Among the circle of cantors and synagogue composers associated with the young American reform movement in the late 19th century, Edward Stark appears to have retained and exploited links to tradition more so than any of his contemporaries. In some respects, he may be understood as a bridge between the prevailing Reform reliance on Western hymn- and anthem-type models—as well as adapted music from non-Jewish classical concert and operatic repertoire—and the beginning of a more balanced approach concerning Central European tradition. Stark revisited flavors, echoes of traditional modalities and prayer modes (nusaḥ hat’filla), and even cantorial idioms—always with the restraint prized then by American Reform congregations and fully within the aesthetic norms of the contemporaneous Reform ambience.
Stark was born in Hohenems, a town in the present Austrian state of Vorarlberg, not far from its capital city of Bregenz, but at the time a principality of sorts within the Hapsburg Empire. (Its specific designation was Reichsgrafschaft, a political-geographical entity unique to the Hapsburg Empire, which has no counterpart in political structures or terminology elsewhere, and thus no acceptable English translation.) Coincidentally, Hohenems was the birthplace and home (until the age of twenty-two) of the celebrated cantor Salomon Sulzer (1804–1890), the most influential cantor of all time, who, as the first cantor of Vienna’s first official synagogue, was the architect of modern cantorial art and practice and also established the clerical office and role of the cantor. Hohenems had been home to Sulzer’s family for generations.
The Jewish population of the town and the entire region began as an émigré community from Bavaria in the 17th century; thus its synagogue music traditions comprised the elements of southern German minhag Ashkenaz (Ashkenazi custom), generally recognized to have been the most carefully preserved part of the wider Ashkenazi musical tradition that has its roots in Rhineland communities of the Middle Ages. This tradition was absorbed by Stark’s father, Josef Stark, a hazzan-shokhet (cantor and kosher butcher, or ritual slaughterer, a common combination in Europe that sometimes lingered in smaller towns long past the dawn of the modern era) in Hohenems as well as a respected cantor in the surrounding region. We may presume that he passed the tradition on to his son, whose cantorial ambitions he supported.
Josef Stark was one of Sulzer’s relatively few formally tutored students (as opposed to his choristers, who also benefited from him as a de facto teacher). From various extant sources we learn that it was Sulzer who recommended Josef Stark to cantorial pulpits in Prossnitz (Prostĕjov), Moravia (now the Czech Republic), and in Hohenems—their mutual hometown, where Sulzer (and his father before him) had officiated as the cantor until 1826, when he was called to Vienna. In 1865, Josef Stark occupied a pulpit in Ichenhausen, Bavaria. Together with his three older brothers, Edward sang in his father’s choirs.
Cantor Jeffrey S. Zucker, in his 1983 master’s thesis at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (under the guidance of the present writer, who served as his advisor), relentlessly mined a wealth of primary resources and documents, including 19th-century periodical literature, letters and scrapbooks, synagogue board minutes and other documents, an anonymous biography in the possession of Stark’s granddaughter, and even birth certificates in Austria (which corroborate Stark’s year of birth as 1856, despite erroneous dates given in various American publications). The present consideration has benefited significantly from Zucker’s groundwork. His sifting through family documents and city records revealed that Stark’s older brothers emigrated to America as early as the 1860s and became successfully engaged in business ventures. Meanwhile, Edward continued as one of his father’s choristers until 1871, when the rest of the family emigrated to America as well. There, Josef Stark held a post as cantor for a few years at Congregation Adath Israel in New York—in a Manhattan neighborhood populated by German and German-Jewish immigrants.
In addition to learning from his father, Edward Stark apparently acquired further musical knowledge and craft on his own in New York—at the same time working in his eldest brother’s clothing business for twenty years and becoming a partner at some point. During those years he sang in the Germania Quartet Club, a typical amateur immigrant German singing society, and he assembled a pastiche operetta for them, Germania, oder Traumbild eines Gesang-Vereins (Germania, or the Dream of a Singing Society), which drew on material from various operas and operettas and included some original music by Stark. It was presented twice at New York’s Terrace Garden, with Stark among the soloists. He pieced together a similar operetta presentation for the Progress Club—a local association of German Jews of which he was a member. And he was a member of the Freemasons (Free and Accepted Masons). Around 1885–86 he returned briefly to Europe for musical studies in Leipzig and Vienna.
Stark assumed a cantorial post at Beth Elohim in Brooklyn in 1891 or thereabouts. (The date is uncertain, and Zucker was not able to locate a more precise date; but Stark’s predecessor, William Sparger, who had served a ministerial post there in which musical and pastoral roles were combined, left in 1891—the year the congregation separated the two roles and specifically engaged a rabbi.) In 1893 Stark was engaged as cantor of the prestigious Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, which had become one of the nation’s foremost Reform synagogues. His position there also called on him to direct the choir and all musical activities of the congregation, which apparently had considerable funds available to support a full-scale music program. He also taught music in its religious school, conducted children’s services, and even was a de facto assistant rabbi on occasion—which, in the new Reform format, involved reading of certain prayers in English, Hebrew, or German with practiced solemnity. Among the school productions he put together for the children were two didactic musical dramatic presentations: The Merry Company, for Hanukka, and for Purim, The Maid of Shushan, or Esther the Queen—which, according to a press account, drew on grand opera, light operetta, and perceived Jewish tunes.
During his initial period at Emanu-El, Stark’s synagogue music repertoire included many of the typical settings in use among American Reform congregations of the time: some now-discredited adaptations from classical operatic and oratorio literature, as well as pedestrian hymns and Western hymn-type settings written by cantors, organists, and choirmasters in other Reform synagogues throughout the United States. But he also introduced some of the best music available from European sources—especially Sulzer’s music, which he undoubtedly knew from his father. Apparently he also made regular use of settings contained in Kaiser and Sparger’s souvenir collection commissioned for the 1893 Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) in Chicago by the Jewish women’s section of the Parliament of Religions. Even the local secular press showed interest in the musical parameter of Emanu-El’s services, which, under Stark, acquired a reputation of balance, artistic quality, meticulous preparation, and dignity.
Once he felt sufficiently established and comfortable enough to add music of his own, Stark began composing liturgical settings. These were designed to fit the new liturgical format, the fresh English translations, and the adaptations from the liturgy in the Reform movement’s newly minted prayerbook, which Emanu-El was one of the first congregations to adopt—the Union Prayerbook (1894), published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The range of repertoire under Stark’s direction by the end of the century is well described by Zucker:
Many of the works he performed were his own, and he frequently included the works of Sulzer….There were adaptations of works by Haydn, Gounod, Auber, Flotow and Reinecke, as well as a few compositions by Schubert and Mendelssohn. A significant portion of the music heard at Emanu-El was from the Protestant tradition of hymns and anthems.
Stark was an advocate of Jewish musical tradition and its potential role in the American Reform format. He pursued that theme in articles he published in The American Hebrew and in Emanu-El (apparently the synagogue’s own vehicle)—most notably one titled “How Traditional Music May Be Retained in the Jewish Reformed [sic] Service” (1903), which reappeared as “Die traditionelle Musik des Judentums” in the Viennese journal of the Austro-Hungarian Cantors Association, Oesterreichisch-ungarische Cantoren-Zeitung. In those writings, as well as in much of his music, Stark echoed fellow Reform cantor Alois Kaiser’s call for restoration of traditional elements of minhag Ashkenaz. For the son of a student of Sulzer—the prime exemplar of the fusion of modernity and historical continuity—this was natural. But in principle Stark was not content merely to use traditional melodies as models for new hymns with currently fashionable harmonizations and loosely (if at all) related English (or, for that matter, Hebrew) texts. His goals expanded upon Kaiser’s concerns, embracing not only fixed melodies but also the traditionally prescribed prayer modes attached to particular texts or liturgical occasions, known colloquially in cantorial jargon as nusaḥ hat’filla—the “established and accepted way” of prayer rendition in Ashkenazi custom, canonized by centuries of tradition throughout Europe. As much as he accepted the need for contemporary American expression, he was also intrigued by that complicated established system of specific scales (often at odds with major-minor tonality), modal and motivic patterns, and formulaic elements. Within the new Reform context of the time, however, that posed a considerable challenge. The difficulty lay in finding a way to capture the flavor of those older modalities, where it might be traditionally appropriate for a specific prayer or service, without jeopardy to the aural perception of American modernity—and within the bounds of Reform-oriented expectations and sensibilities. The scant opportunity within the Reform service for free-flowing cantorial lines, extended embellishments, or other cantorial clichés and idioms only heightened that challenge.
In many of his settings—especially those for the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgies—Stark did achieve something of that goal. In these settings there are discernible echoes of the southern German variant of nusaḥ hat’filla that had been his father’s tradition. In the context of the new liturgical content of the Union Prayerbook, he sometimes demonstrated an ability to adapt the old modal framework not only to new English prayers, but even to organ passages. In settings for the Sabbath, however, he was less successful. Still, many of the prayers he set have no prescribed tradition and have always invited free composition.
Stark’s principal work was his collection Sefer Anim Zemiroth, of which four volumes were published between 1909 and 1913. They contain settings for the High Holy Days and the Sabbath. Those for the High Holy Days reflect some of the missinai tune tune tradition—seasonal leitmotifs that, for the most part, have been universally recognized in Ashkenazi practice since the late Middle Ages as the exclusive melodic archetypes for specific High Holy Day or Festival texts or services. References to prayer modes in his settings of nonmetrical texts, however, which historically were sung freely and nonmetrically, are generally stylized within his artificially created metrical superimpositions. Such metrical stylization of rhythmically free aspects of nusaḥ hat’filla was not something Stark invented. It began with Sulzer, although it was followed and practiced further and more frequently by Louis Lewandowski (1821–1894) in Berlin—in part to accommodate organ accompaniment, which Sulzer did not employ in his modern orthodox synagogue in Vienna. Metrical stylization—forcing rhythmically free logogenic vocal lines into simple meters with artificial bar lines—had become an accepted compromise in nontraditional western European synagogues (and even among orthodox synagogues in Germany). Consciously or not, Stark appears to have pursued a version of that compromise.
Stark is said to have completed a fifth volume of Sefer Anim Zemiroth, devoted to music for the Three Festivals, but it was never published and has not been located. His other published works include his Shofar Service (1905); Services for Children (1900; 1908), with texts prepared by Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger, his clerical colleague at Emanu-El; an English adaptation and rearrangement of Jacques Fromenthal Halevy’s famous setting of min hametzar (from Psalms), “In Distress I Called Upon the Lord”; and other miscellaneous settings. His collection of ten hymns (1906–1907) remains in manuscript.
An outspoken champion of the organ and its value to worship beyond accompaniment, Stark also used other instruments for a few settings, and instrumental ensembles were used on occasion in his services at Emanu-El. His Day of God / Tag des herrn for Yom Kippur (1898), for example, was written for soprano solo and choir with flute, violin, cello, harp, and organ.
Stark’s music continued to be heard at Emanu-El as a staple of its repertoire—and that of his successor, Cantor Reuben Rinder—for many years after his death. A few pieces, such as his k’dusha settings, remained current in Reform congregations across America well into the second half of the 20th century, and his simple but exquisite—though hardly traditional—Zokhreinu, for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, is still sung by some cantors and choirs in those Reform congregations that have preserved an air of classical formality for the High Holy Days.
With some exceptions (notably some of the High Holy Day settings, such as the Zokhreinu), the body of Stark’s music does not stand up to qualitative artistic scrutiny. Zucker’s evaluation, that his “melodies are dull and tedious … hampered by a metrical rigidity that works against the natural rhythm of the words” and that his harmonic language is “too often reminiscent of the ‘barbershop quartet’ music which was so popular during the period,” appear apt. Unlike so many authors of academic theses and dissertations who tend to fall in love with their subjects, Zucker remained admirably objective. Nonetheless, Stark must be considered an historically important figure in the history of American synagogue music—not least for his successful demonstration that the Reform aesthetic need not be confined to Western hymn genres. It was not until the 1920s, with the arrival on the scene of Lazare Saminsky (1882–1959), that American Reform synagogue music entered its next phase of development.
By: Neil W. Levin