Louis Lewandowski’s Spirited “Halleluyah” (Psalm 150)
Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894) was a famous choir director and Cantor, and a prolific composer of Jewish liturgical music. His body of work includes compositions for 40 different Psalms, as well as non-liturgical pieces for symphonies, cantatas, and more.
Here is a good professional recording of Lewandowski’s “Halleluyah (Pslam 150)”. This joyful piece has stood the test of time. It is sung and in Reform, Progressive Jewish, Conservative, and Orthodox congregations and in Churches throughout the world. His work is performed every Sabbath evening and morning and on every Jewish Holiday by the Association of Friends and Sponsors of the Synagogal Ensemble Berlin, and yearly at the Ensemble sponsored Lewandowski Festival.
Here is another joyful, spontaneous, version of the same piece – the “Staircase Sing” – recorded in 2013 at the 24th Annual North American Jewish Choral Festival in Hudson, New York.
What do you think of this music? We welcome and encourage your comments!
Read more below about..
The Role of Psalms in Liturgy
The Translation and Modern Interpretation of Psalm 150
A Short Biography of Lewandowski
THE ROLE OF PSALMS IN LITURGY: Past and Present
Psalms have been an important part of Jewish worship since ancient first Temple days. Psalm 150, the last Psalm in the Book of Psalms, is a very joyous song, and the last entry in the Biblical Book of Psalms. As you can see in the translation of Psalm 150 below, these verses were meant to be sung, with dancers dancing and moving to the magnificent beat and sounds of horns, pipes, lyres, and clashing cymbals. This Psalm has traditionally been read and/or sung in the beginning of a service, to shift the worshipers’ focus away from the stresses of the day, to the joyful gathering and beginning of the service.
Song and prayer, accompanied with musical instruments, were a integral part of ancient Temple worship. This surprises many Jews today, who grew up in Conservative and Orthodox congregations that have traditionally prohibited the use of instruments during Sabbath and some holiday worship services. Cantors and congregation members can sing, and they are permitted to dance, but no instruments are allowed. According to one Orthodox interpretation of the Torah, the voice is considered a natural extension and expression of the soul. As such, it is permitted to sing on the Sabbath. Instruments aren’t allowed because they our physical objects that should not be the focus of attention or “distraction” on the Sabbath. Early Reformers made a radical departure from Orthodox Judaism, by embracing the use of instruments, especially the organ, for Sabbath worship services. Organ music became commonplace in synagogues throughout Europe and later in Reform congregations throughout the United States.
Music Transcends the Meaning of the Lyrics
We know that music often transcends the literal meaning of a song’s lyrics. This is true for liturgical music as well. Lewandowski’s composition exudes happiness and joy, even though it is sung in Hebrew, which most people do not understand.
Here is the translation, and a modern interpretation of Psalm 150:
(Jewish Publication Society translation )
Praise God in His sanctuary;
praise Him in the sky, His stronghold.
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
praise Him according to His exceeding greatness.
Praise Him with the blast of the horn;
praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
praise Him with lute and pipe.
Praise Him with the resounding cymbals;
praise Him with loud-clashing cymbals
Let all that breathes praise the LORD.
(For an introduction to the creation, meaning and commentary on The Book of Psalms, read Rabbi Louis Jacob’s article in this MyJewishLearning post.
[Modern Interpretation by Rabbi Devon A. Lerner (2017)]
Thank God for this beautiful world
for earth, sky, and seas.
Thank God for mighty acts;
and exceeding greatness.
Give thanks, celebrate
the good and goodness within and around us,
with the blast of the horn;
with harp and lyre.
Let’s dance to the sound of the timbrel;
to the graceful notes of the lute and pipe.
Dance with resounding cymbals;
with loud-clashing cymbals
Let all that breathes give thanks
To the Source of Life
“Louis Lewandowski was destined for a life in Jewish music from a very young age.” – Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler
Lewandowski was born in Poland in 1821 into a very poor family. His father struggled to provide for his family. Then, when young Louis was only 13 years old, his mother died. Lewandowski, whose vocal and musical talents were already recognized, was then sent to Berlin to work as a singer in cantor Ascher Lion’s choir. This move became a turning point in his life. While in Berlin, Lewandowski was introduced to Alexander Mendelssohn, who was so impressed by the young man’s talent, that he took him under his wing. Mendelssohn became his benefactor, and helped him get into the Berlin Academy of the Arts. This was no small fete. Lewandowski became the first Jewish student to enter the academy. Among his many teachers, he was taught by two of the best know composers in his time. He thrived at the Academy until he was struck with a serious debilitating nervous illness that forced him to withdraw from his studies.
During his illness, Lewandowski attended a worship service where he heard Cantor Hirsch Weintraub sing. He was so impressed with Weintraub, that he decided to focus his musical talents on synagogue music. In 1844 the Jewish community of Berlin invited him to organize and lead a choir. As far as we know, Lewandowski became the first synagogue choirmaster. This was the next stepping stone to becoming a famous choir director, Cantor and composer of Jewish liturgical music.