The Choir and the Music

It must have been thirty years ago that my father, Hugo Weisgall, came to Sam Small and offered to lead High Holiday services here. The congregation was small, too, and you could smell the fish plant through the open windows. I'm pretty sure my father kept his pitch simple — he didn't announce that he was one of the founders of the Cantors' Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary, or that he was a famous composer — at least as famous as an opera composer could be in this country. But the price was right — my father offered to do it for free. His father had died, and Hugo had no place to go, so he, and his music, came to Rockland.

I say my father's music — but it was music he inherited, his by default; only a few people sang it anymore.

This synagogue music, what we sing here: choral pieces and nusach, which is the chanting of the text of the prayers, originated in Central Europe and grew out of the extraordinary flowering of Jewish culture in the 19th century. Jews were penetrating the secular world; they were poets, like Heinrich Heine, bankers, like the Rothschilds, and composers, like Felix Mendelssohn. But emancipation was often not enough, and many ambitious, educated Jews converted. Even Mendelssohn used Hebrew melodies from his childhood in his Old Testament oratorio Elijah. At the same time, though, during the second half of the century, cantors could be as famous as rock stars.

These cantors, raised on Jewish music, also studied the secular music of their time, and the middle of the 19th century was a good time to be a musician. Their teachers had known, personally, Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven. These Jewish composers combined the harmonies, the dramatic structure, and the emotion of secular music with their own traditional melodies. They wrote services for every holiday and for Shabbat; some pieces, like the Shecheyanu, are sung only once a year. They were honored by their governments, and non-Jews flocked to their synagogues to hear them and their choirs

Nothing like this music had been heard since the renaissance in Italy, when, in another moment of loosening repression, Salamone Rossi, composer to the court of Mantua and acknowledged to be one of the great musicians of his time, wrote polyphonic Jewish liturgical music. Rossi disappeared in 1630 — killed either in a massacre of the Jews in Mantua or during an outbreak of plague soon after. Turning away again from the secular world, Jews stopped singing Rossi's settings, and they were almost forgotten.

The service my father sang — that we sing — is a compilation of the music of the great 19th century cantor-composers: there was Samuel Naumbourg, who worked in Paris — and who rediscovered Rossi's music, which had been scattered in libraries across Europe: Louis Lewandowski, in Berlin, whose patron was one of Felix Mendelssohn's cousins, and Solomon Sulzer, cantor in the Vienna synagogue. He was a political liberal who got thrown into jail, briefly, after the revolutions of 1848, and was a famous interpreter of Schubert's songs. Schubert set choral versions of psalms for Sulzer's choir.

My grandfather, Adolph Weisgal, was born in 1885, while Lewandowski was still singing, and Naumbourg had been dead for only five years. This was a living tradition. My grandfather trained in Vienna, with the cantor there who had studied with Sulzer, and got his first job as assistant cantor in a Moravian town called Ivancice, whose Jewish community dated back to the 15th century. He married his boss's niece, served in the Austro-Hungarian army as a radio operator during world war I, and in 1920 followed his many brothers to this country. My grandfather wanted to become an opera singer — that was a real career path for a cantor in those days — but my grandmother, with an eight-year-old and a baby, wouldn't let him. So they moved to Baltimore, where for sixty years my grandfather sang, my father conducted his choir, and, like their predecessors, they added their own compositions to the mix. My grandfather wrote the Michalkel Chaim — "You sustain the living and give life to the dead" — which the choir just sang after the Amidah, in 1915, in the trenches along the Italian border, the night before an assault. And eventually my father edited a new version of Salamone Rossi.

After the Second World War, my grandfather changed his first name from Adolph to Abba. The Nazis had wiped out the cantors and choirs who sang this music, the people who heard it — those congregations of Jews who lived that fraught and rich balance between their religious and secular identities.

The Holocaust also destroyed something else: faith in the moral value of high art. What in Germany embodied that art more than music? It was hard to separate the culture that nourished this belief from the nation that had betrayed the Jews. So cantors and congregations in America and in Israel abandoned the music. But Abba and my father understood that forgetting that music would be another betrayal; it would erase memory; it would deny beauty. The music remained their faith.

It is fragile, this music, it's easy to lose. It has to be sung and rehearsed — and loved. When my father came to this synagogue, the congregation began to grow. People understood that here was something rare and wonderful happening here. Those first years, I and my brother struggled to be the whole choir. When we sang, we heard the ghosts of voices, and we felt bereft. Dana Goldsmith heard those ghosts, too, and he told my father he was going to start a choir. My father, who was not an optimist, didn't believe him. Well, here we are, seventeen years later. Thanks to Dana, we sing this music better than it's ever been sung, and after my father died twelve years ago, the congregation kept on growing. This year, Dana is chanting the nusach, we're singing the whole service: Sulzer, Lewandowski, Naumbourg, Weisgal.

And it's passing on to a new generation. Three of Dana's daughters came back to sing tonight, and when his daughter Katie isn't in Rockland, she sings in the choir at my grandfather's synagogue in Baltimore. Bridget Conway's daughter sings, too, and so does my daughter. Of course, Barbara Fishman, Sam Small's daughter, has sung alto in the choir from the beginning. The music is no longer my father's. It belongs to the choir; it belongs to the congregation, to all of us. It gave us life, and now we're keeping it alive.

Deborah Weisgall
1st of Tishrei, 5770
September 18, 2009