Sulzerism, Sulzermania, and the shaping of the American Cantorate.

Author:Friedmann, Jonathan L.
Position:Critical essay

"The name of Salomon Sulzer has, to modern cantors, an almost mythical sound." (1) When musicologist Eric Werner wrote these words for the 1954 reissue of Viennese cantor-composer Salomon Sulzer's Schir Zion, (2) the name, much more than the music, was a source of reverence for American cantors. New York's Hebrew Union College (HUC) School of Sacred Music, which Werner helped spearhead into existence, was just six years old. (3) It was the first American academy to train professional cantors, and the idea of cantors leading Reform services--as opposed to a choir director or soloist--was still new in many parts of the country. Werner saw Sulzer (1804-1890) as the cantorial ideal, equally adept at vocal performance, Hebraic texts, and Western art music. For the first time in the history of European synagogue song, Sulzer transformed entire services from a functional oral tradition to a decorum-conscious art form. (4) His voice was celebrated beyond the Jewish community. His dignified persona was widely praised. Yet, as Werner asks parenthetically in the same preface, "Is his mythical stature perhaps a mere reverential oblivion? It might seem so." (5)


The reprinting of Sulzer's music in 1954 coincided with the cantor's 150th birthday. It was a hopeful tribute. The material had for decades been inaccessible to American synagogues. Existing editions were enormously expensive, and Jews of Eastern European background stereotyped Sulzer's music as "not Jewish enough," while Classical Reform congregations found it "too Jewish." In another essay that year, Werner drove home his point: "Most cantors profess to revere his great work and are eager to pay lip-service to him." (6) This was not a new phenomenon. In the introduction to an 1885 hymnbook for Cincinnati's Mound Street Temple, published during Sulzer's lifetime, compiler M. Goldstein laments that the music of the "unrivalled master" had been "thrown aside." (7)


Superficial tributes to Sulzer had a long history. The Society of American Cantors gathered in 1904 to discuss short-lived plans for a New York-based school for cantorial training. The meeting began with an exhortation: "Brethren, if you have your cause and the cause of Judaism at heart, you cannot more befittingly commemorate this centennial birthday of the great master than by establishing a school for cantors where young men of musical ability shall be trained in every branch that is requisite for a modern cantor." (8) The Jewish Ministers Cantors Association of America marked the fiftieth anniversary of Sulzer's death (1940) with a commemorative concert in New York. (9) The cover of a 1989 issue of the Reform Jewish magazine Keeping Posted features a portrait of Sulzer, but devotes just one dry paragraph to him. As late as 1994--forty years after Werner's tribute and one hundred and ninety years after Sulzer's birth--Cantor William Sharlin noted the "considerable irony" that only a few congregational tunes snatched from Sulzer's choral works remain in synagogue practice, while the grand works that made him "the father of the modern cantorate" are almost never heard. (10) Sulzer's legendary status can be viewed as a carry-over from nineteenth-century "Sulzermania," when cantors from Central Europe and, later, Eastern Europe trekked to Vienna to study with Sulzer, and notable musicians and critics heard his services at the Stadttempel synagogue. International luminaries penned flattering accounts of his artistry, including English travelogue writer Frances Milton Trollope, (11) Austrian composer and pianist Franz Liszt, (12) and American Sephardic lawyer and diplomat Benjamin Franklin Peixotto. (13) Hagiographic depictions of Sulzer's prowess and piety spread in Jewish circles, as did exaggerated accounts of his friendship with Franz Schubert and other leading musicians. (14) He was purportedly honored with the Russian Golden Medal; the Grand Duke of Baden Golden Medal; knighthood in the Order of Franz Joseph; and Morenu diplomas from the Jewish communities of Lviv, Szegedin, and Vienna, among other awards. (15) Jews and non-Jews attended his ceremonious burial in 1890, and newspapers around the world printed laudatory obituaries and appreciations.

The exuberance surrounding Sulzer traveled to America, but most of the substance was left behind. A few of his European students took pulpits in the United States--notably, Cantor Max Wolff of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco and Cantor Alois Kaiser of Temple Oheb Shalom in Baltimore. But, as often happens, Sulzer was more icon than direct influence. That was partly by design. Werner needed an inspirational figure to link the postwar American cantorate to its historic center in the demolished European continent. Sulzer, who embodied scholarship, musicianship, and professionalism, became the Viennese mascot of HUC's emerging cantorial school. The 1954 republication of Schir Zion solidified that goal, even as the music itself did not catch on. (16) The handsome volumes served as mini-monuments to Sulzerian mythology.

The virtual absence of a competing image of Sulzer attests to the success of the project. However, praise for Sulzer, while overwhelming, was not always universal. Critics questioned his use of Western musical idioms and theatrical mannerisms, which were "infecting" cantors throughout Europe. Detractions came mostly from Eastern Europeans, whose conception of "Jewish tradition" did not include Central European tastes. Latvian cantor and musicologist Abraham Zevi Idelsohn (1882-1938) first introduced "Sulzermania" as a negative term for idolatrous infatuation. (17) Russian cantor and composer Pinchas Minkowski (1859-1924), Idelsohn's older contemporary, used "Sulzerism" in a similar vein. (18) In modern discourse, these terms have taken on opposite connotations, with Sulzermania becoming positive and Sulzerism negative. (19)


The East versus West divide persisted as well, with Werner, a proud Austrian, setting his sights on Sulzer's Eastern critics. His main targets were Idelsohn, his HUC predecessor, and Abraham Wolf Binder, an HUC-affiliated composer who pushed for "authentic" Eastern European sounds in Reform services. Their contrasting views appeared primarily in academic and trade publications. Yet, despite being essentially "in-house" arguments, both sides significantly impacted the direction of the American cantorate and, by extension, communal perceptions of Jewish music. This paper charts the origins and legacies of this nearly forgotten debate.

For the sake of clarity and scope, tangential biographical details have been omitted. Each of the main actors--Minkowski, Idelsohn, Werner, and Binder--had varied careers and interactions with American Judaism. Minkowski was active in Ukraine, and only briefly worked at New York's Eldridge Street Synagogue (1887-1892). He factors into our discussion mainly as a forerunner to Idelsohn. Idelsohn taught rabbinic students at HUC in Cincinnati in the 1920s and 1930s, which kept him away from New York's burgeoning Jewish music scene and plans to start a cantorial academy. He impacted cantors primarily through circulated publications, especially his 1929 opus, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development. Werner and Binder interacted directly with musical organizations and cantorial students in New York. At times, the actors' views concealed pressing political, ideological, and career concerns. For example, Idelsohn's move from Palestine to Cincinnati shifted his emphasis from Jewish music's "Oriental" essence to a Eurocentric narrative. (20) The nuances and complexities of each figure deserve fuller treatment than can be given here. (21) This paper is limited to writings and background material immediately relevant to perceptions of Cantor Sulzer.

Cantorial Narratives

Pioneer scholars, such as Idelsohn and Werner, played a crucial role in shaping conceptions and categories of Jewish music. (22) Their work extended from their vested interests as religious practitioners, and their descriptions of musical phenomena regularly served as agenda-supporting constructions. (23) Through their writings and teachings, they reframed personal views as persuasive arguments, such that the way we "think about the topic today relies in large part on the ideology, politics, projects, and arbitrary decisions of those who achieved the status of Jewish music authorities in the past." (24) With the mid-twentieth-century emergence of cantorial schools in the United States, these ideas were brought to tradition-minded practitioners, who revered "sages" and cherished "inherited wisdom." The seminary setting proved fertile soil for consolidating, codifying, and reinforcing these classifications. (25)


The postwar professional cantor was conceived as a public artist-intellectual who straddled musical theory and practice. (26) This vision was central to HUC's School of Sacred Music, which began as a pandenominational program and subsequently became aligned with the Reform movement. (27) Other denominational and non-denominational schools and professional organizations followed suit. (28) Cantors became "America's most knowledgeable authorities in Jewish music" (29) by virtue of their intimate involvement with Jewish communities. Through services, concerts, classes, lectures, newsletter articles, and other outlets, they functioned as communal music educators and "artists-in-residence," propagating musical practices and canonical narratives that supported those practices.

As this overview suggests, the cantor figures prominently in the standardization and dissemination of Jewish music history. Past controversies, such as those surrounding Sulzer, are smoothed over and softened into unified portraits, which are, in turn, transmitted to the Jewish public. Moreover, Sulzer adoration crosses denominational lines. Although cantors of various movements (and the offshoots of movements) maintain important distinctions of...

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