Inspiring Classical Reform Music
This blog highlights the history and current use of Classical Reform music in Reform congregations today. It also includes links to inspiring performances of Classical Reform compositions, along with information about their composers.
The Beauty of Classical Reform Music and It’s Role in Reform Worship Today
by Rabbi David Levinsky
The Power and Beauty of Classical Reform Music
I am passionate about music. I am a music listener. I listen to every genre of music from Henry Purcell’s songs to Eddie Bo’s New Orleans rhythm and blues. I’m a music collector. I have somewhere around 3000 records. I’m also a musician and songwriter. I played in rock bands actively for around ten years and professionally for three of them. At Rosh HaShanah services a few years ago, I performed the song “Do You Realize” by the Flaming Lips. My band gets back together every few years and I am going out to New Jersey to record a few songs with them this summer.
At the same time, I am not a musicologist, so when I write about music it’s not the footnoted arguments of a professor. Like most rock musicians, I can’t even read music. Everything that I know is self-taught. What I am is a lover of music. When I hear music in the synagogue, it opens up my heart. I am sure that many of you share this feeling. Music is one of the ways that we connect our souls to the divine in the world. Music lets us touch the transcendent and feel more aware of the imminent. Listening to music is a powerful experience.
Music in the synagogue is no different. As a rabbi serving a congregation that preserves the musical tradition of Classical Reform Judaism, the Friday night services, and Sunday morning services that I lead include music in the classical style presented by a choir and accompanied by organ and piano. I love this music and am consistently inspired by it. The music of the Classical Reform Synagogue offers opportunities for quiet meditation and allows us to experience something higher than ourselves. For all of these reasons, I am dedicated to preserving and invigorating art music in the synagogue setting.
Before World War II, this was the case in much of the Reform movement. I will call this the first generation of music in the Reform synagogue. Music inspired by the great composers of nineteenth-century Europe was part-and-parcel of the Reform worship experience. This tradition originates in Germany with the compositional work of Solomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski.
We should not underestimate the radical elements of this musical revolution. Up until this point, synagogue music was sung by a chazzan, a male cantor. There was no instrumental accompaniment in most cases. The musical model came from the cultural environment of the Jews—Eastern Europe and the lands of Islam. Sulzer and Lewandowski picked up Jewish music, polished it up and put it in the concert halls of Western Europe. This revolution held sway throughout American Reform Judaism up until the Second World War and still is a vital presence in Classical Reform services at synagogues like ours–Chicago Sinai Congregation.
After WWII, a second revolution occurred in Reform Jewish music that would challenge the dominance of the choir and organ. Fomented in the summer camps by teenage baby boomers with acoustic guitars, the first element radically changed music in the Reform synagogue. The music from the summer camps drew more from American folk, pop and even show tunes than from European art music. At the same time, the movement turned in a neo-traditional direction. Choirs were replaced by cantors. Organs were replaced by pianos. Cantors brought back traditional melodies from the Eastern European synagogue. Reform Jews began to look back nostalgically at the Judaism their parents and grandparents left behind.
What were the reasons for this revolutionary change?
One reason was the rise of religious neo-traditionalism within the Reform movement. This was a rebellion of the baby boomers against their parents’ form of Reform Judaism. The choir and the organ were targets of this rebellion. The neo-traditionalism of the baby boomers contained a genuine urge to embrace a rich and authentic variety of Judaism, which they associated with traditional religious practices. Unfortunately, this urge also was saturated with nostalgia and an abandonment of the rationalism at the core of Reform Judaism.
Another reason was the desire to have a more immediate religious experience. As I already mentioned, the laboratory for this new form of liturgical music was the summer camps of the Reform movement. Parallel to the shift toward folk masses in Christianity, services at the summer camps are brief affairs where the campers can sing along with folk tunes grafted onto short excerpts from the Hebrew text of the traditional liturgy.
One final reason was the desire of congregants to participate more in the service. The music for the synagogue inspired by European classical music is hard to sing. It is written for trained voices. Few of us can sing along with an operatic tenor or soprano. Folk music, on the other hand, is specifically designed for a sing-a-long. These new folk tunes give more Reform Jews a chance to participate actively in the service. In the process, however, the beauty of European art music fell by the wayside.
Classical Reform, Folk and New Music in our Congregation Today
Our congregation, which has a reputation as a fortress protecting Classical Reform Judaism, has responded to these changes in a number of ways. We do integrate these newer folk forms into our service. We use choral adaptations of music by Debbie Friedman and Jeff Klepper in our services. In doing so, we are adapting these simpler folk songs to our choir and organ format. In effect, we are creating a hybrid form that mixes the first and the second revolutions.
Surely, Classical Reform musical forms will remain a central part of religious services at Sinai. So too, the acoustic guitar is likely here to stay. What’s next? What’s the next revolution? I don’t know. I do know that young people are looking for rich and authentic expressions of the Jewish tradition. They want to use elements of traditional Judaism in new ways. Whatever the next generation gives us, I hope that we support their efforts to re-form Judaism. After all, this is what has always kept Reform Judaism relevant and vital.
Rabbi Levinsky wrote this article for the Society’s 2013 Summer “Reform Advocate,” while serving as Associate Rabbi at Chicago Sinai Congregation. He now serves as the Rabbi of Temple Har Shalom, in Park City, Utah.