Sulzerism, Sulzermania, and the Shaping of the American Cantorate
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Sulzerism, Sulzermania, and the Shaping of the American Cantorate

"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 [End Page 287] 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 [End Page 288] 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...


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