Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 18

Psalms and Canticles: Jewish Choral Art in America

by Neil W. Levin

V1THE APPELLATIONS "PSALMS" AND "CANTICLES" in the title of this volume are used in their extra-religious generic sense to suggest the medium of choral music outside the sacred realm, although secular interpretation of the biblical Book of Psalms has certainly continued to intrigue composers of concert works as well. In general, “choral art” here implies a certain intimacy of expression and detailed exploitation of choral techniques—akin or analogous in some cases to chamber music, except that these works have been conceived for vocal ensembles of varying sizes. They may be a cappella or accompanied, but the choral element is always a primary consideration. Large-scale secular choral-orchestral works have been assigned to other volumes—in particular, Volumes 11 and 17. There are a few exceptions, such as Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalmsin this volume, which, despite its sumptuous symphonic dimension, remains first and foremost a choral work in genesis and intention. (It is frequently performed in its nonorchestral version with piano accompaniment.) Ultimately, categorization can be arbitrary, relying in individual cases on the proverbial judgment call. Certainly there are works in the Milken Archive that could fit easily into more than one of its volume classifications.

If, by the 21st century, music of Jewish experience appears to embrace instrumental and vocal forms with roughly equal emphasis or in equal proportions, we must be reminded that the historical bedrock of Jewish music is an essentially text-born solo vocal and choral art form. Apart from an accompanimental function, the purely instrumental element, especially in transcendental high art terms, came much later. In this respect the narrative of Jewish art music is not dissimilar from that of Western art music in general, in which the vocal and liturgical stages also precede the secular instrumental medium as high art expression. The latter came fully into its own in the course of Western culture following the Renaissance and Baroque periods; and the two attained something of true parity in importance probably only in the Classical era in music history.

Secular Jewish choral art is even more recent—only as old as the modern era. Even then, throughout much of the post-Emancipation 19th century in Western and west Central Europe, the newly introduced phenomenon of artistic Jewish choral writing and performance was, with rare exceptions, confined to the synagogue or other quasi-religious functions. In Western Europe, in cosmopolitan, Haskala- and Zionist-influenced circles within the Czarist and Hapsburg empires, only in the last decade of the 19th century did Jewish culture include secular folk as well as classically oriented concert choral singing.

Modern secular Jewish choral art should be understood partly as a product of the Western European Emancipation, partly of the Haskala, and partly—and perhaps most directly—of the cultural nationalism and national consciousness that began to flow from the ripple effect of Zionism and Zionist sensibilities toward the end of the 19th century.

Any appreciation of the modern secular Jewish choral tradition (including its quasi-liturgical dimensions), however, is inseparable from an understanding of its religious or sacred musical roots. These roots lie in Jewish antiquity, and in religious contexts. Their subsequent but long-delayed stages of progression toward Western choral practice were also launched in liturgical settings—first in Western and west Central Europe and shortly thereafter in forward-looking eastern European synagogue circles. There were some historically circumscribed 17th- and early-18th-century episodes in Western Europe (Amsterdam and Italy, for example), in which several non-Jewish as well as Jewish composers wrote extra-liturgical choral pieces for communal occasions and celebrations and for religiously associated performance on non-holy days such as hoshana rabba (immediately preceding the concluding holy day(s) of Sukkot). But those episodes did not establish an historical continuum. The stage of concrete progression toward the establishment of a secular Jewish choral tradition, divorced from religious occasion or function, awaited the Jewish embrace of modernity and of secular Western cultural institutions.

In addition to discussions in talmudic, midrashic, and medieval exegetical literature, modern Judaic as well as objective musicological scholarship confirms that Levitical choral singing of the Psalms to instrumental accompaniment occurred along with the sacrificial ceremonies in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Those musical renditions were complementary to that cult, not an integral part of it. Nonetheless, although the Psalms contain no information about or references to the sacrificial procedures, their choral (as well as solo) singing seems to have formed the centerpiece of the aesthetic-spiritual aspect of the Temple rites. The Psalms (and perhaps other, now extinct texts) were performed in the Temple by de facto professional solo singers and choristers (as well as instrumental musicians)—the Levites, who first underwent substantial training and a type of apprenticeship.

Late biblical books, together with some Psalm superscriptions as well as other ancient sources from the region (the 7th-century B.C.E. Annals of Sennacherib, for example), offer some insights into musical matters pertaining to the First Temple, in which choral psalmody can be demonstrated to have played a prominent part. Naturally, thanks to talmudic and other postbiblical descriptions and references, we are in a position to piece together much more about the musical format and practice in the Second Temple, which was inherited from musical models in the First Temple when the service was reconstituted after a forced hiatus of seventy years. Some of these sources offer suggestions about the size, makeup, and training of the Temple choirs, as well as about their performance, although there is disagreement among the rabbis in the Talmud on various related matters (how Hallel was performed, for example). There is ample evidence of antiphonal (alternation between two choirs) and responsorial engagement (soloist alternating with choir), which is easily reflective of the parallel structure of the Psalms.

The Temple choirs included adult males and boys with unchanged voices who sang—insofar as we can determine—either in unison or octaves. Some superscriptions or headings of the Psalms may contain long-forgotten or now obscure instructions and other information pertaining to musical performance or to assigned occasionsofcertain Psalms. Interpretation of these superscriptions, however, remains a contested issue among both biblical and musical scholars. Even the simplest purportedly descriptive headings can generate dispute. There is disagreement, for example, concerning the superscriptive lam’natze’a—whether it should be construed essentially as “to the choirmaster” or “to the conductor,” or whether it might have referred to a particular song type to be arranged for those Psalms to which the term is attached.

Our knowledge of choral practice in the several decades following the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the Temple by the Romans is severely limited. The extent to which precentors in the synagogues of the first 800 years or so of the Diaspora were assisted musically by other singers is still undetermined, and concrete evidence remains insufficient. It may be supposed that some echo of choral psalmody in weak imitation or recollection of the Temple choral practice—particularly with regard to actual Psalm rendition as well as prayer response—was perpetuated in synagogues of that era.

We do know that by the late Middle Ages, Ashkenazi cantors in Rhineland communities had developed a trio format consisting of the hazzan, a bass, and a “singer” who was either a tenor (with, from all evidence, a malleable high register) or a boy with an unchanged soprano voice (the so-called singerl). Together, the bass and singer were known as the hazzan’s m’shor’rim (vocal/choral assistants). Ample visual evidence in the form of contemporaneous artistic images tells us that they stood either alongside or behind the hazzan during the liturgical renditions.

This format, considered a precursor of the first synagogue choirs of the modern era, remained in force for centuries. By the Baroque era in Western and west Central Europe, it had become institutionalized, as reflected in thousands of Baroque and late-18th-century cantorial manuscripts. Many of these contain instructions and musical indications for the trio and its individual members, whose singing was either from memory or improvisational. Written sources from the period also refer to the trio’s function, individually and ensemble, and to congregational reactions. It is also possible that the trio expanded in size to that of a small choir in some synagogues—or perhaps for special services—as early as the late Middle Ages. There are illuminated medieval Hebrew manuscripts with colorful images of small boy choirs, showing multiple choristers in the process of singing.

The worthy attempt by Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570–ca. 1630) to introduce ars musica, schooled part-singing, and polyphony into the Italian synagogue in the early 17th century was a short-lived, geographically circumscribed, and experimental episode that, unfortunately for the development of artistic sensibilities in synagogue worship—if indeed such was the primary goal—neither lasted nor spread. It remained virtually forgotten after Rossi’s death for more than two hundred years, until its historical rediscovery, editing, and reprinting by Cantor Samuel Naumbourg in Paris in the 1870s. Even then, Naumbourg’s 1876 performance edition (produced in collaboration with Vincent d’Indy), together with his introductory background essay—musicologically misguided by today’s standards but nonetheless historiographically valuable—did not ignite much interest in the long run. Nor did it provide inspiration for a revival of Rossi’s music or its entrance into synagogue or concert repertoires. That phenomenon had to wait for the so-called early music movement in America in the 20th century.

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, prior to the Viennese-born virtual revolution in synagogue music whose permanent impact across Europe (and eventually the entire Ashkenazi world in one way or another) began to be felt only in the 1830s, there were some isolated, well-meant but stillborn efforts at establishing and composing for a four-part choral format in a few still unmodernized Western European synagogues. Post-Revolution and post-Napoleanic France provided an initially hospitable environment. The most tangible evidence of those endeavors resides in the original liturgical settings for the annual cycle by the formerly itinerant cantor—and classical instrument performer—Israel Lowy [Love; Levy; Lowey; 1773–1832]. He was the principal cantor in Strasbourg from 1810 until 1818, and then in Paris, where he completed much of his music in conjunction with his post at the new synagogue in the rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth, which was dedicated in 1822. 

Lowy’s work is remembered (by a handful of cantorial historians) primarily owing to its posthumous publication by his family in 1862. More an historical document than a record of any enduring repertoire, its music is mostly a weak imitation of Western classical style, with barely a hint of traditional cantorial, modal, or other Ashkenazi material. It cannot be said to have sparked any choral tradition. Yet awareness of Lowy’s goals of creating a four-part choral format—and some of his music as well—seems to have penetrated cantorial circles as far east as Poland during his lifetime. There, probably for at least a century, since the early development of eastern European hazzanut, cantors had been employing improvisational “backup” choirs or small choral ensembles to support their free-flowing recitative singing. It is possible that Lowy’s music provided an example in principle (i.e., neither in style nor in melos) to Polish cantors in some of their earliest attempts to use and adapt Western four-part choral harmonization for their own, quite different, eastern cantorial brand. The four-part settings of the renowned but musically illiterate virtuoso hazzan Solomon Weintraub (a.k.a. Kashtan; 1781–1829), for instance—known to us only because his son, Cantor Hirsch Weintraub, notated them and then published them thirty years after his father’s death—were composed in Poland possibly beginning as early as his mid to late teen years. They thus preceded the ultimately seminal, permanently sea-changing, and far more meritorious (than Lowy’s) model provided by Salomon Sulzer’s music for the new Weiner Ritus (Vienna rite), which he probably did not begin to compose until about 1827. It is possible that Kashtan, along with other similarly oriented cantors of his generation in Poland who, like him, had no knowledge of musical notation and whose settings are thus not preserved, were influenced by Lowy’s arrangements and settings, if only as a guide.

What is relatively certain, however, is that by the early decades of the 19th century, long before modernity reached many of the eastern European cantorial centers, some form of four-part choral accompaniment to virtuoso hazzanut (SATB, with men and boys)—whether improvised or fixed—had become the desiderata there.

By the advent of the early-19th-century Reform movement in German communities, choirs accompanying traditional cantors were nothing new. But emblematic of the new Reform format was the installation of four-part choirs for simple, metrical hymn singing on the German Protestant model—still only male voices for quite some time, and sometimes in Hebrew as well as German, but now with organ accompaniment. Until later in the century—when the Reform services were rethought in many cases in order to restore a wider variety of musical expression that included modern stylizations of traditional hazzanut—choral hymns constituted pretty much the entire musical dimension. Even the few basic traditional melodies that were retained in those early Reform ventures were stylistically and harmonically arranged anew as quasi-hymns.

It was Salomon Sulzer (1804–1890), the brilliant and charismatic cantor of Vienna’s first official synagogue—who was committed to the perpetuation of traditional hazzanut yet modern and classically oriented—who established the standard of a schooled four-part choir capable of performing serious, artistic, and polyphonic settings. With the encouragement of his rabbi and the eventual enthusiasm of his congregants, he developed and implemented his vision for a modern sophisticated musical service format that was nonetheless firmly rooted in tradition. To this day, the synagogue—which has operated continuously except from about 1939 until after the war, a time during which Austria had erected freely and democratically to become part of the Third Reich—has never considered itself “nonorthodox.” (Had the more appropriate label not come erroneously in the late 20th century to connote something else in theological as well as superficial symbolic terms, one might refer aptly to the Seitenstettengasse Tempel [a.k.a. Sulzer Tempel] as “modern orthodox,” since it symbolized the view that participation in and appreciation of Western culture and adherence to Jewish life and beliefs are not mutually exclusive). Beginning humbly with a small ensemble of a few men and boys shortly after Sulzer’s arrival in Vienna in 1826, when the synagogue was inaugurated, the choir soon emerged as a major choral presence in the city—one in which the entire community took pride. Its repertoire, mostly composed by Sulzer but also including pieces he commissioned for it (including a Hebrew setting by Franz Schubert and others by kapellmeisters at St. Stephen’s Cathedral), espoused modernity and reflected contemporaneous refined tastes and standards without dispensing in any way with cantorial tradition or established Ashkenazi melos.

The choral standards of the Wiener Ritus were soon emulated and in some cases expanded and elaborated by synagogues throughout Western Europe. That process began in Berlin under the direction of Louis Lewandowski (1821–1894), whose own music eventually became the sine qua nonof the German Synagogue per se (mainstream Liberale—the orientation of his own synagogue—Reform, and orthodox), and in Paris, at the hand of Cantor Samuel Naumbourg (1815–1880). Lewandowski’s music, conceived for choral forces solidly in the Western classical mold, extended far beyond Germany to England, Australia, and the Americas (where it has endured, albeit more in some synagogal traditions than others, into the 21st century) and, until the Bolshevik Revolution and the ensuing civil war, as far east as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Both overlapping and succeeding Lewandowski and his generation were a number of other gifted composers in the German cultural orbit (apart from Vienna and its environs) whose music supplemented, though rarely ever supplanted, his repertoire in their own communities. Prominent among them were Hirsch Weintraub and Eduard Birnbaum (in Königsberg), Emanuel Kirschner (in Munich), and Leon Kornitzer (in Hamburg), along with a host of more locally recognized composers. All of them wrote for the sophisticated, schooled choirs that had become the norm of congregational expectations in German-speaking communities by the late 19th century.

In addition to the fairly common absorption east of the Oder of certain specific parts of the Sulzer and Lewandowski repertoires, it did not take long for the overall structural choral model of German-speaking Jewry to spread eastward in principle and to form a generic prism through which a quite different aggregate melosand cantorial tradition would become refracted. Increasingly during the second half of the 19th century, the growing number of cosmopolitan, Haskala-influenced Jewish communities in the Czarist Empire, as well as in eastern European cities of the Hapsburg Empire (especially in Galicia and, later, Hungary and Slovakia), proudly harbored highly cultivated synagogue choirs. Evidence of this phenomenon is found in the substantial body of music composed (and often published) for those choruses, as well as in contemporaneous reports, recorded recollections, and other documents that have only recently begun to emerge from obscurity.

Meanwhile, the geographically and numerically larger eastern European realm of uncompromising traditional hazzanut—in large cities as well as smaller towns, and among itinerant cantors and their choirs—was far less affected by Western developments. Throughout the 19th century and until the German as well as Soviet destruction of European synagogue culture by the 1940s, that traditional world enjoyed elaborate and engaging choral dimensions. But they remained significantly less artistically sophisticated, more emotionally transparent, and more infused with folk idioms, Hassidic echoes, and popular operatic borrowings than the choral music in the more modernized synagogues of Western-impacted circles of eastern Ashkenazi Jewry. Nonetheless, even the choral practice of the older, traditional world now availed itself of four-part writing based on Western principles of harmonization, voice leading, and simple polyphonic procedures.

Despite its long-running attraction to the Western classical music traditions as a whole, and for the Central European canon in particular, German-speaking Jewry neither fathered nor developed secular choral institutions of its own. Jewish choral music remained the province of the synagogue, whether for worship therein or for public, municipal, or state occasions. Compositions by Sulzer and Lewandowski, for example, for such communal celebrations as an emperor’s birthday, an anniversary of some important political event, or a military victory, were almost always Psalm settings conceived to evoke a religious aura. They were paraliturgical in function and sometimes ecumenical by intention; and the choruses involved were synagogue-sponsored, even if the performances were held elsewhere.

As they did in 19th-century America, German or Austrian Jews who wished to participate in avocational choral singing of a secular nature did so alongside their non-Jewish fellow countrymen in singing societies and amateur choruses. Consequently, no purely secular Jewish choral concert repertoires or tradition emanated from western or German-speaking Jewry.

It was in late-19th-century eastern Europe, mostly in the Czarist Empire but to some extent in the Hapsburg Empire as well, that a variegated tradition of Jewish secular choruses sprouted in Jewishly pluralistic urban centers. A response to Haskala sentiments and sensibilities of differing and sometimes violently competing political, ideological, linguistic, and cultural orientations, these choruses ranged from extra-religious to nonreligious, and across the gamut to antireligious altogether. In broad, perhaps tentatively oversimplified terms, we may view such secular choruses as falling into two usually distinct—but each heterogenous—categories:

1.FOLK CHORUSES. These generally coalesced around some Jewish political, quasi-political, or social commitment. The Yiddish cultural sphere included Yiddish-speaking workers’ choruses of various political shades and stripes—affiliated, for example, with the Jewish Labor Bund (especially in prewar and interwar Poland), socialist as well as farther left parties, and more benignly apolitical (or supposedly apolitical) Yiddish culturalist circles. Their repertoires—a subject aching for research now that previously sealed archival material may be available in the post-Soviet era—included typical workers’ movement songs; songs of social unrest, protest, and solidarity; and lifecycle folksongs—in Yiddish but also in Russian and, to a lesser extent, Polish.

These types of choruses proliferated further and became more institutionalized in the United States, where they could operate freely within an open—though not always more tolerant or less critical—society (Jewish as well as general) without fear of reprisals that were often a risk in Europe, or of government bans altogether.

At the other end of the political and language spectra were those choruses wedded to the Zionist movement and its tributary organizations. We may presume that by the 20th century their repertoires embraced mostly simple choral arrangements of modern Hebrew songs associated with the Zionist enterprise already beginning to bloom and show promise in Palestine. These were the songs urging aliya, describing the idealism of reclaiming and rebuilding the land, glorifying collective agriculture and moderate socialist values, proclaiming the virtues of Zionist objectives, and assuring ultimate success.

Jews participated in these Hebrew or Yiddish folk choruses in Europe, and then in America, in quest not so much of serious artistic experience as of musically expressive outlets in contexts of camaraderie, social interaction among like-minded compatriots, and pursuit of their causes. Moreover, these choruses provided gentle but emotionally effective means for indoctrination and promotion of political-social ideals; and they made for galvanizing musical entertainment at meetings of their parent organizations.

In certain ways, the sometimes uneasy coexistence of the Yiddish and the Hebrew folk choruses not only articulated the differences among political and utopian orientations, they also mirrored the tensions between Hebraists and Yiddishists that characterized and sometimes bedeviled Jewish secular society as a whole in eastern Europe during this time frame.

2.WESTERN CLASSICALLY ORIENTED CONCERT CHORUSES. These ensembles were rooted in cultural Zionist sensibilities, not necessarily accompanied by corresponding political Zionist activity or agendas of individual choristers, and motivated by the Haskala-oriented love affair with a rejuvenated Hebrew language as the proposed desiderata of Jewish modernity. These were, essentially, classically focused amateur concert choruses, born of an equal desire to participate as modern, proudly self-identified Jews in the musical continuum of Western culture.

The most famous of these ensembles were the Hazomir choruses in Łódź and Warsaw, founded at the end of the 19th century; and there were additional quasi-branch choruses under the same name in other cities—Czernowitz, for example—whose histories have only recently come to light and which merit serious investigation. In their zeal to combine Western musical standards with modern Hebrew culture, the Hazomir choruses sang such representative works of the Western canon as Brahms’s A German Requiem, Haydn’s The Creation, and full concert versions of Verdi operas (La Traviata, for example) entirely in modern Hebrew translations. In retrospect one might be tempted to view such performances in Diaspora environments as contrived, almost as “stunts,” although the emotional as well as intellectual gratification from that sort of identification with the renaissance of the Hebrew language should not be dismissed. Then, too, there is the issue of vocal music in “one’s own” language. Operas and oratorios were (and still are) routinely performed in translation in European countries whose language differed from that of the original libretti or texts—the long-standing tradition of performing Italian opera in German for German audiences, for example, or Wagner in Italian south of the Alps. But a more practical and culturally significant underlying reason for reliance on such translated works was the lack of suitable and similarly satisfying secular Hebrew choral literature. For that reason, some Hazomir conductors began to compose Hebrew concert works for their choruses, and this, even if many pieces were still based on religious themes, marks the launch of a Hebrew secular choral repertoire. Especially prominent among such conductor-composers was Zavel Zilberts, whose work in this area is discussed his biography.

No consideration of secular Jewish choral literature can ignore awareness of the central role of choral art in the culture of modern Israel, which is discussed in the introduction to Volume 8. Fertilized and nurtured by the modern Hebrew culture phenomenon that was kindled by and helped to awaken Zionist sensibilities, modern Hebrew and Hebraically derived choral art found its locus partly in Israel, partly in America, and partly in the nexus between the two cultural centers—increasingly so in the decades following statehood. Choral creativity in Israel, apart from enriching its own musical life, has had a significant impact on the conscious as well as subliminal development of secular Hebrew choral repertoire in America, whether in the original Hebrew of texts or in their English translation. By extension, the historical Israeli focus on choral art has also inspired many American choral works of Jewish content that are based on English and other sources not necessarily related directly to Hebrew literature.

Choral pieces in Hebrew or English without programs or dramatic story lines constitute the combined focus of this volume. Musical-dramatic choral works are addressed in Volume 17, and Yiddish choral repertoire—miniature pieces as well as musical-dramatic expressions—is one of the subjects embraced by Volume 12.

The flowering of secular Jewish choral art and concert music in the United States enjoyed a steeply accelerated pace as the 20th century progressed, with the upward grade of incline in both volume and variety rising rapidly after the 1950s. In the aggregate, this repertoire reflects a full range of choral techniques and styles—tonal, nontonal, and polytonal; comfortably melodic and rigorously chromatic; declamatory and lyrical; and contrapuntal as well as homophonic.

  • Related Tags

    choral Psalms Volume 18


    Don't miss our latest releases, podcasts, announcements and giveaways throughout the year! Stay up to date with our newsletter.

    {{msToTime(currentPosition)}} / {{msToTime(duration)}}