Synagogue Organ Music

The Destruction of a Cultural Tradition

In the Jewish cultural realm, the organ can be heard in American Reform temples , in some British synagogues, as well as in the remote Jewish communities of Argentina and Curaçao.  However, the organ in the synagogue represents a music culture deeply rooted in the German-Jewish tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries.  That today it is rather a neglected part of Jewish tradition, may lie in the fact that the organ was never elevated from its controversial status in Judaism.  A rather marginal entity, the synagogue organ remains an oddity for Jews and non-Jews alike.  Nonetheless, the German-Jewish tradition deserves to be remembered in light of its brutal elimination during the Third Reich.  Indeed, this musical culture clearly shows the Holocaust’s effect on music as a paradigm of ‘culturecide’.

The Synagogue Organ and Its Repertoire

With the introduction of organs into Reform synagogues in the early 19th century, a new branch of Jewish music began.  The admission of organs into the synagogue service, which traditional Jews regarded as a ‘Christianisation’ of the service, was the subject of vehement quarrels and debates surrounding the halachic question of whether one may play the organ on Sabbath and Holidays, and if so, whether a Jewish musician may perform.  The debate extended to communities and to rabbinical conferences, and was the subject of various polemics.

After the synod in Leipzig 1869, most synagogues in German-speaking lands introduced organs, a development that would extend to other countries and continents as well, reaching its peak by the turn of the century.  With the legitimization of the organ in the second half of the 19th century, its function also started developing and expanding.   By then, the organist commonly played independently between cantorial solos and also in processionals and recessionals.  Interludes served to introduce the congregation into the different moods of the service or to fill the silence during silent prayer.  Thus, in the following decades, composers began to establish a specific style of organ music for use in the synagogue, mostly consisting of Jewish liturgical themes.  At the beginning of the 20th century this repertoire evolved into a fusion of Western classical music, liturgical, paraliturgical, and folk melodies, eventually flowering into a form which could be performed at concerts as well as in the synagogue.

Organ Music in the Kulturbund

Although synagogue music under the Nazis might easily have been destroyed outright, it continued to develop within the Jüdischer Kulturbund (Jewish Culture League), an all-Jewish performing arts ensemble maintained by the Nazis between 1933 and 1941.  The policy of cultural apartheid and the isolation of Jewish cultural activity from the rest of the German population led to an enhanced ‘Jewish’ consciousness and awoke the desire for ‘Jewish experiences’.  For music, including organ music, the consequence was a substantial enrichment of the repertoire, especially of that which was connected to Jewish folk and liturgical music, and to contemporary compositions.  As a result, the mid-1930s witnessed a transformation of synagogue organ music.  

In the Kulturbund concerts, the organ’s original function in liturgical music shifted to the concert hall.  This development reached its climax with several synagogue concerts, which opened and closed with organ music.  Sometimes the instrument also would have a solo part within Jewish oratorios.  In addition to great organ compositions of a distinctly Jewish flavour, the classical repertoire, e.g. preludes and toccatas by Johann Sebastian Bach and Dietrich Buxtehude, and pieces by Georg Friedrich Händel and Léon Boëllmannm, would also be performed.

Although the Kulturbund seemed to act as an intermediary impetus for music, its establishment was an astute move by the National Socialists.  At first, the repertoire could be chosen freely, but later censors restricted it to all works except those which were considered ‘German’.  Thus, organ music consisting of Jewish musical themes or written by a composer of Jewish origin could be performed only in the synagogue.  Only Jewish audiences could become acquainted with these compositions and culturally identify with them, and only organists of Jewish origin were allowed to play them.  As a consequence, the repertoire became as isolated as the Jews themselves.  Jewish music for organ – which was in origin an offshoot, a partial imitation of Western musical forms and structures combined with essential ingredients of Jewish musical tradition – was definitively torn from one of its roots: the Western musical environment.

During the time of the Kulturbund, and coinciding with the first years of their regime, the Nazis also succeeded by and large in proscribing the further publication of music by Jewish composers.  In addition, although it took longer, they wrested away complete control of the various music publishing houses that were owned by Jews.  Thus organ music was rarely or never published after 1933.  Music written by composers of Jewish origin or by those who did not conform with the Nazis’ ideas of ‘German music’ was not allowed to be printed.  Consequently, such music could not be reproduced, and much of the repertoire did not survive the Holocaust.

Synagogue Musicians during the Third Reich

The Entjudung (dejewification) and destruction of Jewish culture in Nazi Germany was a gradual process conducted in five successive phases. It began with a series of highly publicized acts to ostracize prominent Jewish figures and their friends through defamation, boycott, and cultural ghettoization between 1933 and 1935. Next came legal dismemberment and dissimilation between 1935 and 1938.  Then came the destruction of the economic basis of existence through ‘bureaucratic exclusion’ of all Jews.  The total disfranchisement of the Kulturbund followed between 1939 and 1941.  And at last, from 1941-1945 came the Final Solution, the Nazis’ plan to annihilate and exterminate the Jewish people.

One of the Nazis’ objectives focused on eliminating Jewish musicians, among whom were organists and composers of organ music.  When the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (Law for the Reconstitution of the Civil Service) passed the Reichstag in 1933, Jewish musicians were fired from civic positions.  In 1935 the situation became worse, when on 27 August, Hans Hinkel banned Jewish musicians (already expelled from the Reichsmusikkammer) from playing organ in church, and Christian musicians from playing in synagogues.  A number of Jewish musicians left Nazi Germany at this early stage, but most of those able to escape the Reich had financial means, and were able to find willing sponsors and continued support in their adopted lands.

Others changed their careers, becoming synagogue musicians, when they realized that synagogues in their hometowns and prospective countries of emigration could offer employment, and that unlike in the secular music world, competition would be comparatively minor.  Consequently, they prepared themselves before emigrating, and learned how to play the organ, or focused on composing for the synagogue service.  Nonetheless, many musicians, even those participating in the Kulturbund, lost their roots.  Ripped out from their previous musical environment, they had to fight unemployment, re-organization, defamation, and anxiety, instead of dedicating themselves to their music.

Although many Jewish musicians were able to leave the Reich before the deportations began, a significant number could not do so and were interned in camps.  Numerous Jewish musicians were deported and killed, among them Arno Nadel (1878–1943) and Siegfried Würzburger (1877–1941).  By the time of the last Jewish deportation, and with the brutal killing of organists and composers in concentration camps, German-Jewish musical culture had been nearly eradicated.

The Extinction of the Synagogue Organ

The paradoxical flourishing and development of organ music between 1933 and 1938 was also viciously ended by the destruction of the instruments on the night of 9–10 November 1938, during Kristallnacht.  The destruction itself was a process that started with cultural antisemitic propaganda, the defamation of organs and the music.  An example is given in the Stürmer from 19 October 1938:

It is a disgrace!

The Jew organ in the church of St. Korbinian in Munich

It is reported to us by a trustworthy source from Munich that the organ of the former Jewish synagogue in Munich has been acquired through purchase by the Bishop’s Office from the Jewish religious community. Shortly before the demolition of the synagogue, the organ was moved by the transport firm A. Frank and Sons at 160 Westendstraße, Munich, to the church of St. Korbinian on Gotzingerplatz. The organ case is said to have been bought through the Steinmeyer firm in Öttingen in Bavaria and installed in the church of St. Korbinian by the same company. Now when the faithful arrive for worship in the church of St. Korbinian, they will have the peculiar pleasure of hearing music from an organ that has stood in a synagogue for years. The very organ that once accompanied the Jews’ songs of hatred for non-Jews now adorns a Christian church. It is a disgrace!

Some organs were saved by selling them to churches.  Since the price paid was so nominal, such deeds on the part of the churches can hardly be called heroic.  More accurately the churches took the opportunity to feather their nests at the expense of others.  Although they were physically saved, the ‘deportation’ of organs from synagogues to churches represents a misuse of the instruments.

On the night of 9–10 November 1938, deliberate cultural destruction reached its peak.  An eyewitness report of Kristallnacht in Königsberg's (now Kaliningrad, Russia) Jewish community describes how a gang of brawlers systematically demolished benches, pulled out the Scrolls of the Law from the Ark, tore prayer books and piled everything up in a big heap in the middle of the synagogue.  The report also details the Kristallnacht bombing and setting on fire of the organs.  Adding insult to injury, the organ in the Königsberg synagogue was misused by playing the Horst Wessel Song, which was adopted as a Nazi national anthem by the SA.  Thus this single event comprised three distinct forms of culturecide: intellectual (through defamation), musical (by the playing of Nazi music on the organ), and physical (by burning and bombing).

Nevertheless, a few organs escaped the wrath of Kristallnacht.  Police officer Wilhelm Krützfeld prevented the setting of Berlin's Oranienburger Street New Synagogue on fire, thereby also saving its organ from destruction.  When Krützfeld realized that disguised SA members had started a fire in the anteroom of the synagogue, he chased them away and then called the fire brigade.  This was a unique reaction to Kristallnacht when, for the most part, ‘Aryans’ simply watched, and fire brigades did not respond.  However, a few months later, the Berlin synagogue was requisitioned by the Wehrmacht, for use as a quartermaster’s store, Heeresbekleidungsamt III.

Both organs, the one in Berlin as well as the in Munich mentioned in the Stürmer survived Kristallnacht, but not the bombing raids of 1943 over Berlin, and in 1944 over Munich.  What was lost was not just the greatest synagogue organs in Munich and Berlin, but symbolic monuments to a specific cultural era in Germany.

The newly emergent German-Jewish organ tradition abruptly ended at its peak in 1938, when most of the instruments – and with them the possibility of performing organ music – were destroyed on Kristallnacht.  Although this date marks the beginning of the end, the extinction of this growing cultural tradition was a longer process that continued beyond 1938, with the emigration and murder of Jewish composers and musicians.  Only the mass exodus beginning in 1933 prevented the cultural Final Solution from being completely consummated.

Today, there are again, though few in number, organs in German synagogues in Aachen, Berlin, Dresden, and Frankfurt am Main.  The organ in the Frankfurt synagogue is not used during prayer services, as the congregation follows the Orthodox tradition, though it is sometimes played during weddings.  The same is true of the reed organ in the Aachen synagogue.  Despite the few remnants of the German-Jewish organ tradition, the historically significant organs have been annihilated and the tradition of organ music in synagogues no longer exists in Germany.

Directions as a result of Emigration

Although the emigration of artists and the transplantation of this particular form of German-Jewish culture initially did not appear to contribute to its destruction, in the long term its impact was decisive.  At first, it managed to survive emigration from Germany and exile in the United States.  Indeed, because of employment possibilities in the United States, many musicians became organists or composers of liturgical music.  Prominent and highly talented musicians, among them Hugo Chaim Adler, Herbert Fromm, Heinrich Schalit, Herman Berlinski, and Ludwig Altman, are in a broader sense responsible for the further development of this aspect of German-Jewish culture.  They and others composed pieces especially for use in the synagogue, taught organ playing, and influenced the voicing and dispositions of organs in synagogues.

The developments and turns the German-Jewish organ tradition has taken in the United States illustrate the impact of the German-Jewish emigrants.  Initially, the musicians tried to maintain their German-Jewish (musical) identity.  However, many emigrants had to change direction, and instead of launching performing careers, had to adapt to new circumstances.  In the end, the émigré composers were the last generation of German Jews involved in synagogue music.  The following generation of synagogue musicians, despite musical freedom and possibilities, were apparently not really concerned with the further development of the organ in Jewish worship.  In the end, with the death of the emigrant generation, synagogue organ music died as well.  The next generation was no longer familiar with the musical tradition of the German synagogue, and in that way the music was torn away from its cultural context.  Emigration would finally confirm the culturecide, albeit after a delay.

Those musicians who escaped to Palestine or England had an even harder time, since there were no organs in synagogues, and little demand in churches; and there was consequently no need for their skills.  Although there has never been an organ in an Israeli synagogue, notable composers Paul Ben-Haim, Karel Salomon, Yochanan Samuel, and Chaim Alexander created a novel repertoire for the organ.  These composers saw the organ's potential not as a liturgical instrument, but as a source of unusual sounds and as a concert instrument.  Some of them were inspired by their recollection of the sound of the organ from their early years in Germany.  The organ compositions of contemporary Israeli composers are as diverse as the origins of the composers themselves, most of whom are emigrants from Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary, and the former Soviet Union; a substantial number are Israeli-born.  If there is no unified style or school of organ music in Israel, it is due to the lack of a long tradition of organ music and because of such diverse – secular and religious, Eastern and Western – musical cultures coming together.

By Tina Frühauf


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