German Jewish Sacred Musical Intersections

"German Jewish Sacred Musical Intersections"

Project duration:
1 July 2019 – 30 June 2022

Associate partner:
Hebrew University of Jerusalem: Prof. Edwin Seroussi, Jewish Music Research Center

The aim of the project was to locate, map, analyze, and interpret German-Jewish (Ashkenazic) liturgical music from the early 19th century to World War II in its broader European cultural context and, not least, to make it accessible to the public. In this context, synagogues were seen not only as ritual spaces, but rather as sites of public display mediated by music of new, changing aesthetic ideals and intercultural interfaces between Jews and their surrounding non-Jewish society.

For centuries, the majority of Jews in Europe had led lives of social isolation: Anti-Jewish measures such as bans on settlement, prohibitions on land acquisition, lack of freedom of movement, special taxes, or restrictions on professional activities forced them into an existence on the periphery of the surrounding society. Discrimination was accompanied by violence, persecution and expulsion. It was not until the end of the 18th century, with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, that debates arose which, with Europe-wide effect, led to the civic equality of the Jews.

For these human beings, the gradual entry into bourgeois society was associated with great social and cultural changes. Multiple processes of negotiation between the preservation of Jewish heritage and the assimilation of bourgeois Christian standards set in, encompassing all areas of Jewishness. While tradition-oriented Jews insisted on adherence to the religious rules of traditional rabbinic Judaism, progressive Jews consciously reached out to the surrounding society and initiated reforms, some moderate and some extreme, in areas formerly governed by rabbinic rules, such as education, upbringing, and religious practice.

The path from the margins to the center of society also led through the rite and its music. For centuries, a fixed form had been established for the service, whose characteristics were the alternating chanting between the chasan (prayer leader) and the (male) praying community, the individual prayer, the purely vocal performance and the oral tradition; in addition to the Hebrew language, free rhythm and metrics, richly ornamented melodies or the art of improvisation still refer to the mystical origin from the Orient. Since the second quarter of the 19th century, a new paradigm of Jewish liturgical music developed with centers in Vienna, Berlin and Paris, whose representatives sought a connection to the universal edifice of European art music. In imitation of Protestant worship (especially in northern Germany), the organ, professional choir, German language and composition now entered the rite; individual freedom and improvisation were largely suppressed, and the prayer leader took on the function of the Christian cantor. In this way, however, the reformers did not completely abolish the old rite - rather, on their way between preservation and modernization, they took a position between two poles: on the one hand, the traditional service as a social event that thrives on the congregation's active participation in shaping it; on the other hand, the reform service as an aesthetic event in which the congregation remains largely passive.

Particularly in Germany, where the Reform movement originated, additional local repertoires of Reform synagogal music emerged in dialogue with the centers. Such developments were made possible by the formation of a network of individual musicians who stood in various networks of relationships to one another such as teacher - student, soloist - choir member, membership in professional or interest groups, etc. They promoted the new aesthetic ideals of the rite by means of publishing and distributing music, founding cantorial schools and associations, and discourse in the Jewish professional and general press. For the period under study, it should be noted that the reception and criticism of press coverage, in particular, were essential factors in the consolidation of those narratives that carried and stimulated the musical changes in the synagogues.

The project was able to draw on a wealth of unknown or little-researched musical sources in libraries and archives in Europe, Israel, and the United States, particularly printed and handwritten music, archival recordings, private bequests of composers, cantors, and choir directors, and cantorial journals. Although the focus of the project is primarily on the past, its findings are relevant to the present and future of Ashkenazic liturgical music in Europe and beyond. For in today's Ashkenazic communities, decades after their near annihilation and after years of consolidation of new Jewish life, dynamics are beginning to emerge that lead to a renewed negotiation between preservation and renewal, tradition and creativity.

A number of scholars and musicians, however, have a glorified view of Ashkenazic liturgical music: the tradition of Reform, which was torn away with the destruction of Jewish life by the Shoah, is understood by them as the Jewish tradition par excellence. The loss of traditions and memories due to Nazism and the Shoah is seen as the loss of a unique Jewish identity that must be countered by the restoration of its former glory - an evocation of Jewish past that, however, does not do justice to the Jewish present. Others argue that the future of repertoires and performance practices can only be secured through a profound renewal, through a process responsive to the current generation's aesthetic view of things. The collaborative project between Hanover and Jerusalem, on the other hand, seeks to merge these opposing perspectives through its approach. The collaborators believe that the revival of the Ashkenazi synagogue and the growing interest in its musical repertoire can benefit both practically and theoretically from the results of such an integrative project.


Person to contact

Prof. Dr. Sarah M. Ross
Director of the EZJM
T. +49-(0)511-3100-7120
E-Mail: Prof. Dr. Sarah M. Ross


International open study session: November 21, 2021

Further information ...

Last modified: 2022-12-06

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