Emanuel Kirschner

Chazan Emanuel Kirschner 1857 -1938

Chazan Emanuel Kirschner
1857 -1938


by Cantor Jacob Hohenemser

Temple Emanuel, Providence, R. I.

In 1927, the Bnai Brith in its official magazine published an article written by the late Abraham Zemach Idelssohn, then Professor at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. The article was written on the occasion of the seventieth birthday of Emanuel Kirschner, who guided the younger Idelssohn in the direction, which proved to be so fruitful for Jewish musical science.

Though l may have to repeat some of the ideas and views expressed by Idelssohn, as well as some of the material found in the work of Aaron Friedman in ‘Bebensbilder beruehmter Kanto Biographies of Famous Cantors, l feel that this paper in the interest of Jewish music history may have greater value if it supplements those earlier writings about the life and work of Emanuel Kirschner, rather than to repeat everything that has already been said elsewhere.

Emanuel Kirschner was born on February 15, 1857, the third of ten children born to Aaron ben Moshe and Bertha Kirschner. His father was a struggling baker in the small mining village of Rockitnitz in Upper Silesia, a community of but one hundred souls. There were only two Jewish families in the entire village. From these early years Kirschner remembered mostly the Zmiroth of his father, the Hebrew prayers taught by his parents, the weekly excursions by foot to the Sabbath services held in the nearby village of Miechowitz. Despite the hardships, these excursions filled Kirschner with a deep love for nature and an unbounded devotion to Judaism and Jewish living. From his earliest childhood he developed an attitude of righteousness and justice – through the example of his own father. His early youth was hard one in which only his Jewish home was a light amidst the harsh realities of daily living, a light which filled him with strength all through his life. Measured by American standards it was a hard childhood, yet Emanuel Kirschner called it an extraordinarily happy one.

He received his elementary education in the Jewish Parochial School in Beuthen, to which he had to walk from the village of Karf to which his family had moved. He was often molested on his way to school by anti-Semitic rowdies.

At this time, 1868, the officiating cantor in Beuthen Synagogue, was Chassan Mordechai Perez Weintraub, a brother of that Cantor Weintraub who was also called Kashtan and a brother of another famous Cantor, Hirsh Weintraub of Keonigsberg, Prussia. Kirschner speaks of Beuthda’s Chassan as a Chassan beloved by his community, somewhat on the corpulent side, gifted with a powerful voice which made the listeners tremble. Where Weintraub was just a spark in Keonigsberg, it was the successor of Mordecai Perez Weintraub, the young Cantor Josef Singer who developed the spark into a mighty flame, influencing and guiding the development of young Kirschner. Singer was respected by his congregation through his cantorial work and his dignified handsome appearance He was also beloved by the Jewish youth whom he taught singing in the Jewish Parochial School of Beuthen.

Singer made several trips to Kirschner’s father in Karf to ask him for permission to let the young Kirschner enter Singer’s Synagogue choir, but the father refused to have the family separated on the Sabbath. However, the advent of the Austrian-German war forced the Kirschner family to move to Beuthen and Singer immediately took young Kirschner into his choir. Kirschner calls his entrance into the choir the beginning of his preparation for his later profession as a Cantor.

Singer’s art must receive attention in this paper because of his far-reaching influence upon Kirschner. He could conduct a choir without distracting his Kavonoh from his prayer because all choir music was rehearsed often and mastered so completely that Singer had only to raise an eyebrow or make a slight manual gesture to obtain the desired results. The choir stood in a semi-circle around the Cantor.

Through Singer, Kirschner entered the world of Sulzer and Naumburg, Singer’s recitatives were ofJewish Hungarian tradition which he had learned from his father who had been Chassan in Hlinik. Singer also gave Kirschner his first piano lessons.

Finally, on the eve of young Kirschner’s Bar Mitzvah, Cantor Singer permitted the boy to chant the entire Friday night services. After this successful experiment and with renewed efforts on the part of Singer. Kirschner‘s father gave up the idea of preparing his son to become a baker.

In 1874 Singer left Beuthen to become the chief cantor of Nuernberg. Kirschner, then 17 years old, decided to go to Berlin, where we was accepted as a student at the Jewish Teachers College.

Singer’s successor in Beuthen was a young cantor who later became one of the greatest men in our profession, namely Edward Birnbaum. To those congregations who judge a young cantor by his first service, it should he said that the great Edward Birnbaum when he came to Beuthen was so nervous that he did not fulfill the expectations of his congregation, Given another chance his mastership unfolded itself and he developed into the greatest authority on Cantorial art and science of his time.

As a young man

As a young man

Kirschner was always of the opinion that a higher education would deepen a cantor’s understanding of his own profession. The director of music at the Berlin Teachers Seminary was the renowned Louis Lewandowski, who was also in charge of cantorial education. However only two lessons a week were assigned for this most important part of the cantor’s education. During this time Kirschner‘s idea of the specific training for cantors developed. Kirschner always recognized the importance of an institution of higher learning for Cantors, yet he says in an article in the Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenteums, ‘our most successful cantors who were graduated from Seminaries had to look for their vocal perfection outside of their Alma Maters in private lessons or conservatories.’ He emphatically states, that there must be enough time in a Seminary education for the Cantor to bring to perfection the entire field of vocal training with individual attention for every cantor’s voice. It is natural that he underlines the fact that in a Seminary a Cantor should become a master of the entire Chassanuth, and not to learn some compositions by heart which are given to him by a teacher. A Yom Kippur Koton service, a slichos service, a weekday service are just as important as an Unsane Tokef. More than that, the free recitative, the Sogan should be developed as an art. Cantors must receive in a Seminary an all-round musical background. Given this individual attention to a Cantor, We shall satisfy the demands of every congregation and not have to fear that others will be given positions for which we have prepared ourselves for years.

During his seminary time in Berlin, Kirschner frequently went to Temples in which renowned Cantors officiated. Of interest to us are Cantor Lichtenstein in the Heidereutergusse, Berlin, whose Chassanuth Lewandowski used in his work. Lichtenstein had a mighty voice until his old age, but his voice was soulful, his diction flawless, his chassanuth masterful, and his personality dignified. Alternating with Lichtenstein was Marksohn, also a master of the Cantorial style. Kirschner also went to orthodox synagogues, and he admired Cantor Olitzky in Adass Yisroel and Cantor Tuerk in Ahavas Sholom.

Finally, Kirschner became first bass in Lewandowski’s choir in the New Synagogue, Berlin, an opportunity for which he was very grateful. With this position and with some private lessons, his income grew to 39 Marks a month, which permitted him to have one good meal a week, because there was always someone in his large family who needed support. He preferred to eat little and listen to great vocal artists of his time.

In I877 at the age of 20, Kirschner passed his examinations as a teacher, and became a member of the teaching staff of the Jewish Community School in Berlin. He accepted this position in order to be able to help his aged parents, but it was not what his soul yearned for.

The break for the better came in 1879 when the second cantor of the New Synagogue, Joachimsohn, also called Henry, became ill eight days before Yom Kippur, It was Lewandowski who gave Kirschner‘s name to the Board of the Synagogue. It was the first time since his Bar Mitzvah that he had stood before the Omed, but Lewandowski was willing to take the responsibility for his performance. Kirschner was very successful and it was the only time when he did not suffer from the kind of nervousness which disturbed hlm throughout his later life.

Shortly after this, Joachimsohn died. One might have expected that Lewandowski would have spoken up for Kirschner as the logical successor, but he did not, and rather tried to perpetrate some kind of intrigue which was not successful in promoting another candidate of his own choosing. Kirschner did get the position of second cantor at the New Synagogue. The first Cantor was Cantor Joachim for whom Kirschner had the finest words of praise and who was like father and friend to the young assistant. Joachim must have been a master of his profession because it was Sulzer himself who visited one of his services. How wonderful it sounds in an historical review of a life when we see how the first Cantor Joachim introduced the young Kirschner to a better voice teacher, Professor Ferdinand Sieber, who created in the mind of Kirschner the motto which he followed all his life. ‘Nicht abtrotzen,  sondern abschmeicheln muss der Singer seinem Organ die Stimme.’ It is very difficult to translate this sentence into English. ‘Do not force your vocal chords to produce their sound, rather bring this sound out through a kind and clever attitude toward them.’

Kirschner had not more than a very formal personal relationship with Lewandowski. He was often unhappy about Lewandowski‘s unapproachable manner. Yet when Kirschner was already established in Munich he returned to Berlin to visit Lewandowski. That was in 1893 after Lewandowski had already retired. He seemed to have changed. Joy of reunion was mingled with a depressed feeling of a man who had stepped down from the highest rung in a ladder of fame. Lewandowski asked Kirschner to sing and after he had done so he heard Lewandowski say that no one else could sing his compositions as he did. In reply to Lewandowski’s query as to why Kirschner was so reserved towards him, the younger man answered him in his typical straightforward manner: All your life you listened only to people with false tongues who wanted only favors from you, yet you misunderstood me because no false words found their way to my lips.‘ Lewandowski beat his chest with the word, ‘Chotesi.’ This was his last greeting to Kirschner since he died February 3, 1894.

Kirschner did not fear the most influential person when it came to defend the dignity of the Cantorate.

During his two years of office as Cantor in Berlin he was called to participate in only one wedding and he started a real crusade which went as far as telling his views to a Mr. Magnus, friend of Emporer Frederick II, who made a tremendous preparation for a wedding dinner, but invited the rabbi and cantor only at the last minute. Rabbis and cantors alike were impressed by Kirschner’s courage with which he attacked all problems when he was convinced of a righteous cause.

In 1881, Josef Singer, then 1st Cantor in Nuernberg, became the successor of Solomon Sulzer in Vienna.

As Singer’s successor Kirschner was invited as a candidate to Nuernberg. His performance caused Singer to send a telegram to Lewandowski in Berlin which told of Kirschner’s success. Yet something happened which can only be seen in the light of God’s own plans. It is too difficult to understand. A sudden opposition to young Kirschner developed and Kirschner believed for many years that Singer himself was a member of the opposition. After many years, Kirschner went to Vienna and there Singer told him that some influential men believed that his engagement in Nuernberg would have brought too great a financial burden to the congregation because of his obligations to his large family.

Yet Nuernberg’s loss was Munich’s gain. In 1881 at the age of 24, Kirschner became 1st Cantor of the Great Synagogue in Munich and also a teacher of religion in the school system of the Congregation and City. The hours of teaching were very limited for the 1st Cantor. Kirschner was the successor of Cantor Loewenstamm. Here in Munich he had to transform himself into a south-German Chassan. Coming from Minhag Poland which includes the Chassanuth of northern Germany, Austria, Hungary and Russia, with some regional differences Kirschner saw himself suddenly transplanted and surrounded by the real Minhag Ashkenas. It is just the opposite way of many cantors, including myself, who came from the south-German Chassanuth and had to learn here in America Minhag Poland. The differences between these two branches of our liturgical tradition are fundamental in every respect — scales, style, form, vocal technique, emotional attitude. However, we find in both branches elements which remind us of their common origin in the land of Israel.

Kirschner who was brought up as a master of the improvised recitative, a master of the ‘Sagan’ had to become a guardian of older and newer traditional prayers which the southern German Jew looked upon as unchangeable as a Gregorian chant. Kirschner stayed in Munich probably only because he knew that by mastering this ancient Chassanuth the musical treasures of east and west have clasped hands in his own personality and soul. Now he needed only the technical equipment to bring the material into modern forms of art.

Those first years were extremely difficult and when Kirschner spoke of a constant nervousness before every service the cause may have been an insecurity in the early years of change to a completely different Chassanuth. Kirschner was always his own must severe critic and he, the first Chassan, had no other teacher for the new south German Chassanuth than the second Cantor in Munich Cantor Heinrich Frei, whose superior Kirschner was by nature of office, but whose pupil he became by necessity and thirst for knowledge. As the pupil very soon outgrew the teacher, personal difficulties arose under which Kirschner suffered for years. However Kirschner recognized that there is only one way to overcome these difficulties. He entered the Academy of Music in Munich. In the hands of the famous Professor Josef Rheinberger whose works can be found in all libraries of organ music, Kirschner learned how to adapt our organ, our Magrepha, as a Jewish instrument which it had been since temple times.

It was in 1882 that he received an invitation from the president of a congregation in San Francisco to come to America. He declined the invitation, but fifty years later he wrote that he would have gladly accepted it at that time as a liberation. Meavdut lecherut.

In 1882 he took a trip to Vienna, first to visit Solomon Sulzer, then in retirement, but also to visit his friend and teacher, Josef Singer with whom he wanted to mend old wounds that had caused a great friendship to break.

Sulzer was in his summer home in Moedling. Kirschner went there and found Sulzer barely dressed, sitting at a table, in deep thought. Kirschner introduced himself as successor of Loewenstamm who was an old friend of Sulzer’s; Sulzer‘s body suddenly stiffened and his tired face became filled with an energetic expression. His tired eyes suddenly awoke. Yet his mouth, once so famous for bringing happiness to so many, brought forth only lamentations against fate and humanity. Apparently Sulzer was bitter because he had been forced to retire as 1st Cantor of the Vienna Congregation after 56 years of service, crowned with tremendous success and honor. It was a shocking picture of the passing of human greatness.  Kirschner asked Sulzer to give him an example of his famous art in the recitation of the prayer, to which Sulzer replied, ‘What do you expect from a broken pot!’

Returning to Vienna Kirschner could hardly trust his eyes when he again met Sulzer on the street accompanied by Cantor Schiller, this time walking straight and in utmost dignity. There was nothing to remind him of the old and broken sage of Moedling. Sulzer said goodby with a soft kiss of blessing pressed on Kirschner’s forehead.

In Vienna Kirschner heard Josef Goldstein, the little man with the great voice. Kirschner wrote an excellent review of his great art. He was a Chassan who was a master in all styles. He sang in the Chassanuth of the east, yet he knew the style of the west. His vocal technique must have been flawless and of great variety – a tenor voice of tremendous flexibility.

Kirschner also went to listen to Cantor Bauer, a master in the Spanish-Portuguese tradition. He visited Franz Loewenstamm who published the work of his father under the title Semiroth le-el chai.

When Kirschner returned to Munich the Congregation which usually gave a life contract to a Cantor after five years of service gave such a contract to Kirschner after only two years.

In 1884 Emanuel Kirschner married Ida Buehler. Her name should not be forgotten because of her devotion to her husband and to his work. Her motherly kindness stands vividly before my eyes. Together they had three children.

Kirschner was frequently sought as soloist in concerts, yet he felt that his first duty lay with his Synagogue and religious school. He saw in every true art form something holy and he had a religious attitude towards music in concert halls as well as in places of worship. He always felt first as a cantor and he examined his sign texts accordingly.

In 1891 a young man named Heinrich Knote was rejected as a pupil by the world famous Academy of Music in Munich. He finally found his way to Cantor Kirschner who molded Knote’s voice to such perfection that he became one of the outstanding members of the National Munich Opera. This achievement came to the attention of the Board of the Academy. As a result Kirschner became professor of vocal art at the Academy in 1893. His duties as Cantor, teacher of religion, teacher of voice, composer, and his many other interests in youth and education (he even became a Mohel) were too much. He developed a nervous stomach condition from which he suffered for 26 years until a successful operation in 1919 liberated him from this ordeal.

Among Kirschner‘s many interests was that of essay-writing. Notable among these was ‘Home and School’. He wrote of his fight to bring Judaism to Jewish youth and the opposition of parents toward his work. He loved young people and sang with them until he was an old man. He was interested in their ideas. He always was an Ohev Tziyon. At 80 he was younger at heart than many of his colleagues at 40.

In the essay entitled, ‘Famous Synagogues in Munich and Their Liturgical Minhag’ he showed the development of religious services from 1158 to our present tragic era. He also wrote, ‘The Historic Development of the Traditional Synagogue Chant, Bringing into Relationship or Near Identity the Gregorian Chant to Old Jewish Prayer modes.’

Kirschner exerted great influence on a young cantor who came to him in 1903 to ask for advice. This was Abraham Zemach Idelssohn who was Cantor in Regensburg at the Danube. The town was too small for Idelssohn’s thirst for knowledge so he came to Kirschner to ask what he could do. Kirschner advised him to enrol in the Leipsig Conservatory of Music where he began to study the structure of oriental tone scales and tone steps. From there Idelssohn went to Jerusalem where he remained for 12 years until he became Professor of Hebrew Music at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Here we have an example of what the right guidance and educational opportunities can do for young cantors. Idelssohn never forgot Kirschner and many letters prove their friendship. Time does not permit a discussion of other devoted friendships which Kirschner shared with such men as Aaron Friedman and Leon Kornitzer, and many others.

In 1893, at the age of 36, Kirschner began a concentrated study of counter point and composition. We know that he began these studies under Rheinberger 10 years earlier, but they interfered with school and cantorial pursuits. His teacher now was Composer Ludwig Thuille, a master of strict and free style in counterpoint. Thuille preferred simplicity of melody to complicated technique. Knowing Kirschner l believe that from the very beginning he used Jewish themes for his exercises and gradually as he progressed developed them. Thus by 1897, Thillos L‘el Elyon, the first book of his work, dedicated to his father, appeared in print. Josef Singer in Vienna wrote a critique of this work in the Cantor‘s paper. ‘Wahrheit,’ also Cantor Eugen Davidson in ‘Synagogengesange der Neuzeit,’ also Professor Zengenberger, a Christian, in the ‘Allgemeine Zeitung’ of Munich. It is interesting to compare the reviews of two cantors and of one of the great Christian music critics of his time. Whereas Singer admires his mastership of counterpoint in the Mah Tovu and Tov L’hodoss, Davidson comes closer to the real Kirschner, namely to single out five V’shomrus as examples of Kirschner’s desire to melt together Jewish tradition and the possibilities offered by the organ as an instrument. Zengenberger sees a relationship to Gregorianic elements. However he clearly sees the same problems which our composers are facing today; namely, that our present western harmony does not give a unified impression with ancient Hebrew melody.

May I add that Kirschner was the first who wrote an organ accompaniment not only to support the choir or cantor, but he transformed the organ into a Chassan. Fearlessly he introduced the minor modes of his youth, the Chassanuth of Eastern Europe, to a Jewry mostly educated in major modes, with the organ as his prominent partner.

Kirschner, in his last years, regretted that he had made the same errors in correct accentuation of the Hebrew as many before him. He took a lively interest in Modern Hebrew and he recognized his errors and spoke to me about them. Yet strong as our criticism today may he, T’hillos L’el Elyon stands as a great classic work of a classic period.

In 1911 the third book for Sabbath and Festivals, also a service for Jewish youth, was published. Kirschner reflects his time or his teachers in a composition without specific traditional mode, yet he adheres to Nussach when there is definitely one required. In a Tzadick Katomor he gives freedom to his feeling. However we find #7 in Book I based on the Adonoi Moloch mode. His harmonizations of recitatives are such that the beauty of Nussach stands out and is not concealed. Tenderness in the melody when text or prayer asks for it, and powerful moments as the Thora service are both part of Kirschner’s temperament.

The crown of his work appeared in 1926 with the publication of the Fourth Book for the High Holidays, dedicated to his mother. The inflation had destroyed all his savings and at the age of 65 Kirsehner was a poor man. He had published all his works himself, but now he could not afford to do so. Help came from the Council of Bavarian Congregations.

Singing the compositions of the Fourth Book fills our soul with memories rooted in an antique world. It does not matter if the compositions are based on south German or Polish tradition. It does not matter if they are based on plagal modes. In this work Kirschner has become a guardian of a great and holy treasure of his people. In 1928 Kirschner retired from active service.

Whatever one may think of our classicists in Jewish Liturgical music, their works should be made available to every young cantor. They should be reprinted and sold at a reasonable price instead of becoming museum pieces or black market items.

Kirschner has written an autobiography. Much of it is only of interest to his family. Most of it is of interest to us and to Jewish history. An historic committee for sacred music should gather material from all over the world for future studies and publication.

Emanuel Kirschner died on September 28, 1938, on Tzom Gedalyah, but he did not die before his eyes saw the destruction of his house of prayer, the Great Synagogue of Munich on June, of that same year. He was given the sad honor of singing the last prayer. His home in which he had lived and worked happily, for so many years was taken from him. The man with the youthful heart and spirit died in a small room in an overcrowded old-age home.

When Cantor Leon Kornitzer and I drove to the cemetery, the Germans were greeting Chamberlain, who stood at the porch of the Regina Palace Hotel with his umbrella. It was a sad day!

Even in the darkest hours, Kirschner believed the future.

There would be no sacrifice too great, no task he would be afraid to undertake to create for the Cantor opportunities for higher achievement in the fields of sacred music and Jewish education.

(This is a lecture presented at a Cantors’ Convention, that I found amongst my collection. I am afraid that I do not have the original source)

Note: Kirschner published his magnum opus as the four-volume Tehillot le-El Eljon (Synagogen-Gesänge) for cantor, choir and organ (1897 – 1926). He published a fifth volume, Trauungsgesänge, in 1883.