Why a Jewish Choral Music Forum?
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 10:17AM
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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.


Article originally appeared on The UK's Leading Mixed Voice Jewish Choir under the musical direction of Benjamin Wolf (http://www.zemelchoir.org/).
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