Music in Jewish Thought: Selected Writings, 1890–1920. Jonathan L. Friedmann, comp. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008. 212 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-4439-7

The Value of Sacred Music: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 1801–1918. Jonathan L. Friedmann, comp. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008. 186 pp. ISBN 978-0-7864-4201-0

Reviewed by Geoffrey Goldberg

Although the study of Jewish music as a scholarly discipline is still comparatively recent, the publication of two anthologies of older musical thought highlights how the field has matured. The first work is a collection of essays written between the death of Salomon Sulzer (1804–1890), the cantor-composer “rejuvenator” of Ashkenazic synagogue music, and the emergence after World War I of Abraham Z. Idelsohn (1882–1938), the first academically recognized musicologist and ethnomusicologist of Jewish music. What Sulzer and Idelsohn shared in common, according to Friedmann, was a romantic notion of Judaism’s musical past. Just as Sulzer strove “to discover and present ‘purified’ [Ashkenazic] Jewish music” (8), so Idelsohn sought “to uncover unifying elements contained in the music of all Jewish communities, no matter how disparate” (15). The achievements of both engendered a sense of pride in the continuity of Judaism’s religious and cultural past and the Jewish people’s place in the post-Emancipation present.

The book has three divisions. Part 1, “Jewish Sacred Music,” includes chapters that trace the development of the music of Jewish religious ritual from Biblical times up to ca. 1920. Part 2, “Studies in Jewish Music,” has chapters of a more specific nature, for example, Russian-Jewish Folk Song. Part 3, “Reviving Jewish Music,” includes three chapters on Sulzer and Lewandowski and four concerned with the cultivation of a more consciously authentic Jewish song in the synagogue, the synagogue school and the home.

The essays vary greatly in quality. In Part 1 the chapter entitled “Synagogal Music” by Francis L. Cohen is of some significance since it constituted the main entry on the subject in The Jewish Encyclopedia (1906). It consequently provided the most authoritative historical overview in the English language until publication of Idelsohn’s Jewish Music in its Historical Development in 1929 [1]. Unfortunately the reproduction here lacks the comparative musical examples included in the 1906 original (and now available on-line) [2].

In Part 2 the first essay by Naphtali Herz Imber, “The Music of the Psalms,” is of little intrinsic value today except for the ethnographic description of Russian and Galician “Chevrei Tehilim.” On the other hand, Herz’s second essay, “The Music of the Ghetto,” constitutes an important, and little known, close-hand ethnographic depiction of music in Hassidic life in Eastern Europe [3]. Of use, too, is Kurt Schindler’s succinct “The Russian Jewish Folk Song” (1917), in which he shares his enthusiasm for the work of the Society for Jewish Folk-Music, recently founded in St. Petersburg in 1908.

In Part 3 the chapters by Benjamin Franklin Peixotto, Adolph Guttman and Gustav Karpeles on Sulzer and Lewandowski are largely anecdotal and hagiographical in character. However, Guttman’s statement that “to reform the service and the liturgy of the synagogue was to reform the Jew himself” (141), goes far in explaining the significance of Sulzer’s achievement for Jews and gentiles alike [4]. The most important chapters are those written by Joseph Reider and first appeared in The Menorah Journal. The thrust of his “Secular Currents in the Synagogal Chant in America” (1918) was a critique of the musical excesses of the music of the American Reform Synagogue (from which “chant” had been largely banished). In “A Revival of Jewish Music” (1919) Reider articulated his conviction (like Kurt Schindler) that not only artistic use of Eastern-European folk music idioms, but also the “new species of folk song” that was being developed in Palestine could reinvigorate Jewish music both in the synagogue and beyond; and he extols the prominent “Jewish stamp” in the [early] compositions of Ernst Bloch.

“[T]he essays serve as a useful indicator of the distance that Jewish musical thought has traveled since Idelsohn.”

In addition to short prefaces to the three sections that provide biographical background about the individual writers and an overview their essays, Friedmann has written a well-argued Introduction subtitled “Sulzer, Idelsohn and the Revival of Jewish Music” to underscore the purpose of the book. Unfortunately some of the sources he has drawn upon are not always the most authoritative in specific areas. Several of Friedmann’s statements require correction: Sulzer’s synagogue in Vienna, while it embraced reforms, was not a Reform Synagogue (8); Israel Jacobson’s innovations in Seesen, Germany attracted much attention but were not adopted in many European synagogues, nor was there in Germany any “widespread abrogation of traditional liturgical chant” (11); and the gentile religious musical environment in Vienna was Catholic, not Protestant (13). The book fully documents the sources of the selections and includes a useful bibliography.

Given the time period, the essays are understandably ethnocentric in content, reflecting an almost exclusively Ashkenazic perspective, although they disclose some familiarity with “Southern”—i.e., Western Sephardic—musical traditions as well. Here and there, however, there are glimmers of a recognition of other Jewish musics, notably Yemenite, following publication of Idelsohn’s Gesänge der jemenischen Juden in 1914. Since Friedmann included discussion of the German cantor-scholar Eduard Birnbaum (1855–1920), the most significant figure in Jewish musicology prior to Idelsohn, one of his essays might have been included.

Friedmann rightly warns the reader that “some of the arguments presented in these chapters are no longer accepted.” While useful in the study of Jewish music historiography, many of the essays overflow with incorrect facts and sweeping generalizations [5]. The book would have been enhanced by brief critiques of each essay and reexamination of some of their data and arguments in the light of recent Jewish musicological scholarship. Nonetheless, the essays serve as a useful indicator of the distance that Jewish musical thought has traveled since Idelsohn. As Friedmann aptly cautions, instead of a monolithic “Jewish music,” scholars have come to prefer the more modest and nuanced approach of “music of the Jews” or “Jewish musical traditions” [6].

The second book is a collection of essays that attempt to address the question of what makes music accompanying religious worship and ritual “sacred.” It, too, is divided into three sections. Part 1 focuses on the “Origins of Sacred Music” and is largely historical, focusing especially on music in ancient Israel (especially the Psalms) and the early Church. Part 2, “Music and Spirituality” includes discussion of the emotional and mystical power of music in religious life and the connection between emotion and morality. Part 3, “Standards of Sacred Music,” addresses the more practical matter of what works best, musically, during religious services.

The essays are similarly ethnocentric in worldview, and the historical ones are now quite dated [7]. With the exception of two articles in Part 1 and one in Part 3 (a repetition of Joseph Reider’s 1918 essay) that relate to Jewish music, the remainder are limited exclusively to the music of the Western Church. Discussion of the “inherent inadequacy of verbal speech” (62) in “Religion and the Art of Music” (1914) in Part 1 includes useful insights for understanding the use of vocables in such disparate areas of Jewish music as Hassidic song, the Ashkenazic “Cantorial Fantasia” and Syrian-Jewish baqqashot.

Friedmann has provided a short Introduction, which can be used with profit by musicologists, religious leaders and anyone intrigued by “the sacred in music.” It is abreast of more recent writings in the field and provides an indication of more contemporary approaches to the study of music in religious life. Rather than searching for qualities of “the sacred” exclusively in the music itself, scholars now give more attention to the social function of music in religious life and embrace all the musics of the world’s religions [8].

The essays in both books do not always make for easy reading, but used judiciously, they still have value for those concerned with sacred music in general, and Jewish music in particular.

[1] Friedmann should have mentioned that Cohen also authored almost all the individual entries on specific topics of Jewish music in the Jewish Encyclopedia.

[2] Cohen’s tabular comparison of various ethnic Jewish traditions of Biblical cantillation preceded those presented by Idelsohn in Gesänge der babylonischen Juden (1922).

[3] Scholars (including this reviewer) have recently suggested that the term “Mi-Sinai”—which denotes the body of “fixed” sacred melodies sung for key texts on the High Holy Days and portions of the Pilgrim Festivals that originated in the Rhineland in the Middle Ages—was a construction of Abraham Z. Idelsohn. This debate will have to continue, as Imber mentions the use of “Sinaitic tunes.”

[4] Gustav Karpeles’ tribute to Lewandowski discloses the impact of the composer’s music in the life of Jewish women, such as at confirmation, the marriage ceremony and at funerals.

[5] To give one example: two of the writers argue for the transference of music of the Temple to the Synagogue. The claim is based on the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sukkot page 53a, where Joshua ben Hananiah, one of the Levitical singers, describes how the Levites proceeded from the Temple to the synagogue and, according to Cohen, “participated in the both services.” The Talmud merely states, however, that they went to the tefillah [prayer service], of whose “musical” content we are ignorant, which was led by a single prayer leader whom we cannot assume was a Levite.

[6] Jewish Musical Traditions (1992) is the title of Amnon Shiloah’s now standard work, which is both musicological and ethnomusicological in approach. The title stresses the uniqueness of the various musical traditions without any presumption of a single urmusical tradition.

[7] Recent studies of the music of ancient Israel include Joachim Braun’s Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine: Archaeological, Written and Comparative Sources (2002) and Theodore W. Burgh’s Listening to the Artifacts: Music Culture in Ancient Palestine (2006).

[8] Recent studies include Stephen A. Marini’s Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music and Public Culture (2003) and Guy L. Beck’s edited volume Experiencing Music in World Religions (2006).

Geoffrey Goldberg
Rochester, NY