Shulem Lemmer performing to the Pittsburgh Jewish community (Photo by Esther Wayne/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
On Music

Unleash this heavenly voice

The role of music in Jewish worship has acquired a sudden topicality with the involvement of two major record labels

The music of Jewish prayer, like that of the Christian church, exists largely thanks to Reformation. Century after Christian century, Pope after Pope banned anything livelier than Gregorian chant in church until Martin Luther nailed up a competitive liturgy and composers decorated it with tunes. Luther, himself a composer, wrote some 30 chorales. His setting of “Ein feste Burg” — a mighty fortress is our Lord — remains a cornerstone of Evangelical worship.

In England, Henry VIII’s Brexit Act sparked a musical renaissance led by Byrd, Bull, Tallis, Gibbons and Taverner. In Germany, Schützes and Scheidts were soon eclipsed by the oratorios of Bach and Handel. Rome, under pressure to change its tune, hired Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Mozart and Rossini to produce church music that was often indistinguishable from mass entertainment. Popes hated it. As late as 1903, Pius X issued a 43-page edict proclaiming the godliness of Gregorian chant and banning women, stringed instruments and popular songs from holy worship. In 2003 Pope John Paul II reaffirmed these strictures, but that need not further concern us in the search for God and beauty.

Lost in this mainstream narrative is the role of music in Jewish worship, a history that remains a closed book to the majority of Jews and musicians. The subject has acquired a sudden topicality with the unforeseen involvement of two major record labels. Briefly, it’s a sob story. The Psalms of David were performed by Levites in the Jerusalem Temple, the tempi and instrumentation inscribed in the opening and closing strophes.

This sophisticated musical culture was silenced when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and rabbis decreed “a mourning for generations”, which meant no music in worship, ever again.

The history of music in Jewish worship remains a closed book to the majority of Jews and musicians

That fiat was upheld by Maimonides in the twelfth century and, while kabbalists composed Sabbath songs in Safed, nothing revived until Hasidism and Reform struck a new chord. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism and a contemporary of Bach and Handel, understood that music could reach parts texts could never touch. Hasidic rebbes became composers, creating a sung heritage.

The Reformers introduced chorus and organ to their synagogues when they rewrote the prayer book in German. Like the Tudors, they required new music, lots of it, sounding as Christian as possible. Their cantors, however, clung to older tropes and, while they composed in stiff German collars for Reform temples they also wrote in emotive Hebrew for Orthodox synagogues.

The best of them were Salomon Sulzer of Vienna and Louis Lewandowski of Berlin. Sulzer (1804-1890), whose services were attended by Schubert and Liszt, wrote a setting of the “Tree of Life” (“Etz Haim”) that remains an Orthodox staple, sung on Sabbath morning as the Torah is returned to the Ark. Sulzer’s Reform pieces, in Mendelssohnian style with organ obbligato, mostly gather dust.

By comparison, Lewandowski (1821-1894) wrote tunes that sound fresh as the day he spun them. His settings of the Friday-night centrepieces “Lecha Dodi” and “Tzadik Katamar” are in use across all denominations and his New Year masterpiece “Zacharti Lach” earned me my first boy treble solo, aged five, in a synagogue choir. Lewandowski’s Sabbath-morning “Uvenucho” is the ultimate road-test for auditioning a hazan (cantor), endowed with deep serenity and technical difficulty. You can find many of his works on YouTube; if the editors ask nicely, I’ll link them on the online version of this essay.

Familiar as they are to me, I was still astonished to discover, in Holocaust Memorial Week, that Deutsche Grammophon was about to release, in its first album of Jewish liturgy, the 18 Liturgical Psalms of Louis Lewandowski, in a professional performance by the Hungarian Radio Choir, conductor Andor Izsák. My excitement dimmed on finding them sung in organ-accompanied German rather in the manner of a BBC chorus fulfilling its God-slot obligations. There is nothing discernibly Jewish in Lewandowski’s German working of “The Lord is my Shepherd”; it sounds a bit like Schubert’s male-voice setting of Psalm 92 for Sulzer’s Vienna congregation, sitting uncomfortably between two cultures. The true Lewandowski is to be found in his Hebrew liturgies, and those have so far eluded the moguls of recorded multiculturalism. But maybe not for good.

Some while back the US head of Decca told me that he had signed the most unusual singer — a Belzer Hasid from Boro Park with tubular side-curls and the voice of an angel. “Shulem Lemmer?” I queried. “You mean you heard of him first?” sighed the deflated A&R guy.

Shulem, 30, is a devout Hasid who crosses easily from rebbe compositions to the cassock of a grand synagogue cantor. I first came across him singing celestial ululations in a rich man’s wedding video. Then, at St John’s Wood Synagogue last year, I took part in a grand Friday night service of such sweet soulfulness that I wanted to rush him around the corner to Abbey Road before a single one of his notes got lost. How Decca will fit him between Pavarotti and Bocelli is a problem that has caused some delay to his launch.

So far, they have recorded Shulem in two numbers from Les Mis, together with “Jerusalem of Gold” and “Piano Man”. Mine not to reason why, but it’s a bit like signing Frank Sinatra to record “Baa-baa Black Sheep” and “The Wheels on the Bus”. Shulem Lemmer is the finest hazan I have ever heard, bar none. He’s wasted on Broadway tunes. In Brooklyn he walks the streets like Sinatra in Hoboken, a home-grown hero of limitless potential.

What record execs need is to unleash his power in the sounds of Jewish worship, from Lewandowski to Lubavitch, and they could have a mega-hit on their hands. Remember when Spanish monks singing Gregorian chant topped the charts with four million sales around the turn of the century? That could be Shulem Lemmer, the sound of many souls.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover