Meyer [Meir] Posner (1890 [1892?]–1931) was born in Plock [Plotzk], Poland, in the part of the country within the Czarist Empire known as Russian Poland. Our most reliable biographical information to date comes largely from that assembled by Dr. Eliott Kahn, curator of the Meyer Posner Music Collection at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who has pieced together much of what we can know from Posner’s assorted papers, music, and memorabilia. Posner received a typical Judaic education in Łódź, where his parents had apparently relocated and where some sources give the name of a local rabbi who tutored him: Eliyahu Khayim Meizel. At an as yet unconfirmed date—in some accounts when Posner was about fifteen years old—he emigrated with his parents to London, where he became the choirmaster of the Borough Synagogue around 1910. At that time he composed a popular setting of Morris Rosenfeld’s poem “Herbst bletlekh” (Autumn Leaves) and studied at the Guildhall School of Music—from which he graduated in 1914. He became choirmaster at the Great Synagogue at Duke’s Place (the date of his appointment is unknown, but he was functioning there in that capacity by 1916), and evidence suggests that during his remaining years in London, he composed a Hebrew operetta, Ezra and Nehemia, as well as an opera, Saul. Neither score, however, has been located. 

Posner immigrated to the United States in 1919 and assumed the post of conductor of the Arbeter Ring Khor (the Workmen’s Circle Chorus) in New York. Many of his compositions and arrangements of Yiddish folk and other songs were created expressly for this chorus—as well as for other Arbeter Ring choruses with whom he had associations in Yiddish-speaking communities in New Jersey cities. In the early 1920s he composed and conducted incidental music for two Yiddish plays, one of which was Sholem Aleichem’s Dos groyse gevins, which was produced at Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theatre. His music also apparently accompanied a 1926 production of Evreynov’s Di shif mit tsikim, directed by Joseph Ben Ami at the Irving Place Theater.

Although his forte as well as his primary interest—especially during his American years—lay in secular Yiddish theater and choral music, Posner conducted choirs for a number of virtuoso star cantors, including Mordecai Hershman, David Roitman, Joseph Shlisky, and Yossele Rosenblatt. In the last case it appears that he conducted at the synagogue where Rosenblatt was principal hazzan, the congregation of which had brought Rosenblatt to America from Hamburg—the First Hungarian Congregation Ohab Zedek, which was on 116th Street in Harlem and moved during Rosenblatt’s tenure to its present site on 95th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But it is not clear whether Posner held a regular post there for any length of time or whether he guest conducted. (Rosenblatt’s principal conductor was Herman Wohl and, outside the synagogue, Meyer Machtenberg, although he worked with others during his illustrious but all too brief career.) Posner also directed the amalgam known as the Synagogue Choral Alliance, as well as the children’s chorus of the Yiddish culturally oriented Sholom Aleichem Schools (Folkshule). The children’s chorus appeared under his direction in 1930 at Carnegie Hall as part of a yortsayt (anniversary of the death) event for the eminent Yiddish poet Yehoash. For that occasion Posner set one of Yehoash’s poems, and the poem was subsequently published in a magazine or journal devoted to Yiddish culture for children. In 1928 Posner was appointed director of the prestigious Paterson, New Jersey, [Hebrew] Singing Society, which had been founded in 1911. Leo Low was his immediate predecessor.

Among Posner’s many folksong arrangements were those used by the Vilne Trupe’s production of Der Regenbogen (The Rainbow) in New York during its 1930 tour. He also wrote two books on music theory and education, both in Yiddish: Harmonie (1924) and Elementarer muzik lerer (Elementary MusicTheory, 1928), along with a number of articles on cantors and Yiddish music for 1923 issues of the Yiddish newspaper Der tog, for whose radio program he also conducted a vocal quartet.

If we accept as no exaggeration the account of Posner’s funeral that was published in the Yiddish daily Der forverts, some seven hundred mourners stood in freezing rain on New York’s Lower East Side while Cantors Rosenblatt, Shlisky, and Roitman sang the memorial liturgy accompanied by the short-lived and never formally established “Union of Synagogue Choral Singers” and Arbeter Ring choruses.

By: Neil W. Levin


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