E-Hazzan – Who Wrote That?

An extremely bright congregant approached me following the Rosh Hashanah service and asked, “Hey, that upbeat piece the choir sang was great, where did it come from?” The question sparked an interesting conversation that lead to this posting. So many of us enjoy musical portions of the service but never take the time to consider their origins.  So here are a few of what I feel are beloved settings of popular prayers and their composers. If you have a question about a musical arrangement of a prayer that I don’t mention here, leave me a comment or drop me an email and I’ll try to answer.

The query I mentioned at the beginning of this post concerns the prayer “Seu She’arim Rasheichem… Lift up your heads o heavenly gates”, the final stanzas of Psalm 24. The setting in question is by the great 19th century composer Samuel Naumburg (1815-80). Naumburg is one of a select group of enlightened geniuses who have had a lasting influence on our synagogue Music. Although Naumburg was born in Germany, his greatest work, including music for Shabbat, holidays and various other occasions, was accomplished in Paris. There he developed an interest in French grand opera that seems to have colored Naumburg’s inspiration in composing this piece. Here is a link to a Video of a live performance of Seu She’arim by the Jerusalem Cantors Choir conducted by Benjamin Glickman, performing at Dohany Synagogue, Budapest (Hungary). This was recorded on the first of September 2008 at the Budapest Jewish Summer Festival. Soloists: Roni Ofer and Moshe Chaimovsky. Pianist: Mrs. Rita Feldman-Gelfman.

Every Friday evening we all joyously chant the Kiddush over a cup of wine. Louis Lewandowski (1821 – 1894) is the composer of the extremely popular melody that we most often use. This setting of Kiddush is taken form a wonderful CD produced by Transcontinental Music entitled Shaarei Shabbat: Songs and Blessings for Your Jewish Home.

Tzadik Katamar, the concluding verses of Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat, is an example of one of the many moving choral compositions of the period that latter were to become part of the what was then an almost unheard of practice of congregational singing. Our setting is found on a fascinating musical tour of the history of Synagogue Music produced by Hazzan Samuel Rosenbaum entitled; The Song That Transforms. It is recorded by the choral group known as Selah.

One of the most influential of all synagogue composers, Lewandowski is credited with being the first to hold the full time position of synagogue choral conductors. Lewandowski wrote music for every occasion imaginable and was dedicated to transforming the old traditional European music into to modern musical material. Although he was born in Poland, Lewandowski spent most of his career in Germany.

Many model examples of brilliant choral materiel becoming the basis for congregational singing can be found among the works of the magnificent composer and Hazzan. Hazzan Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890) Sulzer’s incredible genius not only contributed to shaping our modern synagogue service, but also attracted the attention of famous secular composers such as Shubert. Two of Sulzer’s widely recognized compositions are “Shema Yisrael, hear o Israel…” which is almost universally sung in Ashkenazi congregations and this setting of “Vayehi Binsoa Ha Aron, when the Holy ark was transported…” which is sung when the Torah scroll is removed from the ark. This version of Vayehi Binsoa Ha Aron also comes from Rosenbaum’s wonderful recording. The soloist is Hazzan Charles Osborne

Samuel Goldfarb (1891-1978) is the source of many readily recognized melodies sung not only in the synagogue, but in the home as well. Together with his brother Rabbi Israel Goldfarb, Samuel published several books of Jewish secular and sacred Songs as well as some dramatic compositions. Shalom Aleichem the beautiful hymn welcoming angels, God’s celestial servants, into our homes and asking for their blessings of peace. Golfarb’s setting of Shalom Aleichem is one of the most widely recognized pieces of Jewish music. “Magen Avot, shield of our ancestors”, the synopsis of the Shabbat eve Amidah chanted on Friday night, and the Hanukah song, “I Have a Little Dreidle,” are another fine examples of Goldfarb’s popular creations. Here is a recording Shalom Aleichem that appears on a popular YouTube video.

When congregations repeat the Shabbat Amidah they very often sing the jubilant version of “M’chal Kel Haim Be Hessed, You sustain the living with loving kindness,” composed by Hazzan Max Wohlberg. Wohlberg was a scholar, a composer, a teacher and, as the above referenced article states, “a central figure in the organization and education of the American cantorate.” Max Wolberg was instrumental in the process of elevating the profession of the cantor from a sacred craft that was passed orally from generation to generation into a profession that is acquired through university level scholarship. Those of us who were privileged to study under Hazzan Wohlberg were blessed with the benefit of his unique wisdom and love for both Jewish Music and for Yiddishkeit.

From the Biblical Psalmist to the ancient guild of Levites that served the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to modern day musicians, inspired artists have endeavored to evoke the deep meaning and message of our liturgy through music. The magic and passion that is contained in this creativity gives wings to our prayers as they soar to heaven.  As we enjoy a piece of music and are often moved by the connection it make to our soul, it is worthwhile to consider the composer of the  selection and the context with in which it was created.

If the embedded audio player does not work for you, please click on the name of the song that is in color and you can hear the music. You can comment on this post or send me suggestions for future posts by clicking on the comment link below. By commenting on the posts and contributing ideas, questions and suggestions; everyone can participate in this project. If you would like to receive notification when this blog is updated, or to contact me directly, please send an e-mail to Hazzan@e-hazzan.com. You can also receive notification or updates by clicking on the link in the right column. Feel free to comment on this post by clicking on the link below.

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