Although he was not directly a refugee from the Third Reich, Max [Maxim] Dubrow Janowski is nonetheless often associated with the group of émigré liturgical composers for American Reform worship who came to the United States following the electoral victory of the National Socialist regime in Germany and the subsequent Anschluss in Austria. Like many émigré colleagues of that time from Western and west Central Europe, his involvement with Jewish sacred music—or with any aspect of formal, organized synagogue life—was born more or less de novo in America. But he quickly became absorbed in the music of the synagogue and in related extra-synagogal Jewish choral activity, to the exclusion of his previous classical music pursuits. He was exceedingly prolific as a composer and arranger, as well as continuously occupied as a choral director and accompanist throughout his American career—which, for more than a half century, was anchored in Chicago. There, he inspired several generations in their love of Jewish choral singing, even though it always involved only his own music or arrangements. He established a network of mixed amateur, semiprofessional and professional choral ensembles and choristers, and he cultivated a fiercely loyal local following whose surviving veterans remain devoted to him and his music nearly twenty years after his death.
Janowski grew up in Berlin, where he pursued his musical studies with distinction. Notwithstanding his official authorized biographical sketches and press releases, however, which always gave his birthplace as Berlin, uncertainty still surrounds the identity of the actual city or country of his birth. When he first arrived in Chicago, he told local cantors that he had been born in Poland (some recalled that later he sometimes specified “near Berlin”) and that his parents had relocated for business and professional reasons to Berlin while he was a young child. (A few Chicago-area cantors later recalled his having indicated that the move occurred when he was about six months old.) If so, it would hardly have been an unusual type of biographical embellishment for émigrés at that time.
Throughout the period of Jewish immigration spanning the 19th century to the 1940s, these kinds of seemingly harmless adjustments were fairly common, probably in many more cases than those that have been identified or discovered. Immigrant cantors, along with other Jewish musicians and theatrical personalities, sometimes felt especially motivated to engage in such geographical (and, in some cases, education and employment history) revisions that were not easily traceable. Those who did so intuited—not always without justification—that recognizable cosmopolitan and modern European cities or regions of origin simply carried more weight with prospective American and American Jewish employers and audiences than perceived (correctly or not) smaller towns or less modernized environments. And for those immigrants hoping for acceptance within social, commercial, or religious institutions of America’s firmly established Jewish community of German-speaking or German cultural heritage (whose own origins, ironically, generally lay in economically depressed towns and rural areas of Bavaria, or sometimes in German-speaking parts of Hungary, not in thriving, sophisticated German urban centers), it could appear advantageous to avoid altogether German Jewry’s—and German-Jewish Americans’—stereotypical though misinformed negative perceptions of Polish or Russian Empire Jewry as regressive, unenlightened, or culturally foreign Östjuden. Early on in the course of eastern European Jewish immigration, Yiddish-speaking newcomers and hopeful immigrants were often lumped together by the American Jewish establishment as unwanted “Russians.”
“Bay Wien” (near Vienna), for example, could be a Yiddish reply when an immigration agent at Castle Garden, or, later, Ellis Island, asked an entrant to state his birthplace or hometown—even if “near” meant as far away from Vienna as Hungary. Upon entrance to the United States, Joseph Rumshinsky, who reigned for decades on Second Avenue as the dominant force in popular Yiddish theater (see Volume 13), gave his birth town simply as “bay Vilna”—which was then officially entered on his immigration form. In reality, he had been born in a town not so near (culturally as well as geographically) to that capital of historic Lithuania; but Vilna was assumed to have greater cachet. And from the 1930s through the immediate postwar period, German refugee cantors appearing before American certification or placement hearings typically claimed to have been Oberkantoren in Berlin—when few if any had served pulpits anywhere near that city. Had those claims been true, one hearing officer remarked in frustration, Berlin’s entire prewar population would have consisted of cantors! But the prestige it was assumed to connote in American eyes was too tempting to forgo.
On some levels these procedures simply mirrored immigration strategies in general, which often arose from what prospective immigrants had heard about American social preferences before leaving Europe. This was not necessarily unique to those immigrants whose lives or careers were defined by Jewish identity; and sometimes these little fictions had been put to use in Europe prior to, or unrelated to, immigration plans. (Among the most famous cases is that of the legendary superstar concert pianist and Jew by birth, Vladimir Horowitz, who always maintained that he had been born in Kiev. Indeed, after his birth his upper-middle-class parents relocated to Kiev, where he spent his youth. But it is now generally acknowledged by music historians as well as his own biographers that he was born in the far less cosmopolitan or Western-influenced city of Berditchev. For Horowitz and his family’s purposes, Berditchev was simply too commonly associated in public perception with its place in the Czarist Empire as a bastion of unmodernized, traditional Jewry and working-class Ukrainians.)
Janowski’s case may be more subtle and, for the general public, less important. But it can also be more confusing for those interested in an accurate history of Jewish music. One of the Chicago cantors to whom he spoke of his birthplace as Poland when he was new to the city, and who worked with him professionally for many years, came to suspect that Janowski had indeed been born in Berlin. But not knowing at first—so that interpretation goes—that he would be employed and adored for the rest of his life by a synagogue whose leadership was still heavily of German-Jewish extraction, and whose leanings had been in that cultural direction since its founding by German-speaking Bohemian Jews in 1847, he might initially and automatically have thought to emphasize his eastern European Jewish roots. (Whatever his birthplace, his father had, after all, come from Poland.) That would have been in line with the general awareness that the overwhelming majority of American Jewry consisted by then of eastern European Jews—who were known to have their own historical and political grouses with German Jewry.
The point here is not pedantry of detail, but rather an illustration of relevant sociological forces at play for many years in the American Jewish experience. On a personal plane, the uncertainty here is also a refection of the overall enigmatic aura with which Janowski, even by accounts of his most ardent admirers, surrounded himself—whether deliberately or naturally. He rarely spoke about his pre-American years, his personal life or interests, or much of anything apart from his musical activities. But what is important to any appreciation or analysis of his music is the knowledge that his pervasive aesthetic as a composer was—or came to be—rooted in eastern European tradition, not in the synagogue culture of German Jewry. This factor is reflected in his harmonic and modal language and in his solo vocal lines—none of which show much trace of the continuum of German synagogue music that was ubiquitous in Berlin during his formative years there
Janowski displayed serious pianistic talent as a child, and throughout his Berlin years his principal focus was on the piano and its classical repertoire. In adult life he referred to his father—a businessman by occupation—as a former lay precentor (ba’al t’filla) whose musical affinities and amateur musical activities were a positive influence. His mother was a professional operatic singer, voice teacher, and vocal coach who, following her divorce from the young Janowski’s father, immigrated to Palestine and established a solid reputation. There, she sang under the name Madame Maria Golinkin, and she taught voice until she was nearly one hundred years old (outliving her son). The divorce occurred when Janowski was “very young”—which was as much detail as he ever offered. But no secret was made of a general sense of estrangement between mother and son throughout the latter’s life. It is difficult therefore to gauge the degree to which his mother played a role in his musical development as a youth.
Between 1927 and 1930 (according to extant records), Janowski was a student at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Konservatorium, a private music conservatory in Berlin. He chose Ausbildungsklasse—the conservatory’s highest level of instruction and coursework; and he studied piano with the distinguished pedagogue M. Mayer-Mahr, who had taught there since 1892. The conservatory archives indicate that Janowski was one of Mayer-Mahr’s most gifted pupils, and in 1929 he participated in a concert as a soloist with the conservatory orchestra in celebration of his teacher’s sixtieth birthday. The Festschrift, published on the occasion of the conservatory’s fiftieth anniversary in 1931, reveals that two Matyer-Mahr pupils—Edgar Weinkauf and Max Janowski—played concertos by Brahms and Rachmaninoff. In the absence of a surviving printed concert program, we cannot know which of Brahms’s two piano concertos or Rachmaninoff’s five concertos (if we include his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as a possibility) Janowski might have played. All these works are technically demanding, so it would have been no small accomplishment for a seventeen-year-old student. He also performed both as a soloist and as an accompanist in several other student concerts, all of which featured music of the standard classical repertoire. At that time he was clearly destined for a career as a serious pianist.
Apart from the usual collateral courses in harmony and theory, counterpoint, musicianship, basic conducting skills, introductory level composition, and similar subjects typically required of conservatory students whose major concentration is nonetheless performance, there is no evidence that Janowski ever undertook serious formal study of composition in any anticipation of becoming a composer. Nor did he cite any teachers of composition or conducting. Later, however, during his tenure in Chicago, he revealed uncanny natural gifts for improvising at the piano—both informally, at rehearsals, and at public appearances as an accompanist. In fact, he was rarely if ever known to follow the printed score—even for well-known pieces by others (although, once he was secure in Chicago, he ceased to perform music other than his own). He preferred to create his own accompaniments on the spot. In one such instance, while providing piano accompaniment for a concert performance of Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus, he even abandoned the score and improvised his own introductions to the various choruses, arias, and other set numbers. He brought this gift of improvisation to his own settings of the liturgy, especially with regard to those with cantorial lines that preserve a flavor of traditional eastern European hazzanut, albeit reserved and compressed within a stylized format.
During roughly his first decade and a half in Chicago, he sometimes accepted engagements to accompany cantors, other singers, and choirs apart from his own for recitals and concert performances (engagements that he gradually declined as he came to concentrate more fully, and then exclusively, on his own music). On those occasions he often showed himself particularly adept at inventive contrapuntal improvisation. Yet in neither his published pieces nor his unpublished manuscripts did he engage in any complex polyphony or developed counterpoint beyond a few standard imitative devices.
At some point in the early 1930s (whether before or after the assumption and consolidation of power by the National Socialists is not clear) Janowski’s father decided to leave Germany and to reside and conduct business in Japan. His son went along with him. At that time Japan already had a long-standing reputation as a hospitable and encouraging environment for European classical musicians—including Jews—as performers and as teachers in its Western-oriented music conservatories and other schools. Some of its major cities were especially receptive to the Western classical music tradition, which was promoted both officially (through state-sponsored musical institutions) and unofficially (through private conservatories and performing arts organizations).
Dating to the Meiji era (1868–1912, under the Emperor Meiji [Mitsuhito]) and its embraced desiderata of international recognition in terms of political, cultural, and educational parity with the West—and extending in some respects even more overtly after the First World War—Japan had sought to establish and fortify a cultural link to Europe. To that end, it had been intent on introducing European classical art music both for its aesthetic substance and cachet and as a symbol of progress, westernization, and respectability. Concert tours by European artists were thus encouraged, and many European classical musicians were imported to Japan during that time frame in pursuit of those goals.
Among those musicians who came to Japan for this purpose from the former Czarist Empire following the Bolshevik Revolution, a number were Jews or perceived Jews. Of the many German, culturally German, or German-speaking musicians who similarly participated as émigrés in that cultural transfer of European classical music to Japan from the beginning of the Meiji era until the Second World War (and who thus fulfilled the official preference at state-sponsored institutions for German over Russian or other musicians), it has been demonstrated that nearly half were either Jews or at least had some ethnically Jewish ancestry. Only some of them concealed or denied any Jewish lineage, although they had been victims of specifically anti-Jewish persecution—almost always on the grounds of Jewish or partially Jewish descent. This phenomenon of cultural transfer and its transmission by European musicians continued in the years leading up to and after Japan’s joining the Axis with Germany and Italy in 1940; and it remained in force even during most of the war years, albeit then under pressures and restrictions demanded in many cases by Germany. (Once Japan was part of the Axis, the situation of those musicians regarded as Jews became murky, and an overall government ambivalence seems to have prevailed. To some extent, and in some specific instances, German demands for expulsion or removal from Japanese conservatories were met; in others they were bypassed, especially in schools not sponsored by the government and in the conduct of privately supported musical activities. German-inspired anti-Jewish persecution, however, cannot be said to have been absent.)
When Janowski and his father emigrated to Japan, such German diplomatic pressures vis-à-vis Jews were still in the future. We cannot know for certain why Janowski chose to accompany his father, to what extent if any the decision was related either to the new or soon-to-be politically victorious National Socialist regime or to the unofficial antisemitic incidents of violence that had begun in Germany in the 1920s—or to both. But given the welcome climate in Japan, it would have been logical for him to anticipate professional musical opportunities and artistically as well as professionally beneficial engagements. Yet his activities remain clouded in ambiguity. Chicago newspaper accounts, synagogue bulletins, and concert programs refer to his having taught piano at a private conservatory in Tokyo, but its records have not yet revealed his name on its rosters.
Following his father’s death while the two were living in Japan, Janowski immigrated to the United States in 1937. Fortunately, given the restrictive immigration laws at that time, he was able to establish that he had an uncle living in New York who, at least in theory, would be able to find him employment or other means of support. Shortly afterward he learned of an open position as organist and choirmaster of a major Reform synagogue in Chicago, Kehilath Anshe Maarav (KAM, now KAM-Isaiah-Israel, as the result of two subsequent mergers), and upon application he received the appointment and commenced his service there in 1938. Thus began an entirely new life and career for Janowski, and a new chapter in Chicago Jewish musical history.
KAM was Chicago’s first synagogue. Until its merger with Temple Isaiah-Israel in 1971 (itself a merger of Temple Isaiah and Temple Israel), it was the city’s oldest continuously functioning synagogue—a distinction it retains in its merged guise. Like nearly all the American Reform synagogues established in the 19th century (with the notable exception of Temple Emanu-El in New York and possibly the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation), it was founded originally and reflexively as a nominally orthodox congregation. Yet, also typically, its initial membership was committed neither to orthodox legal and ritual observance nor to the perpetuation of orthodox theologies. Thus, like its similarly founded counterparts, it soon proceeded ad seriatim to institute both moderate and radical reforms, which eventually brought it into the fold of the emerging American Reform movement. By the 1930s KAM had come into the forefront of the nation’s leading and most prestigious Reform synagogues.
Situated then and now in the comfortable neighborhood of Hyde Park on Chicago’s near South Side—home to the University of Chicago and, in the 1930s, to a still entrenched enclave of well-to-do Jews of German or German-speaking heritage (many of whose forebears had established a community there as early as the 19th century)—KAM was typical of many congregations throughout the country that were still habituated in the classical 19th-century American Reform mold. Unlike some other Reform congregations of a more adventurous stripe that, following the First World War, had begun to loosen some of their 19th-century liturgical and aesthetic moorings in a selective reclamation of European Ashekanizi traditional elements, KAM belonged to the more steadfast Reform camp whose musical repertoire remained wedded to 19th-century American Reform sensibilities. Its music was thus still dominated by simple, homophonic metrical hymns (from Christian as well as earlier American Reform sources) and adaptations from operatic, oratorio, and other Western classical music literature—sometimes even in artificially attached Hebrew liturgical texts. But on the whole, very little Hebrew was sung at services, either by the choir or the congregation. (See the notes to Volume 1) When Janowski joined its staff, KAM’s musical tastes were unaffected by the introduction elsewhere of settings by such synagogue composers as Edward J. Stark (Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco), Lazare Saminsky (Temple Emanu-El in New York), and Abraham Wolf Binder, whose music was geared to a new more Judaically rooted plane of American Reform worship—including an expanded role for Hebrew—and created on a higher artistic level than anything composed earlier in the Reform orbit. Moreover, even as late as 1938, KAM apparently had not yet adopted or become accustomed to the most up-to-date and thoroughly revised (third) edition of the Union Hymnal, which injected an aura of Ashkenazi authenticity into Reform services with its streamlined versions of serious synagogue compositions and traditional melodies from the European canon. (For more on this, see in the biographical note on Binder, linked above.)
Until after the mid-1930s KAM conducted its Sabbath services on Sunday mornings—a practice neither unique nor universal in the American Reform world, especially by that time; and a separate Friday evening service had yet to be instituted. True to the 19th-century classical doctrine typically espoused by many Reform congregations (albeit with a number of prominent exceptions), KAM had never employed a cantor prior to Janowski’s assumption of the musical reins. All music had emanated from the choir loft.
That KAM remained without a cantor by design throughout Janowski’s tenure, however—a time frame during which the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College established a vibrant cantorial school—might seem incongruous in light of the nature of his music, its increased importance to prayer, and the pride the congregation took in it. Yet this was a matter of deference to Janowski’s wishes and an acknowledgment of his authority, to which a full-fledged cantor might conceivably pose a challenge.
Janowski assumed his post in the final year of the tenure of Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman. It was a transitional period in the life of the synagogue—one that ushered in the embrace of certain reconsidered traditional practices that had been eliminated at KAM and in many similar congregations; and one that eventually would make for receptivity to Janowski’s introduction of echoes of eastern European traditional modalities and cantorial flavors clothed in accessible and appealing, if repetitive harmonic garb. Rabbi Liebman had already promoted the institution of a Friday evening service, the instruction of Hebrew in the weekly religious school, and the recasting of various other foundational, historic Judaic anchors, all of which paved the way for innovative musical counterparts.
From several local traditional cantors who engaged him as an accompanist for concerts shortly after his arrival and with whom he established professional interactions, Janowski became acquainted with the world of hazzanut and the liturgy it expresses. Even though by all accounts this eastern European cantorial tradition was mostly new to him, he was quick to absorb its melos, its cherished clichés, and its choral dimensions. When, for example, Cantor Maurice Levy needed a complete musical notation of a traditional s’liḥot service for cantor and choir, with all its modal complexities, traditional melodies, turns of phrases, and characteristic improvisations—which he was accustomed to singing on his own without benefit of notated music—he turned to Janowski for the task. Naturally adept at musical transcription by dictation (a skill that is often called “take-down” in the commercial music world), Janowski was able to notate the entire service upon hearing Levy sing it for him. He then made simple four-part arrangements (as requested) of those sections requiring choral responses, interludes, introductions, and set pieces. The experience, along with others that followed once word got out that he could serve cantors in this way, turned out to be a “crash course” in cantorial styles and choral accompaniment. The episode served him well a bit later when he began to compose for his own choir—and, eventually, for publication.
As part of his overall inclination to pursue a long-overdue renovation of KAM’s services and educational programs, Rabbi Liebman’s successor, Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein, was eager to jettison the antiquated musical repertoire that had become increasingly irrelevant in its reflection of an earlier generation’s sensibilities. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s he thus encouraged Janowski in his desire for innovations that might in principle bring the music more in line with the recently reconsidered, more modern, and more Jewishly based expressions heard in some of the leading contemporaneous Reform congregations in northeastern and midwestern cities. As a team, Weinstein and Janowski were eventually able to gain the acquiescence of the membership, but the process of persuasion was gradual. Many within the old guard resisted relinquishing the familiar music, to which they related as quintessentially—and therefore traditionally—Reform and as inherently American (European classical adaptations notwithstanding). Those tensions between continuity and revision were not at all atypical of the process of cultural transformation that attended the direction of Reform identity across the country from the 1920s through the post–World War II era. Introduction of perceived non-Western modalities and hints of cantorial inflections, together with greater emphasis on Hebrew rendition—no matter how artistic their disguise in conservative 20th-century harmonic language and stylistic conception—could seem regressively incompatible with preconceptions of modern American religious ambience.
It was not until the early 1950s, when some of the sociological and emotional factors that informed postwar American Jewry combined with a local influx of members no longer necessarily descended from German Jewry or grounded in classical Reform, that KAM became comfortable with—and soon enthusiastic about—the alterations to the substance as well as the function of its music. It was during that decade that Janowski’s compositions found permanent acceptance and came not only to replace the earlier repertoire but to prevail as the exclusive music of that synagogue.
In the initial stages of his endeavor to wean KAM from its stale musical inventory and take it in new directions, it would have been natural for Janowski to have turned first to the work of some of the aforementioned composers who had met with success in similar aesthetic transitions in Reform synagogues: Saminsky, Binder, et al. He might also have considered incorporating contributions of a number of more recent European émigré synagogue composers whose settings were, by the late 1940s, on their way to becoming standard fare—and soon a mainstay— of those Reform synagogues that had shed their 19th-century musical habits. That group included such composers as Herbert Fromm, Hugo Chaim Adler, Isadore Freed, Heinrich Schalit, and Max Helfman, among others. (Of this group, all except Helfman were writing expressly for the Reform format; Helfman’s music can, for the most part, be interchangeably appropriate in Reform and Conservative synagogues.) But Janowski was completely unfamiliar with the work of either group, and he appears to have been disinterested. None was sung at KAM during his tenure there; nor did he include any in the repertoire of his other freelance liturgical choirs, his collateral synagogue positions, or his independent concert choirs. But judging from the nature and style of his own compositions considered in the aggregate over a period of more than four decades, very little of the music of any of those other composers—despite their diverse artistic approaches—would have resonated with him. Instead, he chose to compose entirely on his own everything to be sung at services—operating in a self-imposed vacuum and becoming KAM’s permanent resident composer as well as a “favorite son” of Reform (and some Conservative) circles in the greater Chicago area and as far north as Milwaukee.
From the outset, Janowski availed himself of what he had learned and absorbed from local cantors during his initial years in Chicago. Many of them later remarked on how he had found their tradition of hazzanut fascinating; and later he was fond of pointing to its modal authenticity compared with westernized synagogue music. Intrigued by that melos, he often relied on it for a foundation without allowing it to restrict him. He clothed it in what came to be a signature style marked by welcome simplicity; lean textures that could still, when called for, provide ample lushness and volume; appealing melody; straightforward yet often engaging solo lines (sometimes, but not always, cantorially influenced); uncomplicated chord progressions; and—perhaps most important for amateur and semiprofessional choirs that frequently supplemented his professional ensembles—ease of rehearsal and performance.
Though he has always been identified primarily with Reform worship in terms of his functional liturgical music, Janowski also wrote a number of prayer settings that are equally usable in Conservative synagogues—especially those that use the organ. In fact, some of those settings involve prayer texts found only in traditional prayerbooks but absent from the Reform liturgy when he composed them. Indeed, for many years he held a subsidiary music directorship at a major Conservative congregation in Milwaukee, where, except for concerts and special services or occasions, an assistant conducted the choir under his guidance. He was always ready to provide freelance choirs for Chicago-area Conservative as well as Reform synagogues that did not have year-round choirs—as long as his repertoire (i.e., his own music) was acceptable. That repertoire could include, if necessary, his personalized arrangements of traditional melodies and even of pieces not his own. But he had little interest in conducting unaltered classics of synagogue music literature. He insisted on a uniform as well as unified aesthetic, which he believed only his composer’s hand could provide. A Janowski service was just that: a Janowski service.
Janowski made no secret about his wariness toward existing commercial publishing firms, including the one with which nearly all composers associated with the Reform movement were (and still are) affiliated. He preferred not to assign copyrights or to share the small—if not negligible—royalties generated by synagogue music. Moreover, he was loath to join a catalogue of competing composers and works. He therefore established an entity known as Friends of Jewish Music, based in Chicago (and now in a nearby suburb), which in effect was his own self-publishing agent (originally called Composers and Performers of Jewish Music). He publicized his compositions through a newsletter, although eventually word of mouth and his general reputation within the Reform world sufficed. Dedicated from its inception exclusively to the publication and dissemination of his own music, Friends of Jewish Music continues to be its publisher—with only a few exceptions. There is also a body of his music that remains in unpublished manuscript form, which is also controlled by the organization operating in memoriam.
Janowski’s catalogue boasts more than sixty compositions for Sabbaths, Festivals, and High Holy Days—including full services and many individual prayer settings; a dozen additional Psalm settings; six biblically based Hebrew cantatas; numerous assorted songs and song arrangements; several choral pieces related to the Land of Israel; and settings for children’s choirs.
Notwithstanding this large opera and the many pieces within it that are generally known and even standard fare in Reform and some Conservative synagogues, Janowski’s principal mileage consistently has been gained from a smaller handful of pieces that are familiar on a national level. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, first and foremost among these is his famous exquisite setting of the abbreviated Reform version of the High Holy Day prayer avinu malkenu. Since its composition in 1951, even his detractors (and no composer is without detractors) have always acknowledged its uniqueness, its obvious inspiration, and its simple nobility. His setting of sim shalom, based on the same four-note ascending-descending motive, is a favorite concert piece that is equally familiar in some circles and perhaps only slightly less so than Avinu malkenu in others. In addition to these ubiquitous pieces, in order to present a balanced picture of Janowski’s work the Milken Archive has recorded a few others that are not so well known.
By: Neil W. Levin