Die Musik

The SEB wants to bring the peculiarity and beauty of the chants of the Jewish liturgy to a large audience and show that in this musical genre there are many similarities to Western music, but also special sounds, musical motifs as well as the almost exclusive Hebrew language, which give the performances a special magic. This is a musical genre that is particularly appreciated by music connoisseurs.

In the course of more than 20 years of existence, the SEB has developed a large repertoire of synagogal music, ranging from the Baroque period to 19th century compositions from Western, Eastern and Southern Europe, choral works from Israel, and modern works.

Louis Lewandowski in Berlin

Of particular interest are the reforms of the great Jewish composer Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), through which the service was expanded to include the elements of choral singing and organ accompaniment.

Lewandowski is rightly considered the finisher and master of the reform of Jewish liturgy. In his compositions for the Jewish service, he fused the traditional, oriental synagogal chants with the occidental classical-romantic harmony of his time and fully exploited the musical possibilities that this offered.

Where traditionally only a cantor led a cappella through the service, he introduced additional choir and organ playing. The cantor becomes – opera-like – the soloist, who is scenically supported and emphasized by organ and choir.

Performed by professional singers, the liturgical chants are thus brought to musical life in a uniquely moving way, turning the service into a concert experience.

In this way, Lewandowski gave musical expression to the newly blossoming cultural self-confidence of 19th-century German Jews and did groundbreaking work for the development of Jewish religious music far beyond his own Berlin community.  He influenced liturgy throughout Germany and Europe, and later, through emigration, new synagogal music with local coloration emerged worldwide.

His music not only shaped the style of prayer in synagogues in Berlin and the German-speaking world, but had its influence on many other cultural centers in Europe as early as the 19th century, as well as in Israel and the United States in the 20th century.

Synagogal Music in Europe in the 17th-19th Centuries

While in the 19th century the emergence of a new synagogal music was closely linked to the Enlightenment and the creation of equal rights for Jews in society, the so-called emancipation, a similar phenomenon already existed at the beginning of the 17th century in the small Italian city of Mantua, where Jews had to live in their district (ghetto), but could move and work freely in non-Jewish society during the day.

Salamone Rossi (1670-1728), who was employed as a musician and composer at the court of Mantua, wrote numerous instrumental and vocal works with secular texts over the course of four decades. And he was the first Jewish composer to publish a collection of 33 motets with Hebrew prayer texts.

If Berlin was the center of synagogal music with Louis Lewandowski and a model for composers who wanted to realize the spirit of renewal in their compositions, then Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890) in Vienna and later Max Löwenstamm (1814-1881) in Munich should be mentioned in the same breath. Salomon Sulzer was the first Chasan in modern Europe who stood out for his extraordinary musical, intellectual and charismatic abilities. Many cantors from all over Europe traveled to learn from him. His reforms were an inspiration for Samuel Naumbourg (1817-1880) in Paris as well as for composers of the so-called choir school tradition in Eastern Europe, centered in Odessa, among other places. Naumbourg, equipped with a solid education of traditional chants from Southern Germany and Vienna, combined them with the influences of French art music and opera to unique compositions.

There is also a further development of the musical style from Vienna and Berlin in the Eastern European choral school music.  We experience highly emotional, highly romantic music for choir, organ and cantor, which on the one hand is oriented towards traditional worship music, and on the other hand permeates it with “Russian soul” and develops it further. Representatives are among others Abraham Dunajewski (1843-1872), Wolf Schestapol (1832-1872), David Nowakowski (1848-1921) and Samuel Alman (1877-1947).


From the 20th century, there are many composers from Europe who escaped to Israel, such as Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), formerly known Paul Frankenburger from Munich, who created a new modern Israeli music by studying the various influences of different folk music, including oriental.

North America

From American liturgical music, the SEB turns to the compositions of European composers who found a new home in the USA in the 1930s/40s. Among these are Kurt Weill (1900-1950), Max Janowski (1912-1991), and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) as well as contemporary composers from the United States. As an example we can mention: Charles Davidson (b. 1929), who underscores liturgical texts with jazzy motifs, Ben Steinberg (1930-2023) and Meir Finkelstein (b. 1951), whose compositions are widely disseminated beyond the borders of synagogues.