William Sparger, the third cantor of Temple Emanu-El in New York, was born in Tallya, Hungary, where his father was the local rabbi of the district. William sang in the synagogue choir from his youth, and in 1879 he began studies at the University of Vienna. He may also have studied at the conservatory there. In 1861 he was briefly the reader/hazzan at the synagogue in Dortmund (Westphalia), after which he performed the same function at the historic synagogue in Worms, which dated to medieval times. He immigrated to America in 1883 and served as both rabbi and cantor of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. In 1890 he was elected cantor and music director of Temple Emanu-El, where he began his tenure in 1891 and continued until 1903.
Sparger collaborated with Cantor Alois Kaiser in compiling and editing Songs of Zion: A Collection of the Principal Melodies of the Synagogue from the Earliest Time to the Present—the historic souvenir anthology for the Jewish Women’s Congress under the Auspices of the World’s Parliament of Religions—an Auxiliary (the World’s Congress Auxiliary) of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (World’s Fair) in Chicago. He jointly edited, together with Temple Emanu-El’s organist and choirmaster Max Spicker, The Synagogal Service (1901)—divided into two parts: Part I for Sabbath eve services and Part II for Sabbath morning. This collection, which came to be known informally among cantor and choir directors simply as “Spicker-Sparger,” was widely used throughout American Reform congregations. It contains original compositions by Sparger and Spicker as well as various others, and adaptations from such classical composers as Charles Gounod and Anton Rubinstein. The s’u sh’arim adaptation from a Roman Catholic Mass by Gounod was especially popular at one time and is typical of that sort of reliance upon non-Jewish operatic and oratorio literature.
Sparger was also interested in the academic and historical aspects of Jewish liturgical music, and he wrote several related articles for journals and magazines. His subjects included the problems synagogue music was facing in America, the historical bases of Hebrew liturgical music, and even homiletical and theological topics. He made the first known attempt in America at a bibliographic study of Jewish music, “Literature on the Music of the Jews,” published in 1892 in The American Hebrew. Sparger’s intellectual pursuits also concerned the relation of synagogue modes to Ambrosian and Gregorian church modes.
By: Neil W. Levin