Max Graumann was one of the most learned traditional cantors to have come to America from Central Europe prior to the influx of eastern European hazzanim who followed in the wake of mass immigration waves of Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jews. He was also one of the most traditionally oriented cantors to serve a Reform pulpit in the years prior to the First World War.

The West End Synagogue in New York, which later became Congregation Shaaray Tefila, one of Manhattan’s principal Reform synagogues, engaged Graumann as its cantor in 1907. Prior to that he had served the pulpit at Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, New Jersey. In New York he was an active member as well as a trustee of the Society of American Cantors. Some of his original settings for Sabbath eve services are contained in his Shirei T’filoh—Song of Prayer for the Friday Evening Service, which was published in New York in 1912. These settings are for baritone cantor, soli, four-part mixed choir, and organ accompaniment. His Musical Service for the New Year and the Day of Atonement According to the Union Prayer Book was published posthumously in 1937. In the aggregate his music reflects a thorough grounding in the traditional prayer modes (nusa hat’filla) of both the eastern and western spheres of Ashkenazi custom, a fluency in the melismatic, improvisational elements of hazzanut, and a working familiarity with the style of Salomon Sulzer’s restrained, artistic cantorial style and his Wiener Ritus (Vienna rite).

Of all the cantors who served American Reform pulpits in the early decades of the 20th century, and who composed their own settings, Graumann appears to have been the most inclined toward unwesternized (or at least less westernized) cantorial flavors and fluid vocal lines—including cautious retention of idiomatic ornamentation and minor or minor-related modes.

In addition to his published music, which probably represents only a portion of his original work, Graumann made a number of arrangements of cantorial and choral pieces by eastern European cantor-composers, most of which remain in manuscript. Gershon Ephros had access to these, as well as to Graumann’s advice and assistance, when he began work on his monumental multivolume cantorial-choral anthology. By the second half of the 20th century, however, Graumann was best known in the cantorial world for a single achievement: his artistic, extended arrangement of Josef Goldstein’s skeletal setting of uv’khen yitkadash from the High Holy Day mussaf liturgy, which, particularly in that arrangement, became a classic of standard cantorial repertoire. So extensive were his revisions and expansions, including bridge passages and entire sections that he appears to have composed himself, that Ephros credited the piece to “Goldstein-Graumann.”

By: Neil W. Levin


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