Marcus Hast was born in Praga near Warsaw in 1840. He came from a family of Chazanim. It is said that when he was only eight years old he read a portion of the law in the Great Synagogue at Warsaw which was filled with some 3000 worshippers. It is also said that when he was only 10, he was invited to officiate at various synagogues in his native town. At that time there were as many as 400 synagogues in Warsaw and he conducted services in more than 300 of them.
He served as Chazan in Torun and then in 1864 he went to Germany to study music and was appointed Chazan in the main orthodox synagogue in Breslau. While he was there he taught many others who were to become well-known Chazanim themselves, amongst them Birnbaum of Konigsberg.
When Chazan Ascher announced his retirement from the Great Synagogue in London Marcus Hast hast was one of the applicants for the post. When he auditioned there, Chazan Ascher was at his side and he received a loud and resounding Yasher Koach, not only from him, but also from the entire congregation, and on the 4th of June, 1871 he was elected to become Chazan of the congregation by a very large majority – 209 for,14 against.
This community he served with great distinction for the remainder of his career. In 1897 he received a testimonial in celebration of his having completed 25 years at the Great Synagogue and in 1899 another presentation was made to celebrate his 28 years there. He also received a check for 500 pounds.
In December 1909 Marcus Hast was 70 and a fulsome tribute by the Rev. A. A. Green was published in the Jewish Chronicle.
Hast was known, not just as a Chazan, but also as a fine Talmudist. There were many occasions when he preached in the synagogue.
He had a particularly sweet and flexible voice, with a rich tone and wide compass. He never appeared to utilise his vocal powers to their full capacity and always seem to leave himself considerable reserves. He was in fact aconsumate artist who made a very most of his talents.
He had a fine and dignified presence, and was a sweet and delightful person. He was a true messenger a the congregation before the altar of God.
There have been very few Chazan/composers in Great Britain, most being happy to rely on the compositions of others. Hast wasn’t and he composed and published music for the entire Jewish year.
I also bring here his philosophy of Synagogue music that, that he published in the introduction to his major work, ‘Avodat hakodesh.’ In this day of ‘sing-anything-that-comes-into- your-head-first’, I believe, is well-worth bringing to a wider public.
In 1910 Marcus Hast published ‘Avodat HaKodesh – a complete edition of traditional and original compositions of Synagogue music, in four volumes.’
It was dedicated (by kind permission!) to the Right Honourable Lord Rothschild and the Lady Rothschild and was published by the Bibliophile Press, England.
In the introduction, Hast says that he had published another volume already in 1873, which he considered to be the first fruit of his own youthful activity. Perhaps he felt it was now time to improve on those compositions. Interestingly, he also says that it was the first of its kind to appear in England.
In his Avodat Hakodesh he states that there were three principles that aided him in his compositions.
1. that Synagogue music must be sui generis.
2. it must faithfully interpret the meanings of the prayers.
3. it must not lack dignity.
1. Quoting Hast: ‘…it must be neither concert music, nor Operatic music, nor even Church music, but Synagogue music.’
2. Synagogue music is more tied to the words than any other kind of music. Hast points out that in other spheres music has frequently to make up for the poverty of words, ‘…as witness the liberetti of most operas.’ However important the music in the Synagogue is, utmost care has to be taken to interpret the meaning of the prayer or poem, faithfully and reverentially.
3. While Shul music certainly doesn’t have to be dull or depressing, it must never lack dignity and the understanding that it is being used as an aid to communicate with the Almighty.
Some of Marcus Hast’s compositions are still sung today, though not many, and this is probably because they are virtually all written for Chazan and choir.