by Judith Kessler

When it comes to southern Germany, most of us probably think of beer, dirndls and lederhosen rather than Jews and synagogal music. And yet both beer* and traditional costumes** have a Jewish component and the roots of modern synagogal and choral music lie in southern Germany.

It was the chazzan, singer and musicologist Maier Kohn (1802-1875) who published the first modern collection of synagogue chants in 1839. This is even before Louis Lewandowski, whom our festival is named after – of our festival. These so-called “Münchener Gesänge” were a new arrangement and addition to traditional pieces that Kohn had put together with the help of renowned composers such as Ett, Hartmann and Naumburg for the synagogue in Munich’s Westenriederstraße. Here he led the first synagogue choir of the Bavarian capital since 1832 and in 1843 he also became the cantor of the parish (incidentally Maier Kohn and his wife also ran an educational institute for Jewish girls).

Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums in March 1838

The new song collection attracted a lot of attention. The “Allgemeine Zeitung des Judentums” (General Newspaper of Judaism) had already discussed the worship traditions of the Munich synagogue in March 1838, with the aim of breaking new ground and achieving a balance between liberal and conservative tendencies:

»[…] The Jew, who for centuries had been accustomed to the disorderly, wild shouting in prayer, would not immediately be able to get accustomed to a German worship service that was completely foreign to the Hebrew language.

Even the more educated among us, who, belonging to the more recent generation, cannot easily become accustomed to the older songs, enjoy them more, feel more elevated than with the older ones, because that older language has become un- known (foreign) to them and they find in the german chorale a reverence more appropriate to their education and feelings: The old man, ignorant of the German language, cannot and will not find any spiritual exhaltation, any heartfelt? devotion in this. t would be a great injustice if one wanted to form hold/offer a service even for a small part of the congregation which could not correspond/with.
The same injustice would be committed against the younger part of the congregation if the worship service were left completely unimproved, if the leading singers were allowed to shout out their inherited roulades and tirades and to gargle them out, and if the congregation was offered a shrill, confused accompaniment. First, an uplifting service is the only visible bond by which the glorifying part remains united with Judaism. Furthermore, that very institution by whose improvement and reorganization most certainly and most conducively leads to an allround improvement and transformation in Judaism itself.
[…] This is why the divine service in Munich is so pleasing, becau- se it has left us the old tradition-song-service and given us it as a new tradition-song-service. From this point of view, the worship service was now newly reorganized here. On weekdays, the prayer is carried out according to old traditions and customs, without alteration or abbreviation, in a quiet, dignified manner of the praying people. On Sabbaths and feast days, however, the choir represents the congregation in the responses, in the benedictions, as well as in the other numerous and beautiful chants. It is precisely this representation that serves the purpose of the choir. It often becomes an entertainment instead of challenging the congregation to the devotional chanting and encouraging them to sing when they recite new canozonized songs with the lead singer, and it often becomes boring when they repeat the old, well known, songs. The devotional occupation of the congregation, the request that they, instead of the earlier confusion, pray in ecclesiastical melodies, in beautiful, heartfelt harmony, that must be the purpose of the choir, but not merely a theoretical ecclesiastical performance, in which the congregation either talks and applauds, or is bored, and talks about profane things. (…)The devotional engagement of the congregation, the request that they perform their prayers in ecclesiastical melodies, in beautiful heartwarming harmony instead of the previous clutter, must be the purpose of the choir, not just a theoretical-ecclesiastical perception in which the church either converses and applauds, or bores, and chats about profane things. (…) “

And three years later, in August 1841:

” […] I know nothing of the synagogue here except that the insti- tute of the choir which is a decoration for it, continues to thrive. The same leading committee has only recently published the second delivery of the chants of the worship service, containing the Pieces for Shalosh Regalim, as well as the special ones for Passover, Shavu- oth, Sukkot, Hoshana Raba and Simchat Tora, arranged by the teacher Maier Kohn, and the owners of the first delivery will be pleased to assure themselves of the rich collection of heartwarming, beautiful chants, adapted to the celebration of every occasion.”

In the following decades, not only the people of Munich, but also the worshippers in the other large communities of southern Germany – as in Fürth, Mannheim, Wiesbaden and Frankfurt – received new offers from their cantors and music directors as well.