Born in Walldorf (Meiningen), Saxony (now Germany), Gustave M. Cohen was, insofar as we know, the first musically as well as Judaically educated modern cantor to serve an American Ashkenazi pulpit. He was also the composer of what appears to be the first Jewish liturgical music of any kind published in the United States.

After receiving formal musical education and pedagogic training in both Hebrew and German at Heidelberghausen, Cohen immigrated to America in 1844. He became the first cantor at New York’s newly organized Temple Emanu-El, a position to which he was appointed in 1845—the year of that congregation’s founding.

Temple Emanu-El, which eventually became one of the flagship synagogues of the American Reform movement, was consciously and formally established to be a reformist or reform-oriented congregation before there was an institutional framework of a Reform movement—one of only two in that time frame to be founded with a reform identity as its raison d’être (the other being Har Sinai in Baltimore, which preceded Emanu-El) rather than instituting reforms and innovations after being inaugurated more or less automatically as a traditional or nominally orthodox congregation. Yet Emanu-El’s initial commitment to reform was without much in the way of any formal agenda or platform of specific policies or measures. At the outset, the chief concern of its founding members was not so much an organized program of articulated liturgical (and less so theological) reforms as it was the principle of an orderly, modern, and dignified service, marked above all by decorum. Through their very embrace of that goal they envisioned their perceived departure from the traditional service atmosphere and aesthetics. Beyond this underlying primal desiderata, and compared with some of the other reform-bound congregations of the period, the axiom Festina lente (Make haste slowly!)—an admonition attributed to Augustus Caesar—might be said to have guided the synagogue’s conservative course of progression toward liturgical, ritual, and musical innovations. Only gradually over the span of roughly its first fifteen years did the congregation find its way within the embrace of the emerging Reform movement.

For those who understood no Hebrew, a German hymnal was introduced early on in Emanu-El’s life, but its contents at that time were not intended to replace the standard liturgy. During Cohen’s tenure, piyyutim, which could be considered echoes and symbols of orthodoxy, were still recited or sung. Their number, however, was reduced, along with the elimination of some prayers, at the direction of Rabbi Merzbacher, pending later and more substantial liturgical revisions. Nonetheless, the basic elements of hazzanut and nusa hat’filla (prayer modes) according to the German tradition prevailed then, even if their vocal delivery was restrained. Biblical cantillation was retained, and both the shaarit and mussaf services were kept largely intact for some time, with only a few deletions or emendations. Rabbi Merzbacher’s new prayerbook, Seder T’filla (the first revised and reformed prayerbook to gain any appreciable acceptance in America beyond the pulpit of its author-editor, which was later revised and further abridged by Merzbacher’s successor at Emanu-El, Rabbi Samuel Adler), as well as mixed-gender seating, was not introduced until 1855, after Cohen had left. (The issue of men praying with uncovered heads was not raised until 1859.) An organ was installed for use at Sabbath, Festival, and High Holy Day services as well as other occasions—and an organist engaged—in 1849, while Cohen still presided over the music. Hebrew was still the principal language of prayer throughout his service and even afterward. Predigtlieder (sermon songs) were sung by the choir in German immediately before and after the sermon, but far from an American reform, this was a custom that flourished in Germany and Vienna throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries—not only in Reform synagogues but in mainstream traditional Liberale as well as cosmopolitan orthodox synagogues, including, for example, the legendary neo-orthodox synagogue in Frankfurt am Main. Moderate improvisational hazzanut was more or less deemphasized and eventually eliminated only under Cohen’s successor, Cantor Adolph Rubin, when the congregation came to prefer formally composed or arranged solo vocal renditions together with choral pieces and organ accompaniment.

Cantor Cohen’s duties and responsibilities were outlined by the Temple Emanu-El board in its April 2, 1848, minutes—which were recorded entirely in German at that time:

  • To be present at every service and to function as the Vorbeter (prayer leader, i.e., cantor or ba’al t’filla);
  • To be present at all choral rehearsals and to participate therein;
  • To be responsible for writing out all the musical selections to be used for [intoning] the liturgy;
  • Fourteen days before holy days and other ceremonial occasions, to receive instruction from the rabbi and to prepare accordingly;
  • In the event that an elementary or children’s school should be established, the cantor is to act as a teacher, for which additional compensation will be determined by the Board;
  • Furthermore, the cantor, if requested, is to assume the position of assistant secretary—for additional compensation.

By contrast, the duties of the cantor at Anshe Chesed in New York were spelled out more specifically about a year and a half later in traditional contexts, as reflected in its minutes: to read [i.e., intone/chant] on Friday night from l’khu n’ran’na until the service is over [i.e., from kabbalat shabbat through the ma’ariv service]; to read on shabbat morning from nishmat until the sefer torah is on the shulkhan [reader’s desk] and then again from y’kum purkan until the service is over [i.e., both the shaarit and mussaf services, and the appropriate texts of the Torah service]; to be in the synagogue shabbat to mina (afternoon service) but not to read [i.e., mina, which was probably left to a layman]; to be in the synagogue on yom kippur katan and to read if the Board of Trustees shall request him to do so; to perform the celebration of marriages provided that he has received the written permission thereto from the Board of Trustees and at such celebrations to wear his silk cloak, his duty of performing the celebration of marriages to cease from the moment that this congregation should get a rav [rabbi] on whom this duty would revolve; to attend the l’vaya [funeral] of any member or of his wife or of his children, if such have attained the third year, who may happen to die and to be buried on the burial ground of this congregation, also to wear his silk cloak on such occasions; to read the prayers in the synagogue on such days as the State government may designate as days of religious celebration and observance for all religious denominations.

During his first year at Temple Emanu-El, Cohen organized New York’s first regular synagogue choir, a volunteer group of men and boys. Isaac Mayer Wise, the prominent leader of the American Reform movement and the founder of its principal institutions, had occasion to hear Cohen’s choir at services. Acknowledging the choir’s musical limitations, Wise nonetheless noted the dignity and decorum it fostered—issues that were at the forefront of rabbinical criticism during that period.

Cohen’s choir was not the first group of choristers to sing as an ensemble in an American synagogue. Earlier, some ad hoc choirs had been organized for special occasions, such as dedication ceremonies for newly established synagogues or the opening of new synagogue buildings—such as Shearith Israel in New York in 1818 and later Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia and Beth Elohim in Charleston, among others. And there is reason to believe that even as early as the Colonial period, there were simple, unison choral roles in Sephardi synagogue services, especially at Shearith Israel, although there is no record that permanent choirs were established prior to American independence. Cohen’s choir at Emanu-El was the first to be established on an ongoing basis as a regular feature of services, and the first known four-part ensemble for that function—not only in New York but anywhere in the United States.

For repertoire, Cohen relied initially on contemporaneous European models and sources. In his recollections of his visit to Temple Emanu-El, Rabbi Wise referred specifically to settings by Salomon Sulzer (1804–1890), Oberkantor of the first synagogue in Vienna and the world-renowned creator of both modern cantorial-choral art and the modern clerical office of the cantor. There is no record of Cohen’s actual repertoire in the 1840s with any source attributions. Rabbi Wise’s reference might have been a generic observation rather than an identification of Sulzer specifically, since Sulzer’s name had become synonymous with modernity in synagogue services in terms of an artistic choral parameter that fostered dignity and decorum. On the other hand, since Sulzer’s music was certainly available by that time even in America, it is entirely possible that Rabbi Wise correctly recognized certain pieces—especially since he had heard Sulzer and his choir in Vienna.

During his seven years at Emanu-El, Cohen began to arrange and compose his own settings, at least some of which he introduced into the repertoire. In 1852 his contract was terminated, for reasons that remain unclear and which are not reflected in any extant documents. In his groundbreaking study of the history of New York Jewry, The Rise of the Jewish Community of New York, 1654–1860 (1945), Hyman B. Grinstein suggested that the decision might have arisen from a desire for a more artistic voice, but there are no indications of that motive in the congregation’s minutes. In any event, there does appear to have been some ill feeling that surfaced in a dispute over proprietary issues concerning Cohen’s compositions and arrangements as well as other music he had been using. The congregation insisted that he leave behind all of that music, including his own. This did not preclude, however, his departure with copies, which may have formed part of the contents of his subsequently published volumes. It does suggest that his repertoire—which by then included his original work—continued to be heard at Temple Emanu-El for a time among the renditions by his successor, Cantor Rubin.

Cohen also taught Judaic subjects, including some Hebrew, at Temple Emanu-El, as he did in his subsequent pulpits. He developed a particular interest in pedagogic methodology, advocating a theory of language education that had been developed and propounded in western Europe in the 19th century. According to that view, grammar should be learned before any attempts at translation. In 1850 Cohen published a related work, The Hebrew Language Demonstrated on Ollendorf’s Method. In his preface he warned against teaching Hebrew to a child who had not yet learned to read and write English. He cautioned against purely mechanical reading proficiency in Hebrew and insisted—contrary to older practices—on acquiring at least an elementary knowledge of Hebrew before attempting exercises in translation of the Torah. The first part of the book contains lessons in Hebrew grammar with paradigms; the second part introduces new vocabulary, mostly biblical, in stages—and only then does it offer exercises in translation from Hebrew to English as well as English to Hebrew.

In 1861, after several years in Chicago and Cincinnati, where communities of German Jews had been established, Cohen was engaged by a Cleveland synagogue, Anshe Chesed (now Fairmount Temple) as its cantor. In addition, he was to be its “spiritual leader,” with the title Reverend Cohen, since he had no rabbinical certification. That was not an uncommon occurrence at the time, when officially “ordained” rabbis—rabbis imported from Europe, since no American seminary or mechanism for ordination yet existed—were not always available. Also, some congregations preferred lay leadership during periods of transition from traditional, nominally orthodox standards to a series of reforms and modern innovations.

Anshe Chesed was actually a reunification of the city’s first synagogue, the Israelite Congregation, and its 1841 breakaway congregation. Following a destructive fire at the first, the two were reestablished and reorganized in 1845 once again as a single congregation, this time as the Israelitic Anshe Chesed Society of Cleveland—still as a German, nominally or ostensibly orthodox (viz., status quo, not “nonorthodox”) synagogue. During the 1860s it began to undergo various reforms in its liturgy, format, and ritual practices, although at a much slower pace than at Tefereth Israel, which had been founded in 1850 by a small group of disaffected members of Anshe Chesed. Some of the reforms at Anshe Chesed, such as the introduction of an organ at its 1863 Rosh Hashana services and a mixed-gender choir, were spearheaded by Cohen. (Earlier, at its 1860 rededication ceremony in its newly enlarged sanctuary, which was attended by Rabbi Wise, an organ had been played to accompany a choir; and afterward the congregation purchased and permanently installed the borrowed or rented organ. But that ceremony had occurred on a Sunday, not on the Sabbath or other Jewish holy day, when the organ, like all other musical instruments, would have been proscribed both by tradition and by Jewish legal provisions.) Although Cohen had agreed not to initiate reforms in worship without consultation with a group of the congregation’s leaders, his introduction of the organ at that Rosh Hashana service—along with the innovation of a German choral prelude sung by a mixed volunteer choir—appears to have met with enthusiastic approval and to have persuaded in favor of reforms in general. Referring to that service in a retrospective article thirty-four years later, a local Jewish periodical quoted the leadership’s reaction collectively: “If this is what you call reform, we heartily agree with you.”

Cohen’s collection of Sabbath liturgical settings, The Sacred Harp of Judah (Part I), was published in Cleveland ca. 1864 by S. Brainard and Co., a prestigious midwestern publisher at that time. The firm’s motivation behind the commercial interest in synagogue music is not entirely clear, but it may indicate something of this music’s perceived demand, as well as its anticipated reception in other American synagogues. Subtitled A Choice Collection of Music for the Use of Synagogues, Schools and Homes, the volume contains thirty-four settings for Sabbath evening and morning services. Nearly all are in Hebrew, with only two in German and three in English. There is also a pedagogic essay on the rudiments of music, along with a set of vocal exercises.

That publication marked an important event in American Jewish cultural history. Not only is it the first original Hebrew liturgical music printed in the United States, but it is also the first to be published, commercially or otherwise. It was preceded only by a few irrelevant curiosities of spurious Jewish connection that were entirely devoid of Judaic content or any Jewish musical basis. These include E. Roget’s voice and piano adaptation of the text of the hymn adon olam to an air by the relatively obscure Italian organist and composer Ferdinando Bertoni (1725–1813), printed in an 1843 issue of the American Jewish periodical The Occident; and the non-Jewish organist Wilhelm Fischer’s collection of Germanic hymns and hymnlike settings mostly in German, with a few in Hebrew, Auswahl israelitisch religioser Lieder in Musik (Selection of Israelite [Jewish] Religious Songs in Musical Notation), which was self-published in Philadelphia in 1863. According to the bibliographer Irene Heskes, however, who examined the pertinent documents at the Library of Congress, Fischer’s collection had been published previously in Germany, although the American reissue acquired an American copyright. George J. Webb’s English-language song “The Sorrowing Jew” (Boston, 1841), presumably his own setting of an insipid, mawkish poem whose author is identified only as “a Friend of Israel, in London,” is sometimes erroneously—and carelessly—cited as the earliest known “Jewish musical publication” in America. But apart from this song’s strictly nonliturgical nature, any such claim betrays failure to have examined the lyrics. The poem, which appears to express patronizing sympathy for the historical plight of the outcast Jew in typically Anglican terms—and to condemn his persecution with the familiar reminder that “He who was offered for you [Christ], in the days of His flesh was a sorrowing Jew”—is nonetheless a transparent call for conversion to Christianity: “O teach them their own pierced Messiah to view / And bring to his [sic] fold the poor sorrowing Jew.” Obviously this is not an item of “Jewish music.”

The hymnal published in Charleston by Beth Elohim in 1843 is also proclaimed as the earliest American Jewish publication. But it contains texts only, without music.

The Sacred Harp of Judah comprises original compositions for the synagogue and its liturgy, as indicated in the preface and on the title page. No preexisting melodies have been identified as sources. Moreover, even if monetary subsidies from Jewish individuals or agencies were involved (and there is nothing in the volume that would indicate any such underwriting), its publication by a firm outside Jewish communal circles may suggest at least a perceived acceptance of modern synagogue music as part of the larger world of sacred music in general.

Given Cohen’s reform-minded orientation, the overall conservatism of The Sacred Heart of Judah is a bit curious in terms of its musical features and of the liturgical texts upon which its focuses. It may reveal something of his own bias toward the retention of traditional liturgical elements even within Reform formats. Or it may reflect the fact that some of its music had been written during his New York years—or even prior to his arrival in America. Some of it might be from the repertoire he was asked to leave behind at Temple Emanu-El. The title page states that the work is “the result of twenty-five years’ experience and gleanings,” and therefore suggests that some of the earlier settings may have existed in manuscript by the late 1840s, if not earlier.

The Sacred Harp of Judah is not in any way limited to the Western-type extra-liturgical hymn genre—the principal musical dimension in many so-called radical reform synagogues in Germany since about 1818—that soon predominated in American Reform worship until well past the turn of the century. Rather, Cohen’s volume concentrates largely upon the regular and traditionally obligatory prayer texts that form the core of standard liturgy. These settings feature the older, nonmetrical or pre-metrical prayers, for which Cohen retained kernels of cantorial, recitative-like intonation. There are even a few ad libitum solo passages and a few traditional formulaic elements that require cantorial familiarity with improvisation. The standard metrical hymns that are part of all synagogue rites, such as adon olam and ein keloheinu, are included here as well, but the style of settings for these texts is more or less consistent with contemporaneous practice in traditional synagogues. On the other hand, there are also settings for prayers that were soon to be eliminated in Reform worship—including some that had already been excised from emerging Reform liturgies.

The pervading style in The Sacred Harp of Judah reflects—even if with a large measure of dilution—the melos of the modern-traditional synthesis heard in mid-century centrist Liberale as well as some modern orthodox synagogues in Germany and Vienna, although its music sounds less artistically inspired than that of its Central European counterparts. Far less does it seem to anticipate the more Protestant-influenced persona of the musical components of later 19th-century Reform worship in America. There are faint echoes of some 19th-century Central European composers and compilations, and there are hints of Sulzer’s own approach, though admittedly primitive by comparison. Sulzer’s groundbreaking first volume, Schir Zion [I], was published at the end of the 1830s (1838 or 1839; the precise date is unknown) in Vienna, but it had circulated prior to that in manuscript copies, especially in German communities. By the early 1860s, on the eve of the publication of Sulzer’s second volume (1865), those in the cantorial vanguard in America were certainly aware of his music. We cannot know for certain whether Cohen was familiar with it, although it is known that Sulzer’s fame had spread to America. Nor do we know the extent, if any, to which he actually knew the works of other mid-century synagogue composers in the German-speaking cultural orbit, namely Louis Lewandowski (1821–94), or of Samuel Naumbourg (1815–80) in Paris. By the 1870s, however, Cohen was sufficiently conversant with some of Sulzer’s actual repertoire (the second volume of Schir Zion having been published in Vienna with significant publicity and dissemination) to include Sulzer settings in his own subsequent American anthology.

In a number of settings in The Sacred Harp of Judah, Cohen restores to the Reform format a traditional responsorial parameter and an interplay among cantor, choir, and congregation—a prominent feature in the music of Sulzer and his disciples. In his preface, Cohen bemoans the fact that formal choral hymn singing, which the early German Reform leaders as well as reform-minded American synagogues had emphasized to promote congregational participation, had silenced congregations instead. His aim, therefore, was to create music that would provide for, facilitate, and reactivate sung congregational responses, which would nonetheless not preclude practiced choral renditions with solo lines sung by the cantor. To that end, he explains, he has made simplicity his chief goal. He sums up his desiderata as follows:

To the congregation belongs properly the response, to the choir the singing. The minister [cantor/reader] reads the prayer, and causes by the recitative either the congregation to join by responses, or the choir by singing.

Cohen also provides a veiled answer to the implied question of why, in light of these goals, he does not consider it sufficient simply to rely on the music of Sulzer, Lewandowski, Naumbourg, and others (though he does not identify them by name)—viz., why he considers his own compositional efforts necessary for the American Synagogue. His answer is twofold: First, he feels that the works of the European composers are “too complicated, and designed only for well-drilled choirs and competent solo singers.” The implication is that the average American synagogue musical forces were not yet up to the task. Second, he refers to the difficulty in obtaining the music of European composers, referring to the excessive expense either in importing the published volumes or in commissioning copies.

All of Cohen’s Hebrew settings, as well as the two German ones, are a cappella; only the three English pieces have organ accompaniment. Yet the use of the organ was becoming the standard in reform-oriented congregations, and a virtual sine qua non of Reform formats—including in his own congregation. One can only speculate that the accompaniments for the three English settings were provided to encourage their use by general secular or even non-Jewish choirs outside the synagogal realm.

The Sacred Harp of Judah is more historically significant than musically meritorious. Nonetheless, it does contain some lovely melodies, even if their harmonization is pedestrian and their development routine. The melody of its L’kha dodi, for example, is not necessarily inferior to some contemporaneous European settings published in Germany. And the triple meter Adon olam, with a lilt that need not detract from the majesty of the text if judicious tempo is observed, can be a valid expression of the poem. Some of the other choral settings are intelligently crafted as well.

During his first year at Anshe Chesed, Cohen also founded the Zion Musical Society, a communal performing group associated with the synagogue but aimed at public performance outside worship services. This was probably the first community-wide, nonsynagogal Jewish singing society in America—one that may have included instrumental musicians in its performances. We have no record of any earlier one. Its first public concert, at Melodeon Hall in 1862, was a program of sacred vocal and instrumental music, although it is not clear what was meant by the latter (probably liturgical melodies arranged for instrumental forces). After 1866, however, the group apparently began to disintegrate; by 1873 it had dissolved altogether.

Cohen was also an active community leader outside cantorial, choral, or pedagogic realms. He is credited in press reports with founding the Hebrew Benevolent Society of Cleveland in 1863—although this must have been a refounding after either a hiatus or an interim dissolution, since it is known that this same society (with the same name) was first established in or around 1855. In addition, he served on the editorial staff of Waechter und Anzeiger, and he was instrumental in the functioning and guidance of the Hebrew Young Ladies’ Literary and Social Society.

 

In 1865–66 a group of defectors from Anshe Chesed, apparently dissatisfied with the slow pace of reforms there, signaled its readiness to join Tifereth Israel—but only on its acceptance of certain propositions, one of which was that Cohen be able to come with them and be appointed its cantor and choir leader. While Tifereth Israel hesitated, Cohen left Cleveland altogether for Milwaukee. When a second petition from the defectors was accepted, resulting in the group becoming members as a bloc, Cohen was indeed offered the position, and he returned from Milwaukee. Suddenly envious, Anshe Chesed attempted to lure him back before it was too late, offering him a significant salary increase. By that time Anshe Chesed had proceeded a bit further with reforms, including abandoning the traditional separation of men from women in the pews and the extension of the annual reading of the complete Torah to a three-year cycle. But the momentum at Tifereth Israel toward greater reforms and toward approaching Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s model was greater, including adoption of Wise’s prayerbook, Minhag Amerika—going even further than Wise by voting to delete that prayerbook’s messianic references. (At that time, like Anshe Chesed, Tifereth Israel still retained both the second days of Festivals and the custom of calling individuals up to the bima during the Torah-reading service on special occasions—Aufrufen—to celebrate events such as an impending marriage; a boy’s attainment of his majority upon his thirteenth birthday and thus his obligation to observe the commandments [as a bar mitzvah—lit., “son of commandments”]; one’s rescue from danger; the birth of a child; and other similar occurrences, including those connected with the conclusion of the thirty-day mourning period following the death of an immediate family member, or the anniversary of the death.) Wise, however, had encouraged the abolition of these practices. Whether these differences between the two congregations constituted the deciding factor is uncertain, but Cohen did elect to accept Tifereth Israel’s offer even in the face of Anshe Chesed’s campaign of enticement. His service there, however, lasted only a year. For reasons that are unclear (which may or may not have had anything to do with the congregation’s heeding Wise’s advice to bring Jacob Meyer from Cincinnati as its rabbi), Cohen was dismissed in 1867. Anshe Chesed was still ready to receive him, and he returned and remained there until 1873. Whatever the precise circumstances surrounding the Tifereth Israel episode, Cohen’s embarrassment seems not to have disappeared, for in his 1897 recollections he omitted mention of it—“recalling” only that he returned from Milwaukee to Anshe Chesed.

After he left Anshe Chesed in 1873, Cohen appears not to have served any cantorial pulpit on a regular basis. He taught music privately, pursued other means of income, received two patents for a device to turn music pages, wrote a book on arithmetic, and was engaged in a variety of other musical and pedagogic projects.

Cohen authored and edited two additional musical collections. His second volume of The Sacred Harp of Judah was published by Brainard in 1878. This anthology included pieces by Sulzer, Naumbourg, and other western and Central European synagogue composers as well as new original settings of his own. A separate but nearly identical edition of this volume was issued (probably earlier) in unpublished manuscript form under the title The Orpheus, or Musical Recreations, for the Family Circle and Public Worship—with Piano and Organ Accompaniment: An Entire New Collection of Songs, Duets, Choruses, Hymns & Psalms. It was dedicated to Benjamin F[ranklin] Peixotto, the Grand Sar of B’nai Brith in the mid-1860s, American consul to Romania, and, in the mid-1850s, president of the original Hebrew Benevolent Society of Cleveland. The title Orpheus suggests that it might have been intended in part for use by the Orpheus Choral Organization, a typical German singing society in New York that included Jewish members.

 

By: Neil W. Levin


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