A Fusion of Traditions: Liturgical Music in the Copenhagen Synagogue.  Jane Mink Rossen and Uri Sharvit.  Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2006.  156 pp. + supplemental CD.  ISBN 978-8-7767-4038-2

Reviewed by Andrew BuckserA Fusion of Traditions

Jewish liturgical music presents a wonderful example of the way that local traditions emerge out of historical and political processes. Its content and style are often deliberately traditionalist, aiming to connect contemporary listeners to a history stretching back to the days of the prophets. That history is a complex one, however, involving thousands of years of migration, factionalism, and local variation, each of which have left their traces in the ethnic and cultural composition of any Jewish community. A Jewish service, especially a holiday service, contains a number of distinct musical events, and each of these requires a choice among the musical traditions associated with the different elements of the local community. In the music of its liturgy, therefore, every congregation literally sings out the unique fusion of traditions that make up its distinctive history.

Most of us, of course, cannot hear that song – we lack both the historical background and the technical expertise to interpret the cantorial choices expressed in a holiday service.  We can get a sense of it, however, in Jane Mink Rossen and Uri Sharvit’s A Fusion of Traditions: Liturgical Music in the Copenhagen Synagogue, a recent publication of the University Press of Southern Denmark. In this fine piece of scholarship, the authors offer a meticulous analysis of one moment in the musical history of a singular European congregation – the 1967 Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah services in the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen, Denmark. They paint a broad picture of the social and cultural background of the community, and they describe the development of its musical tradition in intimate detail. They then undertake an intensive technical analysis of the music at these two services, exploring their styles of cantillation, choral singing, and shofar blowing, and tying each to the social and historical tensions within the congregation. The result is a singularly convincing demonstration of the complex interplay of musical style and social structure in Jewish ritual.

The book is divided into two broad sections. The first, written by Rossen, reconstructs the social and musical history of the Jewish community of Copenhagen. It begins with a brief history of the community, running from the founding of the Copenhagen community in 1684 through its growth in the 18th century, its emancipation and integration into Danish society in the 19th century, and the upheavals associated with immigration and evacuation during the 20th century. Rossen focuses particularly on the conflicts associated with the Reform movement of the early 19th century, a dispute whose traces are still clearly visible in the community’s liturgy. She says much less about 20th century events, a curious choice given the dramatic changes in the community during that time. While she mentions the transformational immigration from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, for example, she says nothing about its effects on the community, and the dramatic rescue of the community in 1943 merits only two sentences. A discussion of community patterns in the postwar period would add a great deal to this concise and well-written history.

Rossen then turns to the musical history of the community. After a useful outline of synagogue musical traditions in Europe, she reconstructs what she calls the musical acculturation of the Danish Jews – the introduction of Danish tonal and melodic patterns to the music of the synagogue in the 19th century. This was a contentious process that pitted Reform-oriented leaders with the backing of the Danish government against the more traditionally-minded majority of the congregation. Particularly intense disputes surrounded the introduction of Danish-language hymns and the use of organ music. Rossen’s account is detailed and entertaining, including explanations of musical disagreements and translations of critical texts.

The first section concludes with a very detailed history of the cantorate and choir in Copenhagen. Rossen provides biographical sketches of virtually every significant contributor to the musical life of the congregation since 1833, in some cases including photographs and family histories. Unlike the community history, this material continues up to the early 21st century, well past the period of the recordings discussed in the second half of the book. The level of detail will make this a very useful resource for students of the history of this congregation; it is more an inventory than a narrative, however, and it can become tedious for the general reader. Even so, some intriguing patterns emerge out of the details, including the evolving role of the congregational choir, whose dual roles as musical accompaniment and social club have sometimes conflicted with one another. The growing influence of Israeli musical and linguistic patterns also raises some interesting questions about the nature of local tradition.

The second part of the book, written by Uri Sharvit, undertakes a detailed analysis of the music at the two 1967 synagogue services. Rossen recorded these services while working as a researcher at the Danish Folklore Archives. In a series of short chapters, Sharvit examines the styles of biblical cantillation, the blowing of the shofar, the cantorial styles, the role of the choir, and the congregational singing. An extensive appendix provides transcriptions of all of the relevant musical passages. The argument is quite technical at times, but Sharvit’s clear explanations and illustrations (including musical transcriptions of alternate versions of many pieces) make it accessible to a nonspecialist who can read music. The discussion of cantillation is particularly illuminating, conveying the effects of differing styles on the impact of the service. Throughout the analysis, Sharvit demonstrates the fusion of German, Polish, and Danish musical styles that permeates the Copenhagen repertoire. The clarity of his analysis, and its fit with the social patterns laid out by Rossen, make this argument quite convincing.

The book includes a compact disk with 20 selections from the Rossen’s recordings, amounting to a total of about 45 minutes of music. The disk illustrates the patterns laid out in the text, and it is keyed to the transcriptions in the appendix. As a musical recording, the disk has some aesthetic problems – the recordings have a lot of noise, the clarity varies from track to track, and the acoustics of the synagogue leave much to be desired. As an ethnographic record, however, the recordings give a vivid sense of the actual setting within which the music occurs. A synagogue is not a concert hall, after all, and the congregation does not sit meek and silent through the length of a service. People talk to each other, they cough, they flip through their prayerbooks, they move in and out of the synagogue, producing noises that are plainly audible in some of these tracks. Whatever its shortcomings as living room music, the disk evoked the feeling of a crowded synagogue service better than most I have heard.

This book is an unusually focused one — it is not a study of Jewish music generally, of liturgical music generally, or of the Danish Jews generally. It makes very few theoretical assertions and suggests few if any implications for wider European processes. Its interest is almost entirely on the understanding of the particular history and structure of a pair of synagogue services in Copenhagen in the late 1960s. In this it succeeds admirably. And if the book does not pursue the implications of its subject for larger questions about Jewish identity, community, and tradition, those implications are plainly visible for an informed reader. Rossen and Sharvit have provided a meticulous, fine-grained case study of the interaction of history, tradition, and musical form in a fascinating Jewish community. For that, scholars of both Jewish culture and Jewish music should be grateful.

Andrew Buckser, Department of Anthropology, Purdue University