Old Prayers – New Melodies

Rev. Charles Lowy

“Sing unto the Lord a new Song…” Chazanuth, as we know it today, is one of the most remarkable products of Eastern-European Jewish life, but while it has more or less retained its original style, the choral music of’ the synagogue has undergone certain changes. Thus these words of the Psalmist assume a special meaning when applied to our present-day synagogue liturgy.

Our liturgy consists of many parts – old time-honoured melodies, traditional responses, and the modern settings of those sections of’ the prayers allotted to the four-part choir. Chazanuth is an unaccompanied vocal fantasia upon the traditional prayer-motif in which the Chazan is not bound to form and rhythm but may sing quite freely according to his personal capacity, inclination and sentiment. This part of the Service (Nussach) has to remain constant. The Psalms, however, and many other songs of’ praise, like the Kedushah of’ the Additional Service (Mussaph) have no distinct Nussach, and it is this section of the liturgy where the Chazan with the participation of the choir can provide the musical frame for modern cultivated taste.

I, personally, have always felt that if the musical portion of’ our Synagogue Services is to retain its vitality, it is necessary to enliven it from time to time with fresh melodies. As our liturgy is fixed, the only way to relieve the monotony of repetition is to set the prayer-text to new tunes. Solomon Sulzer, the father of the modern cantorate, was so imbued with the traditional spirit that he was able to create music which was a happy combination of the ancient Oriental origins and the modern choral music. It cannot be denied, however, that some later compositions resemble operatic music, but that is not surprising, as the musical fashion of the outer world has ever found its echo within the walls of the synagogue. Naumbourg had the co-operation of’ Meyerbeer and Halevy, and Sulzer was inspired by Schubert. Even the late Samuel Alman, who was a great promoter of our traditional songs, set most of his compositions to modern music.

I know only too well that the introduction of’ new melodies does not always meet with the approval of all the congregation. It is indeed difficult to find a melodious composition which is neither concert music, nor operatic music nor even church music. And even then a new arrangement might prove necessary as some of the songs lack the dignity and solemnity for which the Service in a synagogue demands.

Some people are inclined to underestimate the importance of’ the choir, while others would prefer a more active participation of the community in the singing. Be that as it may, decorum and discipline have always played an important part in synagogue, and so as to ensure an impressive and dignified rendering of the prayers, the singing should be led by the Chazan and the choir.

I often hear complaints that the congregation find it difficult to join in with new songs, but experience has shown that once a tune is accepted favourably it is only a question of weeks before everyone is able to participate in the singing. The apathy to Jewish choral music is indeed deplorable. I wish more people would realise that the purpose of communal prayer is religious inspiration, and that music has the effect of creating spiritual harmony.

Most of the old melodies were inspired by our past sufferings; now, however, that our generation has lived to see the rebirth of a Jewish homeland, the ‘new music’ which fills our hearts should find expression in the music of the synagogue. A new tune can moreover give the prayer-text a new meaning, and produce in the individual that introspection which is the essence of prayer.

(The late Charles Lowy was the highly respected and loved Chazan of the Hampstead Synagogue. This article  comes from the first edition of the Cantors’ Review which is not dated. However, since, in the news section, it contains a Mazal Tov to me on my marriage, I know it will have been published in late 1969!)