As a Jewish music scholar and as a composer and arranger, Sholom Kalib has focused specifically on the eastern European cantorial and synagogue music tradition—in its American phase as well as in its original forms. He has championed its rejuvenation and perpetuation through both historical analysis and the creation of new works based on its emblematic modes, stylistic idioms, and collective melos.
Kalib, whose uncle and grandfather were cantors in the traditional eastern European mold, was born in Dallas, Texas. His father taught him biblical cantillation along with the requisite skills of a baal t’filla (lay precentor) and schooled him in the rudiments of music. Young Kalib’s initial exposure to cantorial choral repertoire came when he began singing at the age of eleven in a local orthodox synagogue choir, soon becoming something of a child-prodigy cantor. When his family moved to Chicago in 1942, he joined the choir of Cantor Abraham Kipper (1900–52), one of the leading resident cantors of that city’s orthodox community. Highly impressed with the boy’s talent, Cantor Kipper engaged Kalib to prepare and conduct the choir for Kipper’s audition for the coveted cantorial position for the 1943 High Holy Days at Chicago’s Roumanian Synagogue (the Rumeinishe shul), Shaarei Shamayim. In order to be considered for such important guest cantorial posts at that time, cantors had to demonstrate that they had first-class choirs. When Kipper received the appointment, Kalib became his choirmaster for those High Holy Day services—at the age of fourteen.
His tasks included notating Kipper’s repertoire, most of which was a mixture of improvised chants and melodies known by rote or from memory—a not uncommon situation among many cantors of that era. Kalib had begun studying harmony and basic theory, areas that turned out to have a special allure for him in the abstract, and these became a lifelong academic pursuit. Dissatisfied with Kipper’s primitive collection of two-part ditties and responses, he took the initiative to rearrange the entire repertoire into full-fledged four-part choral settings. That endeavor met with instant success, and soon Kalib was much in demand among cantors in the Chicago area who needed choral arrangements, or piano or organ accompaniments for cantorial concert numbers. He was frequently asked to notate other cantors’ repertoires by dictation. Such projects later reached a zenith in Kalib’s notation and publication of the accumulated but unwritten music of Cantor Todros Greenberg (1893–1976)—an effort that spanned a period of nearly forty years and provided a wealth of material for future generations of cantors and choirs. Meanwhile, Kalib gained a reputation throughout North America as one of the leading arrangers of cantorial and synagogue choral music, producing a large catalogue of settings both for his own use and on request from fellow cantors and choirmasters. These exhibit a careful balance between freshness and historically authentic style, between idiomatic simplicity and appropriately restrained imagination—yet avoiding a common tendency among many arrangers toward excess and harmonic clutter.
During his early student years in Chicago, Kalib also organized and directed a choir under the auspices of the Chicago chapter of Hashomer Hadati, the cultural and educational youth organization of Hapo’alei Mizrahi, the religious (orthodox) Zionist group. That choir became an important part of Chicago Jewry’s cultural life during the second half of the 1940s. Kalib worked with and directed various synagogue choirs as well, including that of the locally famous K’nesset Israel Nusaḥ S’fard (the Sefardishe shul)—a fully Ashkenazi synagogue that employs the Sephardi rite (nusaḥ s’fard) in terms of liturgical texts and order of prayers, not music—where the legendary cantorial giant Pierre Pinchik officiated for many holyday and guest Sabbath services. Kalib also prepared the choirs for Jack Werblin, Pinchik’s choirmaster for some of those services.
For a performance in Yiddish of Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, Kalib was the assistant choirmaster to Eugene Malek, director of the left-wing Yiddishist secular ensemble, the Jewish Peoples’ Philharmonic Chorus—the local chapter of the Freiheits Gezang Verein. That concert—at Chicago’s principal concert venue, Orchestra Hall, with Richard Tucker in the lead tenor role—was Kalib’s first exposure to Western classical music. Meanwhile, in 1949 he assumed his first cantorial post, at the Vilna shul in Chicago.
At Roosevelt University in Chicago, Kalib was first introduced to the theoretical work of the foremost 20th-century music theorist Heinrich Schenker, whose approach he adopted and later applied to his analyses of cantorial art and repertoire. After earning a bachelor’s degree in theory, he received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University (also in theory) and then became a professor of music at Eastern Michigan University from 1969 until his retirement. Kalib also served cantorial posts in Detroit and in Flint, Michigan.
Kalib’s choral arrangements sometimes cross the blurry line between arranging and composition, especially with those arrangements for which there is no preexisting choral element. Many of the Greenberg arrangements, for example, could be considered de facto compositions that use and incorporate—or are based on—Greenberg’s cantorial lines and melodies. But even in his completely original pieces, Kalib faithfully has maintained typical eastern European cantorial idioms, traditions, and style, often adding new but carefully controlled harmonic elements and classical orchestrations for concert use.
In addition to Day of Rest, Kalib’s larger works include Rejoice and Sing, a suite of eight Hassidic melodies, and Days of Awe, a concert setting of High Holy Day liturgy in four sections for cantor, chorus, and orchestra (the individual settings of which can also be rendered a cappella for actual synagogue use).
His five-volume historical-analytical work, The Musical Tradition of the Eastern European Synagogue—an encyclopedic discussion and documentation of virtually all aspects of the subject—represents four decades of research and investigation. The first volume was published by Syracuse University Press in 2002.
By: Neil W. Levin