Heinrich Schalit is one of the principal names associated with serious mid-20th-century American synagogue music for Reform worship—although some of his settings had currency at one time in liberal Conservative synagogues as well. He was one of the leading figures among the circle of European-born synagogue composers who emigrated to the United States during the 1930s—many of them as refugees from the Third Reich—which included Herbert Fromm, Isadore Freed, Hugo Chaim Adler, Frederick Piket, and Julius Chajes. Collectively as well as individually, those composers established a new layer of repertoire and a new composite aesthetic within the Reform orbit, which—together with the music of American-born colleagues such as Abraham Wolf Binder, earlier arrivals such as Lazare Saminsky, postwar émigrés such as Max Janowski, and second-generation émigrés such as Samuel Adler—pretty much dominated the Reform musical scene until at least the early 1970s. That repertoire has continued to reverberate despite the inroads of more populist styles.
Schalit was born in Vienna, where he studied composition with Robert Fuchs (1847–1927) and with Joseph Labor (1842–1924), who was also one of Arnold Schoenberg’s teachers. In 1927 Schalit was appointed to the position of organist at the principal Liberale synagogue in Munich, whose learned cantor and productive resident composer, Emanuel Kirschner (1857–1938)—a former singer in the choir of Louis Lewandowski in Berlin and a follower in his path, albeit in a more artistically sophisticated vein—appears to have exerted a lasting influence on him. His first synagogue composition was a setting of v’shamru for the Sabbath eve liturgy, which he then incorporated into his first full Sabbath eve service, Eine Freitagabend Liturgie. That service, published in Germany in 1933 and later revised for American publication in 1951, remains one of his seminal achievements, notwithstanding his substantial subsequent oeuvre. By that time he had grown dissatisfied with what he called an “unorganic mixture of traditional cantorial chants with congregational and choral music in the German style of the 19th century,” and he felt that the synagogue of the 20th century required its elimination. Liturgical composition became for him a sacred calling, with a sense of mission that he posed as a challenge to contemporary Jewish musicians to “prepare a change in style and outlook,” as he wrote in the preface to his first service. His goal was to “create a new, unified liturgical music growing out of the soil of the old-new, significant and valuable source material” that had become available through recent musicological studies. In his own music for worship he therefore consciously avoided the 19th-century harmonic idioms that had become so firmly accepted through Lewandowski’s hegemony, forging instead his own less conventional harmonic language that often incorporates moderate, controlled dissonance within a basically if sometimes gently pungent diatonic framework.
In 1933, following the National Socialist victory in Germany and the appointment of Hitler as chancellor, Schalit accepted the position of music director at the Great Synagogue in Rome, where, despite the Mussolini regime, the racial and anti-Jewish parameters of Italian Fascism had yet to emerge. In 1940, after it had become necessary once again to relocate, he immigrated to the United States. After serving a number of synagogues in the East and on the West Coast, he settled in Denver. After a brief period in Los Angeles, he returned to the Denver area and retired in Evergreen, Colorado.
Among Schalit’s other important works are a Sabbath morning service; a second Friday evening service; a setting of the k’dusha; settings of texts by medieval Spanish Hebrew poets; individual prayer settings; and many Psalms.