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Why a Jewish Choral Music Forum?

I am Daniel Tunkel. I joined the Zemel Choir in 1984 and sang with the Choir until 1991 (touring Israel and the US and participating in two recording projects). I dropped out for several years and rejoined in 2005, following the Choir’s 50th anniversary reunion concert. My father Victor was a founder member of the Choir (indeed, of its technical precursor, the Habonim Choir, from the late 1940s). But enough of me.

The Zemel is not technically the first Jewish art music choir in the world (that accolade goes I believe to the Brata Baruch Choir from Belgrade, that was founded in 1878 and therefore even predates the Zamir Choral Foundation from Eastern Europe, whose heirs and successors flourish in North America and Israel). However, Zemel (founded in 1954) was the first Diaspora chorus of the modern era committed to exploring the world of Jewish choral music.

What is significant about Jewish choral music, therefore? One of the objects of this piece is to stimulate discussion on the subject, so what follows are my personal views.

First, of course, there is some mystique attached to the idea of the Temple “Choir”. There is evidence for choral singing in the Temple (which would have sounded rather different from today’s choral singing, I feel sure). And there is evidence from various biblical sources of female voices in song as well. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the statement by Kohelet (King Solomon, according to tradition) that among his many accomplishments was the assembly of sharim v’sharot, groups of male and female singers.

The earliest genuine Jewish choral music for which we have the evidence are the 33 compositions of Salamone Rossi, published in Venice in 1623. Rossi provided the Jews of Ferrara with Rennaissance melody and harmony. Although his music pretty much died with him (until its rediscovery two centuries later by Naumbourg and D’Indy in Paris), today Rossi is practically a super-hero of the Jewish choral world. If your choir does not yet perform any Rossi, it should.

There are bits and pieces of choral music from the 17th and 18th centuries. As part of the 2008 Celebrate with Song programme, the Zemel Choir performed music composed by Giuseppe Vita Clava (Casale Monferato, 1733), Louis Saladin (Avignon c.1670), Abraham Caceres (Amsterdam c. 1720) and CG Lidarti (composed for use in Amsterdam c 1765).

Integration of proper choral singing into synagogue services in Ashkenazi Europe starts in the 19th century. The driving force behind this was Salomon Sulzer in Vienna from 1825, although there were one or two earlier failed experiments of this sort (e.g. Lowy in Paris about 15 years beforehand). Sulzer’s choir of men and boys serving Vienna’s chief orthodox synagogue was emulated through the 19th century all over Germany and, eventually, the rest of Europe and America as well; in reform communities, the choirs comprised men and women, but the repertoire was the same or similar in context. Sulzer (1804-90) and his principal pupil Louis Lewandowski (Berlin, 1821-94) have left us a legacy of compositions of great majesty. The Zemel Choir has produced two significant CDs dedicated to each of these masters of liturgical music.

The move from liturgical music to art music (i.e. the move out of the synagogue into the concert hall and the wider world) comes a little later than this. By the end of the 19th century Jews were more prominent in general musical life in Europe, and Jewish musicology has begun to be studied seriously for the first time. Combine this with other factors such as (a) the movement of Jews in numbers to the USA; (b) Zionism fostering an increased interest in the music of Israel/Palestine/the Levant; (c) the impact of the Yiddish musical theatre; and (d) a greater sense of overall Jewish cultural (as opposed to religious) identity and suddenly huge opportunities for a broad genre of Jewish choral art music start to develop.

And to this the 20th century has added the music of Israel in all its diversity, the musical impact of of the Holocaust, exposure to ever more Jewish folk music traditions from around the world, the increasing and developing output of Jewish composers in the US, the UK, Europe etc. and the conversion to art music of liturgical music of merit from bygone years that has fallen into disuse or obscurity in its original synagogue context.

In my view, we have a lot to sing and a great deal to sing about. Most people - sadly, including most Jews - have little idea just how diverse the repertoire is. In terms of languages, Zemel (in common with Jewish choirs generally) sings Jewish music in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino and Aramaic, and the material is composed in or folk-traditional to 15 countries at least.

How “good” is all of this music? I’ve debated this in an objective sense with people in the past who consider that, the height of choral singing lying in the masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms etc., they would have no time at all for Jewish music as choral art music. I happen to be one of those who considers that JS Bach’s B-minor Mass is probably the finest piece of religious music ever composed in the Western tradition. I get a deep sense of religious satisfaction from listening to the intricacies of Bach’s counterpoint writing, and the way in which he uses music to convey religious feeling is powerful beyond the context of the words of the Mass themselves. (It is not my purpose to debate this observation. If you personaly prefer e.g. the Verdi Requiem that’s fine; but in so saying, you concur with me as to where the greatest religious music broadly speaking lies.)

So why, as a singer, would I yet prefer to be singing Sulzer and Lewandowski to Bach and Brahms? Or the music of modern Israelis like Yehezkiel Braun to his Gentile contemporaries in Europe or America? My answer: the great choral works are sung by substantial resources; they are works of power and majesty; they absorb and involve you: but you are a tiny component of this edifice, and when all is said and done (and sung),what can you give back to pieces like this?. What can one do to make the Mozart Requiem even more special? If the answer is nothing (and unless you are a Lorin Maazel or a Zubin Mehta, it probably is), then sing by all means but it is all take and no give-back. Maybe giving back is not important to you (it is to me, and that is my personal bias). But the hugely diverse choral repertoire at the disposal of a Jewish art music choir has something for everyone. And the sensation that, when you perform this repertoire for Jews and Gentiles alike you are propagating a tradition and thereby giving something back to it, is, for me, overwhelmingly persuasive.

Let’s talk more about this. Share ideas and experiences. Debate the merits and (yes, indeed) the demerits of Jewish music and song. But no name-calling, please: just fair comment. Many visitors to this site and this forum are trying to make a living out of their interest in and love for the music they sing, write, score, arrange, perform or conduct.


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Reader Comments (3)


Thank you so much for your first contribution to the new Jewish Choral Music Forum. I have found your initial article very interesting and I am sure that it will help to stimulate much debate in the future.
From what you have written, maybe it is no coincidence that I enjoy singing Jewish liturgical music today, when I recall that some 40 years ago I sang in a recital of Bach's B-minor Mass when I was at school -I cant remember if I was a treble or a bass !

November 18, 2009 | Registered CommenterZemel Choir

Are there any melodies in the United Synagogue Shabbat service that pre-date Sulzer or Lewandowski?

Was Rossi's music sung in the Shabbat services in Italy when he was alive and why did it disappear for such a long time if indeed it is so good?

May 4, 2009 |

November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEric Jason

To Mr Eric Jason (4 May) I would respond as follows:
What pre-Sulzer/Lewandowski music is there in use in the United
Synagogue? Bits and pieces, which have survived from the latter 18th or
very early 19th century. Sources for music that old are few and far
between, and are usually secondary at best (we are talking of a period
before Jews were generally musically literate).

* Of the 24 melodies used by Isaac Nathan as music for the poetry
of Lord Byron, in two volumes published in 1815-16, and which he
indicates were melodies used at the Great Synagogue, Duke's Place,
London, a few are still in use, certain others can be identified but the
majority are not recognisable any longer. Those that are clearly
recognisable include Maoz Tzur, a melody still used for the half-kaddish
after reading the Torah on Festival days, a very jolly four-phase tune
for Yigdal that is traditional to Sukkot (though where sung, is usually
performed in a simplified form, as set out in the United Synagogue "Blue
Book") and part of a melody sometimes used for Ya'aleh Tachanuneinu on
Kol Nidrei night.
* The oldest extant melody by far, in the sense that we have
evidence of its use at Duke's Place as early as the late 1760s, is the
traditional Friday night service melody for Yigdal, which passed into
Church use as well, when notated by Thomas Olivers in c 1771 for use in
the Methodist hymnal for a verse called "The God of Abraham, Praise".
In Christian and church circles, this melody is always referred to as
"Leoni", after Leoni, also known as Leon Singer, who was the cantor's
assistant at Duke's place in the 1750s and 1770s. His fame spread to
the London operatic stage, where his developing career brought him into
constant friction with the Duke's Place community elders, until they
were obliged to fire him at some point in the 1780s when it became known
he had performed in Handel's "Messiah". The oldest notation of this
melody is not in Nathan (noted above - and actually and a but
surprisingly, Nathan does not use that melody at all), but in a curio
published in or around 1770-80 by one William Keith, an organist from
West Ham who arranged six melodies from the Duke's Place tradition for a
trio of musical instruments with figured bass. The other 5 cannot be
identified positively (though I believe one of them to be a now long
disused Adon Olam.
* Certain other melodies may possibly predate the
Sulzer/Lewandowski period. It is, first of all, interesting to note
that in the first edition of the United Synagogue "Blue Book", there are
four Sulzer items and none at all from Lewandowski or the majority of
the other continental composers of that period. This was produced in
1887, and suggests that musically, the community considered itself
self-sufficient at that time. The foremost of its composers was Julius
Mombach, who served the Great Synagogue and also the so-called New
Synagogue in the heart of London until his quite sudden death in 1880.
Not having published in his lifetime, music attributed to him was rushed
into print in 1881 under the title of "Neim Zmiros Yisroel", but the
volume in question contains quite a bit of material that was not by
Mombach at all and may merely have been arranged by him. Three items
of particular note (for the purposes of this question) are: the
traditional Adon Olam used at the end of the Kol Nidrei service; the
traditional United Synagogue melody for Odecha, used in the Hallel
service on all festivals; and a well-loved Mechalkeil Chayim from the
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. None display evidence of
Mombach's compositional style, and the last of these three in particular
suggests a structure based around the old trio structure to the music at
Duke's Place (from before Mombach started a full choir there in 1841).
It is also interesting that the Adon Olam and Odecha melodies are given
in the "Blue Book" as "traditional", whereas had they been by Mombach
surely his name would have been given.

All of this is an area ripe for further research and investigation.

What happened to Rossi? Interesting question, to which I have only a
tilt at an answer. We do not have precise dates for his birth or death
- usually you will see him quoted as c 1570 - c 1630. What we do know
is that at that time, in North Italy, there were quite a few Jews in the
musical service of certain of the Italian noble families (often
referenced in registers of names etc. as "ebreo" = Hebrew or Jew).
Salamone Rossi is thought to be the only one of this group to have left
us with Jewish music, though the compositions of some others in the
secular or instrumental musical field have, I believe, survived.

The evidence suggests that Rossi's music was not universally acceptable
to the Jews of his period; I suspect many felt it was insufficiently
Jewish in character and owed more to polyphonic musical style more
typical of the late renaissance church. It might have taken a person
of Rossi's talent and standing to see that it was performed at all, and
one supposes that on his death, there may have been nobody to step into
his shoes. Pure conjecture on my part.

What is clear, though is that Rossi's apparent death coincided with the
demise of his patrons, the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua. That precipitated
a succession war, an invasion of a large part of North Italy by Spanish
forces and a general deterioration in the hitherto relatively benevolent
attitude towards Jewish cultural participation in Italian life.
Whether Rossi's music was forced off the agenda, and if so whether this
was due to external pressure or Jewish communal acquiescence, or simple
lack of resource, I confess I do not know.

November 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Tunkel

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