The Organ and Its Music in German-Jewish Culture (review)
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The Organ and Its Music in German-Jewish Culture, by Tina Frühauf. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 284 pp. $74.00

Tina Frühauf has given us a book that is as much about Jewish identity as it is about music. She presents the organ as a marker of Jewish identity: at first as a marker of assimilation in the context of nineteenth-century reformation, and later as a marker of dissimilation, as Jewish musicians sought to find a unique voice.

The introduction of the organ into Jewish worship in Germany in 1810 stirred up a fierce controversy. In the opinion of most traditional Jews, the organ was treyf, totally unfit for Jewish worship. Since the fifteenth century the organ had been associated with Christian worship, and halakha forbade hukkat ha-goy—imitation of gentile practices. Furthermore, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the rabbinic authorities had declared that the entire nation was in a state of mourning, and music, especially instrumental music, was inappropriate. And playing any musical instrument on Shabbat or a holiday was considered forbidden work (or might lead to the forbidden work of repairing an instrument). But the reformers countered that beautifying the worship service was one of the exceptions to the halakhic ban. They also pointed to the precedent of the magrephah, (according to some interpretations) a hydraulic organ used in the Temple in ancient Israel many centuries before the organ was used in Christian worship.

But the elephant in the room was the early reformers' plan to remove any aspects of Judaism that were dissonant with the lifestyle of their German Lutheran neighbors. They eliminated traditional nusah (prayer chant) and cantillation, [End Page 180] and completely did away with the role of the hazzan (cantor). The rabbi, like his counterpart in the church, led the services, and the music consisted of chorales sung by the choir and congregation, supported by the organ. For the emancipated Jews of Central Europe the organ came to symbolize the enlightenment and their assimilation into a refined culture and a society into which they so desperately longed to be admitted.

Decades later, moderate reformers sought a middle ground in which the hazzan regained his position on the bimah alongside the organ and the choir. Now the organ was used to accompany the cantorial recitative, to perform preludes and postludes, music for meditation, as well as to accompany congregational singing. Salomon Sulzer, the great cantor of nineteenth-century Vienna, reversed his initial opposition to the organ and opined that the mighty instrument could be used to "lead, control, to cover dissonances" in congregational hymns. His younger colleague in Berlin, Louis Lewandowski, composed organ accompaniments to traditional recitatives that boxed their free rhythms into a rigid meter of four beats to the bar, and their exotic Eastern modality into German classical functional harmony. Again the organ was being used as an instrument in the battle to purge Jewish culture of its "otherness."

It was not until the first decades of the twentieth century that organ music displayed signs of dissimilation. Whereas nineteenth-century synagogue organists were church musicians who moonlighted on Saturdays, now we find a cohort of trained Jewish organists. Whereas previously enlightened Jews were eager to discard their otherness, now the banner of nationalism was ascendant. In the wake of growing antisemitism and inspired by Zionist ideologies, many Jews embraced rather than hid their ethnic identity. Inspired by composers such as Bartok and Rimsky-Korsakov, Jewish musicians sought to find their own unique voice, one that would blend East and West in a more equitable balance.

The prosperous Jews of early twentieth-century Germany built huge ornate synagogues, equipped with some of the most elaborate organs in the country. When it came to power in 1933 the Nazi party segregated Germany's Jews into an apartheid situation. Banned from attending or performing in public concerts, forbidden to play music by "real" German composers, many Jews turned inward and discovered or rediscovered their Jewish cultural heritage. The synagogue became the venue for concerts of music by Jewish composers, the organ was increasingly heard as a concert instrument, and the repertoire evinced...