Yehudah Leib Miller

Yehudah Leib Miller1886 -1947

Yehudah Leib Miller
1886 -1947

Over the last few decades there have been many Chazanim who deserve the title ‘Sweet Singer of Israel’. This without doubt would have been awarded to the exalted Chazan and composer Leibish Miller, an excellent singer with a beautiful mellow lyric tenor, musician, composer, and , above all, scholar. He possessed great qualities and refined manners,  a “Sh’liach Zibbur” in the true meaning of the word.He was a Chazan to whom many young Chazanim of his era could ‘look up’ and learn from, not only in the realms of Chazanut and music, but also in the field of good manners  – in Hebrew ‘Midot Tovot’, or in Yiddish, ‘Mentschlichkeit’. There was a grace in his personality, and pleasantness in his relations to people, so that his contemporaries could not but admire him. His knowledge and extensive prolific imagination, gained the respect of all who were acquainted with him.

When young Chazanim of today sing the famous ‘Ani Maamin’ by Leibish Miller, I doubt if they ever ask “who was this Miller?” Chazan Miller, like A.M. Bernstein of Odessa, was a classic example of the combination of an excellent Chazan/Composer. He was the epitome of all the virtues which a Chazan should possess, and was blessed with a great talent for this ‘calling’.

Yehudah Leib Miller was born in a small town in Karpato Russia, where his father Moshe Miller was Chazan, and, as was customary, then, also Shochet for the local K’hilla. Many times, as a young child, Leibish was summoned to sing before the gathered Chassidim, who regarded him as a ‘wunder-kind’. A well-known Chazan of that time offered to teach him if his parents would agree to send him to Pressburg (Bratislava), but his father could not agree to sending so young a boy away from home. Leibish remained at home, and studied in a Yeshiva, his father intending that he would become, like himself, a Chazan-Shochet. Although he was very diligent and successful in his ‘Limudei Kodesh’, Leibish did not wish to follow in his father’s foot-steps – he dreamed of becoming a professional, full-time Chazan.

When he was still in his twenties, he became Chazan in the famous ‘Schiff Shul’ in Vienna. Although this was a congregation of the ‘Adath Yisroel’ type, the style of Sulzer and Lewandovski dominated the services. Coming from a little town in Russia as he did, Miller had to adapt himself to this new style of Communal Singing and the customary Germanic melodies. None the less, he did not abandon the pure authentic Nussach and the old traditional melodies, but merged both traditions. He continued his own warm ‘Z’mirot’ within the prayers, taken from the hidden treasures of Jewish mysticism, and at the same time, extended his repertoire to include the compositions of Sulzer.

He always strove to comprehend the meaning and origin of the prayers to ascertain their origin, and their authors; to learn each prayer, and compose in accordance with their content and true ‘Kavana’.

Miller based his Chazanut on the foundation of traditional style and meditation of the heart, not by ‘weeping and sighing’ to excite his listeners, but by a pleasant and calm manner. He always endeavoured to bring his Chazanut to a heightened and artistic performance; by this means, he avoided the employment of the unnecessary coloratura and outbursts, but incorporated thoughtfulness and meaning into every expression of his Chazanut.

A classical example of modesty and refinement in Chazanut is the “Ani Maamin” – plain singing with the intent of building up to a climax. In his many other recitatives one can trace the same style, avoiding all ‘acrobatics’ , voice trillings of coloratura, inserted to please the lay listener. Many renowned Chazanim were his pupils, among them the world renonned and distinguished Chazan Israel Alter, and Chazanim Taube of Montreal and Moscovitz of London.

Chazan Alter tells a story concerning the character of Leibish Miller. “Once, I sat in his study before Shabbat Rosh Chodesh. I asked him to describe how he would sing the prayer ‘Ato Yozarto’. Before he replied, he closed his eyes, and began to enlighten me with a wonderful description of the creation of the world, and then went on to describe the event of ‘Matan Torah’ on Mount Sinai. He asked me to imagine the wonderful services which had taken place in the Temple on Festivals and New Moons, the singing of the Levites, and the accompaniment of the great ‘Magreifa’ (organ).  He continued to expound the greatness of this prayer which contains all those aspects mentioned, until it appeared to me in a new light and form. “Now”, he said to me, “I am sure that you will know how to sing ‘Ato Yozarto'”.

Miller was a true and devoted Jew, very observant, who could combine the Art of Chazanut with the old traditional Nusschaot. He did not obtain his knowledge from Conservatoires of music, but imbibed his artistic know-how from the true fountains of life.

Cantor Alter tells another story about Miller. “In summer, when I studied under him in Vienna, we used to go out after the lesson, and walk almost out of town, to benefit from the fresh air. As the time for Mincha approached, he hurried back to town, and entered one particular Shul for Mincha. Once, I asked him why he did so,  – after all, one could pray on one’s own if out of town? “Don’t you understand” he replied, “I do this for you. In this Shul, there is a Baa! T’fillah who is well versed in the true Nussach for the Mincha Service. I want you to listen and absorb this Nussach’. He continued: “A proper Chazan must have the knowledge of all the Nusschaot throughout the year!”…. This rule, he himself strictly observed. “A Chazan”, he used to say “must not be satisfied with just the translation of the prayers: he ought to know and recognise the source of the prayers, their history, and the authors of the various Piyuttim. Hence, the many modulations in his singing, now with a stability and a pleasantness, and then in tone of request or demand”.

In 1938, Miller emigrated to Israel (then Palestine) with his family. He had intended to stay in Vienna until his retirement, but the German Invasion of Austria forced him to leave. In Palestine, he went through a very difficult period, until he became the Chazan of the famous ‘Yeshurun Synagogue” in Jerusalem, and later, in the Haifa Great Synagogue, where he served for three years, with the famous choirmaster Joseph Rambam.

Chazan Leibish Miller died at the early age of sixty-one, as the result of an illness. A booklet with some of his many compositions edited by the late Joseph Rambam, was published by a special committee of the Haifa Great Synagogue, where he had been greatly loved, in order to commemorate his works.

(Written by Chazan J Landenberg, and originally published in the
Cantors’ Review, November 1972)