Abraham Ber Ben Reb Moshe Leb Birnbaum was born in the Russian-Polish City of Pokusk, in 1865. He was reared in a Chassidic atmosphere. The first melodies he heard were those which his father sang, after frequent visits to the Rebbe of Kotzk and Ger. In later years, Birnbaum became a favorite singer of “Zemirot” at the court of the “Tzadik”. He received his musical education at a mature age, while serving as Chazan-Shochet in a small Hungarian City.In 1890, Birnbaum’s first articles on Jewish music appeared in the Hebrew Daily “Hatzfirah”. He then accepted the position of Chazan-Shochet in the great community of Prosnitz, Moravia. Subsequently, he was called to occupy the position of Chazan Rishon in the newly erected Chor-Shul, the equivalent of the present day Conservative synagogue, in the City of Chenstochov, Russia.One of the most potent and wholesome influences in his career was the lasting friendship of Chaim Chaikel Janowsky, benefactor of many a gifted Jewish musician. Janowsky inspired him to embark on a number of important activities. One was editing “Yarchon Hachazanim”, a monthly publication. A second was “Torat Hazimrah Hak’lalit”, a theory of music, which he compiled, translated and published in 1902. A third, and most interesting undertaking. was the opening of a private Cantor’s school, in 1906.In 1908, Vol.1 of his “Amanut Hachazanut” (for the Sabbath) was published, and in 1912, Vol. II (for the High Holidays) appeared. Both of these works were received with great favor by the cantorate. The last of his important works, intended for the Synagogue, to see light, was “Hallel V’Zimrah”.
Birnbaum’s ideas and ideals regarding synagogue music, as expressed in his beautiful Hebrew Preface are:
(1) The Cantorial Recitative based upon the melodic elements of our traditional chant, should be conceived as a piece of art music, with all the attributes of form, structure, proper diction, etc.
(2) It should be responsorial in nature, to enable the congregation to join in the responses.
(3) In addition to the performance of extensive and elaborate compositions by Cantor and Choir, simple melodies, in good taste, should be introduced for congregational singing by the worshippers.
Lastly, his idea of leading motifs in the service, with which he successfully experimented in die “Yotzer” section of the Sabbath morning service, should be mentioned. With his fine essays on Chassidic music in Hebrew, Yiddish and German, he also made a noteworthy contribution to the study of Jewish folklore.
Birnbaum won the love and admiration of his students and colleagues, who sang his praises throughout the length and breadth of the East and West European continent.
He died on the 10th of November, 1922, mourned by the Cantorate all over the world.