Sigmund Schlesinger was one of the most influential figures among the group of mid- to late-19th-century American synagogue organists and choirmasters who attempted to create and adapt music to suit the new ritual and format of American Reform congregations—before and especially after their consolidation within an official movement. He was also one of the few Jews in that circle whose fruits (whatever our qualitative judgments with the benefit of perspective and in the context of contemporary ethnic sensibilities) took root beyond his immediate community to find acceptance by congregations that were intent on perceiving themselves as fully “American” or “Americanized.” That perception often included the desire to be divorced from the European Jewish world they or their parents had abandoned. There is a certain irony here, in that the approach championed by Schlesinger and his colleagues was largely informed by German Protestant hymn styles and operatic melodies from German, French, and occasionally Italian schools—with no discernible stamp of any genuine American hymnody or other 19th-century American musical features. But at least such settings shed the perceptibly “Jewish” modalities, melos, and ornaments that many congregants associated with an irrelevant Old World cantorial tradition.
The historical significance of the collective contributions of Schlesinger and his circle, however, should not be dismissed, since that type of repertoire appertained among much of American Jewry during a seminal phase in its development. Only later did it come to serve as the butt of critical and progressive reaction, when visionaries such as Abraham Wolf Binder sought to restore a measure of historical grounding and a sense of synagogue music tradition in his work on the third edition of the Union Hymnal in the 1930s; or when a composer such as Lazare Saminsky began in the 1920s in New York to draw upon his deliberations on authentic Jewish chants and his research into established melodies from disparate Jewish communities and ancient biblical cantillations.
Schlesinger was born in Uhlen, Württemberg (later Germany), and received his musical education at a Munich conservatory. We have no evidence concerning his exposure to synagogue music during those years, nor any concerning his family’s religious orientation or his own Jewish education. One can only surmise from his music that he probably did not acquire much knowledge of the rich liturgical tune traditions of German-speaking Jewry dating to the medieval Rhineland communities. Nor does his music indicate that he could have gained familiarity with the innovations and contributions of such composers as Salomon Sulzer in Vienna, or Louis Lewandowski in Berlin, whose music was already well known in Central Europe by the time Schlesinger emigrated.
He came to the United States in 1860, and to Mobile, Alabama, in 1870—apparently because his brother, Jacob, was already established in that community as a professional musician and teacher. That same year, he was engaged as organist and choir director of Mobile’s Congregation Shaarei Shomayim (founded in 1844), where he remained for thirty-six years, until his death. Like many organists and choirmasters in Reform synagogues of that period, he began composing hymns and other liturgical settings at least partly out of perceived necessity—since there was little available repertoire for the new American Reform service format without resorting, as some American Reform congregations had already done, to hymnals from Germany. (In retrospect, much of Sulzer’s music from Vienna, for example, or Lewandowski’s—which existed in published form and reflected wherever appropriate the continuity of synagogal tradition as well as high musical quality—could have been adapted for the new format of American services and prayerbooks, but that path seems to have been little explored, or at least not favored, by the emerging American Reform Synagogue until later. A break with “Jewish” Europe seems to have been the preferred course.) Much of Schlesinger’s music soon became known and used not only in the South but also by other Reform synagogues across the country. Even before its first official publication, it was being circulated collegially.
Schlesinger appears to have been much beloved by his congregation in Mobile, but he was equally respected as a major figure in the city’s general musical life, in which Jews and Christians participated together. The president of the Mobile Music Association, for example, was also the first president of the synagogue. To this day Schlesinger is probably more remembered locally, and even regionally, for his musical role in the community at large. He enjoyed a fine reputation as music director of the Gesangverein Frohsinn, a major force on Mobile’s musical scene and its leading choral society, at a time when such organizations were often fundamental components of civic culture. The Verein distinguished itself under his direction in its travels to such cities as New Orleans and Cincinnati, and even as far north as Cleveland, to participate in choral festivals of the North American Saengerbund. He also helped found the Mozart Club in Mobile, an instrumental group that performed on Sunday evenings, in which he sometimes played the clarinet. In addition, he was the organist at one of Mobile’s major churches and periodically a choir member at another; it was not at all unusual for churches and synagogues to share musicians and even conductors.
Fully entrenched in the culture and sensibilities of the South as his adopted environment and heritage, Schlesinger’s nonliturgical compositions often reflected southern themes. He collaborated with his brother on a popular series of piano pieces, Southern Flowers. Dedicated to “the Young Ladies of the Sunny South,” this was a collection of popular dance tunes: waltzes, polkas, quicksteps, schottisches, gallopades, and other forms. His Manassas Polka from that collection was composed to commemorate the Confederate victory over the Union forces at the Battle of Bull Run near Manassas Junction in northern Virginia; and his Fort Morgan Gallopade was titled in honor of a brilliant Confederate officer known for his cavalry raids throughout Kentucky and was dedicated to a Mobile colonel of the Second Alabama Regiment. His set of piano variations on The Bonnie Blue Flag was based on a southern patriotic song from the Confederacy days said to be second only to “Dixie” in popularity.
Schlesinger even wrote a light “opera comique,” The Schoolmaster, on the theme of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow—to a text prepared for him by an editorial writer for the Mobile Register. His synagogue settings were, of course, of a different character, but they must be appreciated in the context of his overall musical tastes and affinities.
Looking back on this period, which amounts to an episode in American synagogue music, the great Jewish musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn suspected that Schlesinger’s popularity with many non-Jewish synagogue organists and choirmasters in Reform congregations throughout the United States lay in the fundamentally Western character of his liturgical settings—their Western harmonic as well as melodic bases and their overall structure. Non-Jewish organists and choirmasters could relate to this music without having the special skills required to accompany completely free improvisation—or even the relatively restrained western and Central European type of cantorial lines, with their inherent albeit modest (by comparison with eastern European counterparts) fluidity and ornamentation. These were skills that synagogue organists in late-19th-century German Liberale (not Reform) synagogues were required to master.
Though Schlesinger’s music enjoyed circulation during the 1870s, with some settings included in hymn anthologies of other compilers, the catalyst for its systematic publication as entire services, beginning in 1896, was the establishment of a national Reform liturgy through the 1894 publication of the Union Prayerbook by the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Until then there had been no universally accepted rite among Reform congregations, and various prayerbooks had been used—some prepared by the rabbi of a particular congregation, and some still largely in German until quite late in the century. Once there existed a single prayerbook that promised to unify American Reform worship, Schlesinger rose to the challenge. The result was a series of Complete Musical Services—for Sabbath, the Three Festivals, the New Year, and the Day of Atonement—with a few of them published posthumously. These were geared specifically to the Union Prayerbook, a practice followed by many composers (including even Ernest Bloch and Darius Milhaud) well into the middle of the 20th century.
One of the special curiosities of this repertoire is found in the fondness for setting Hebrew liturgical texts to especially well-known opera arias—in Schlesinger’s case, for example, a Yom Kippur prayer text to one of the most commonly recognizable Donizetti arias. Others did similar things, even turning to such famous instrumental pieces as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. This was, however, not an exclusively American phenomenon, as can be seen in some of the Reform hymnals in Germany earlier in the 19th century; and Italian operatic motifs are not entirely absent from eastern European cantorial art, albeit often less consciously borrowed. Such foreign classical music sources were usually identified, however, by Schlesinger and his contemporaries. The practice may have been as much an emblem of Jewish pride in familiarity with Western music as it was the result of a practical need to fill out a lean repertoire of original Jewish hymns.
Any retrospective assessment of this repertoire must acknowledge the prevalence of a generally secondary level of Germanic chorale style coupled with the questionable appropriation of French and German operatic elements. More than half a century removed, the composer Hugo Weisgall—an erudite critic and student of the Central European Ashkenazi synagogue music tradition—heard in this music of Schlesinger and his contemporaries a weakened "Anglo-American oratorio style" along with “German sentimentalism,” all completely extroverted. Idelsohn, on the other hand, found that same sentimentality to be Italian in influence. As he judiciously observed, even when Schlesinger wished to turn to minor keys, he did not draw upon traditional cantorial modes, but rather upon either 18th-century Italian operatic melodies or church music models. Yet perhaps because of these very features, this music must have appealed to worshippers who were not yet attuned to the value of authentic Jewish liturgical music tradition and the legitimate place it could occupy within a Reform context.
That there is little European synagogue music tradition in Schlesinger’s music is undeniable. Of the heritage of hundreds of traditional melodies that could have been adapted and utilized, including many that were used by that time in nonorthodox German synagogues, he selected very few of the most obvious ones for High Holy Day settings—in addition to a small handful of isolated motives. In that sense it might be said that he operated, as did many (though not all) of his contemporaries, in a sort of Jewish musical vacuum.
Still, at least until the 1930s—with the arrival from Europe of more sophisticated and more liturgically knowledgeable European composers and the appearance of the significantly revised third edition of the Union Hymnal, for which Binder was largely responsible—Schlesinger’s music remained in fairly wide use throughout American Reform synagogues. A posthumous tribute to him in The American Hebrew twenty-two years after his death still referred to his settings as being sung “in nearly every Reform Temple in this country.” By the end of the 20th century, most of them have become rarities. A few are fossilized among the traditions of individual congregations founded in the 19th century; and a few more survive in whatever remains of die-hard classical Reform traditions in the Deep South and Southwest.