The organist and composer Siegfried Würzburger was born on 29 May 1877 in Frankfurt am Main. During his youth he received private lessons in singing and piano. Later he studied piano and theory with Iwan Knoll at the Hoch’sches Konservatorium. He also took organ lessons with Carl Breidenstein, a teacher at the conservatory and choir director at the Great Synagogue in Frankfurt. Upon marrying the pianist and pedagogue Gertrud Hirsch in 1907, Würzburger founded a private music school. He taught organ as well as piano and voice. Together with his wife they founded the local youth music festival Jugend musiziert.
From 1911 until Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938), Würzburger served Frankfurt’s Westend Synagogue as organist. He showed his deep commitment to the organ both as a performer in Jewish worship and as a soloist in concerts held at the synagogue. Almost blind from a congenital disability, his musicality was defined by extremely good aural skills. In prayer services he often improvised, especially before and after the liturgy. Most of his improvisations were based on musical themes taken from Jewish liturgical music. But he also played the organ literature of the great masters, including Johann Sebastian Bach and Dietrich Buxtehude. After 1933, Siegfried Würzburger also held an important position in the Jüdischer Kulturbund (an all-Jewish performing arts ensemble maintained by the Nazis between 1933 and 1941) where he performed in many concerts, both as soloist and as accompanist.
But Würzburger’s relationship to the organ went far beyond merely playing to earn his living. In his spare time he read Albert Schweitzer’s books on the organ and developed a very good technical understanding of the instrument. His connection to the organ is reflected in a highly unusual construction in his home. There he installed an organ pedal, which, through a special mechanism could be attached to the piano. Thus the piano could be converted and played like an organ. This enabled Würzburger to practice at home and give lessons in organ playing technique.
Two of his organ compositions have survived, the Passacaglia über “Moaus-zur” (ca. 1933) and the Passacaglia und Fugue über “Kol Nidrei” (ca. 1933), through his student Martha Sommer Hirsch, who brought the manuscripts with her to the United States. She later sent them to Würzburger’s youngest child Kenneth Ward (formerly Karl Robert Würzburger), who was brought to England with the last Kindertransport, (rescue mission for Jewish children) that took place nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Passacaglia and Fugue is based on the central prayer of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidrei, which is recited at the beginning of the evening service right after the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark. The Aramaic prayer is a kind of declaration in which all personal vows made to God are annulled. Würzburger himself played the premiere at the Wiesbaden Synagogue in April 1934.
Würzburger’s style follows the many preludes, fugues, and variations for organ of composers in the tradition of Joseph Rheinberger, who produced solid works with deliberate objectivity and individual features. Because of its (polyphonic) style, the Fugue easily fits into the church music genre of the Gebrauchsfuge, in which the symmetrical use of the theme dominates over contemporary style.
If Siegfried Würzburger did not leave behind a substantial and unique repertoire for organ, he was considerably more influential as an organ teacher. Indeed, his work as pedagogue is of special importance, considering the many organists who came out of his school. Some of these would continue the German-Jewish organ tradition, at least in part, as emigrants, most notably the following three who had also served as organ substitutes at the Westend Synagogue before emigrating: Martha Sommer Hirsch (b. 1918), who in 1939 left via Holland and England for the United States, where she worked for 44 years as organist at the Congregation Habonim in New York City; Würzburger’s son Walter (1914–95), who emigrated in 1933 to France, continuing his studies in composition from 1940 onwards in Australia, and settling in 1951 in England. (Although he never worked as organist again, he composed two works for organ, a Fugue in 1943 and a Prelude and Fugue in 1991, both dedicated to fellow emigrant and musician Uwe Radok); and especially Herbert Fromm, a talented organist who became one of the most prolific composers for the Reform Synagogue, leaving behind a vast oeuvre of different genres.
Because of Würzburger’s near blindness and the severe asthma of his oldest son Hans, emigration was impossible. On 21 October 1941 Würzburger, together with his wife and son, were deported to the Łódź ghetto. He died there of frailty and cold at 26 Gnesen Strasse on 12 February 1942, in the arms of his student Fritz Schafranek.
By Tina Frühauf
Frühauf, T. (2005). Orgel und Orgelmusik in deutsch-jüdischer Kultur. Hildesheim: Georg Olms.
Frühauf, T. (2009). The organ and its music in German-Jewish culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ward, K. (2006). … And then the music stopped playing. Suffolk: Braiswick.