The distinguished organist and composer of organ music Ludwig Altman was born in Breslau, then in Germany, and an important cultural center and capital of the Prussian province of Lower Silesia, but now Wroclaw, Poland. He studied at the University of Breslau with Arnold Schmitz and Peter Epstein; and from 1929 to 1933, at Berlin’s State Academy for Sacred Music, he attended courses given by Hans Joachim Moser, Arnold Schering, Johannes Wolf, and Friedreich Blume and studied organ privately with Arthur Zubke. In the German music education system of that time, organ study was not generally offered as part of conservatory curricula, and training was largely the province of the church organ world in general or of institutions devoted specifically to sacred music—which, of course, meant church music.

After the National Socialist Party came to power as a result of the elections of 1932 and began the regime of the Third Reich, Altman remained in Berlin for three years. From the beginning of the regime and during the 1930s, Jews and those perceived as Jews and so classified by the Nazi party were restricted to specifically Jewish venues and auspices—excluded by law from employment by or participation in any German cultural organizations or institutions, or from performing in German public venues. Altman was able to find employment with the Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin,the official Jewish communal and religious structure, which rotated its cantors and organists among its many mainstream Liberale “organ synagogues” (orgel Synagogen). (Reform had its own Gemeinde, and orthodoxy came under the umbrella of its own k’hilla, or community.) From 1933 to 1936 he filled his assigned post as the organist of the Neue Synagoge in the Oranienburger Strasse, which had been built in the nineteenth century as Berlin’s second synagogue and was the city’s first orgel Synagoge.

Altman left Germany in 1936 and immigrated to the United States, settling the following year in San Francisco, where, until his retirement in 1987, he was the organist and choral director at Congregation Emanu-El, and he composed a number of works for its services and special occasions and for Reform worship in general. He was also the organist of the San Francisco Symphony from 1940 to 1973 and played at the Bach Festivals in Carmel, and in 1952 he was appointed as municipal organist of San Francisco. In addition to his Theme and Variations on “Ma’oz Tzur,” his Jewishly related works include Sabbath Music for Cantor, Choir, and Organ (1963); The Blessing of Moses for baritone solo, choir. and organ (1977); several Psalm settings for solo voice and organ; and many organ preludes, postludes, interludes, and other incidental as well as concert pieces. He also edited Beethoven’s organ works, Telemann’s Suite Baroque, and pieces by C.P.E. Bach and Mendelssohn.

Highly respected as a concert organist, Altman gave solo recitals in London, Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Bern, Lausanne, and Zurich, often as part of his summer tours, and in San Francisco. Apart from his command of the standard organ repertoire, he was especially known for his interest in innovative organ music by contemporary composers. 

By: Neil W. Levin


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