Something that is “classic” is considered to have lasting significance or worth–in other words, it is enduring. I have therefore always found it ironic that the Sacred Music Press should publish something it calls Out of Print Classics. For one thing, if the material will again be in print why is it called out of print? But more significantly, for a classic to be deemed out of print seems like an oxymoron, especially when the music contained in these volumes is so enduring.
Most of the Out of Print Classics come from the Reform German rite of the mid- to-late 19th century, and bear the authorship of the likes of Louis Lewandowski, Solomon Sulzer (who was Austrian, just as Lewandowski stemmed from the Polish tradition of Posen, but I include them both–stylistically and idealistically–in the German rite), Emmanuel Kirschner, and others, captured the hearts and minds of Jews everywhere for nearly 200 years. When faced with the term “traditional” in the synagogue, the nusah ha-tefillah of our Eastern European great-grandparents speaks to one part of the Jewish psyche, but the German rite has infiltrated the entire Jewish world, from the Americas to Europe, and even the black Jews of Uganda. When Salomon Sulzer Westernized the mellismatic flourishes of the Alte Weise (Old [Prayer] Modes), he brought together East and West, preserving one tradition, but creating it anew.
And it is this newly crafted tradition which has become sacrosanct in practically every American synagogue. Hazzanim, rabbanim, shlikhei tsibbur and songleaders have all tried to bring new melodies into the prayer service, and yet on Friday evening, there is almost no household or shul without the strains of Louis Lewandowski’s gently flowing melody sanctifying the Sabbath’s arrival over Kiddush wine. Modify a congregational Shema all you want, but when it comes to the Torah service, Sulzer’s tune prevails.
Why should we be surprised that this music can and certainly does still speak to us? For one, it is music composed by cantors who stood on the shoulders of Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann, a musical tradition that still thrills audiences today for its classic nature (here I use the term to mean enduring, and not in a musicological sense). As well, the German synagogue tradition marked the first time in Jewish history that the effects of the Enlightenment and Emancipation really held sway in Jewish culture. It was the first time that the Jews developed a musical expression that spoke to the modern Jewish soul as well to the timeless Jewish spirit.
This is something that the would-be innovators of today think they are doing because they imagine it has not been done before. There are many trying to bring more progressive musical idioms into the Jewish sanctuary: Rock, folk, pop, jazz, new-age… even gospel (which–as an aside–I have a great problem with, for that idiom–for me–embodies a religiosity which is not a part of my faith tradition, but I digress). Their efforts seem to hold sway for a year or two…or sometimes a decade or two. And yet, some 150 years after Sulzer published his two-volume Schir Zion, his music is still used as spiritual expression in the modern synagogue. Why?
I believe the reason can be found in the form. Where present day innovators have sought to bring a popular, and by definition ephemeral, musical form into our worship, Sulzer and his peers brought a classical musical form into the synagogue. As praying Jews, we have sought more permanence in our lives, looking for everlasting truths in Torah and Tradition. The prayer book remains relatively unchanged in structure, but the music that expresses the prayers contained therein has been tinkered with over millennia. When a language speaks only to one generation at one point in time, the next generation needs to develop a new language with which to dialogue with the eternal. When one uses a language that can be heard and understood by all to contain elements of beauty, elegance, grandeur, and holiness, it can be understood by most at any point in time or in one’s life.
The challenge, however, is that in past generations, we had worshipers who were musically literate. They could read music; they regularly sang. There was no television or internet with which musical performance at home had to compete. Today, people experience music like most other cultural offerings of the 21st century–in a cursory fashion, embraced today and glossed over tomorrow. They are unsure how to embrace something that has been called a classic all too often. There is no longer a frame of reference.
What, then, of the German tradition’s viability in today’s synagogue? Is it to be abandoned in favor of the “soup of the day” music that will eventually become passé? I think not, for several reasons.
First, regardless of an individual’s musical exposure or education, the choral music of the Reform German rite has a hymn-like quality that can and often does engender congregational singing.
Second, the musical language itself, being something much more than a hastily tossed amalgam of notes, speaks to us across time, for intrinsic in many of the Germanic offerings is a solid musical structure which, as exemplified in the work of J.S. Bach and others, has a musical logic, allowing us to hear the eternal within the notes. To my ear, what is lacking in the popular music of the synagogue is that lasting of holiness, sadly sacrificed in favor of a simple tune.
Third, there is a Jewish musical subconscious that runs like a deep vein through most American congregations. In Sulzer’s day, that vein was made up of nusakh hatefillah. Today, when nusah hatefillah has all but disappeared, the common element is made up of the music of Sulzer and his contemporaries. It is a safe and comfortable musical place in which to pray. As a child, I remember clearly having gone to only a few Shaharit LeShabbat services and hearing the Sulzer Kedushah responses (although I was a synagogue regular in my youth, my synagogue’s main service was Kabbalat Shabbat, and Saturday services were rarely held). As an adult, I can still conjure those strains as easily as a lullaby from my childhood. For many others as well, the German rite still holds a place, although that place may be shrinking.
I would suggest that the German rite deserves to be re-examined closely, for not only is there considerable breadth to the repertoire, there is also redeeming musical and spiritual value. Its many settings that invoke the old nusah hatefillah connect us to the distant past, and its Late Romantic harmonies reflect the more recent European childhood of many of our parents and grandparents. And there’s no denying that its well-structured hymns do engender the congregational singing that seems to be all the rage nowadays, and do so without resorting to complicated syncopation or grating chords. Finally, for any congregation seeking to bolster its choir’s repertoire, one need look no further than the entire set of Out of Print Classics to discover (or re-discover) a treasure of music which was born out of a once vibrant tradition that continues to thrive.