruses began to die out. By the
late 1950s only one such organization remained, the Workmen's Circle Chorus
of New York.
But in 1960 a new chapter in the history of the Jewish choral movement began
with the founding of the Zamir Chorale in New York City. Under the direction
of Stanley Sperber, this choir grew from a modest group of folksingers who
had met at a Jewish summer camp to an impressive, disciplined ensemble of
over one hundred voices. To a new generation of Jewish Americans growing up
in the 1960s, searching for their roots and finding pride in the image of
the new state of Israel, this Jewish chorus provided an attractive outlet
for their cultural, social and religious sentiments. Today the movement is
once again fully alive. Through the medium of the choral art, men and women
in cities from Boston to Los Angeles are proudly raising a cultural banner
for the Jewish people. Anyone who wishes to join the Zamir Chorale or just
see them rehearse can see them perform on Sunday evenings between 6:00-8:00
p.m. at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Of course, it would be wise to
contact the choir-master to confirm rehearsal times.
Cantor Elihu Feldman