The History of the Choir
“The love for the music this choir cultivates is genuine and sincere.”
(Prof. Eliyahu Schleifer, Jerusalem, Leipziger Volkszeitung, 31 March 2010)
To preserve the Jewish sacred music tradition and to attract a larger audience, was the aim of cantor Werner Sander, when he founded the Leipziger Synagogalchor in 1962. In May 1963 the first concert took place in Dresden. Mediated by the Directorate for Concert and Guest Performances Leipzig, the choir sang in Halle, Erfurt, Karl-Marx-Stadt, Dresden, Berlin, and Leipzig. Also in Jewish communities, the choir was a guest. After the expansion of the choral repertoire to Jewish folklore the first LP ‘Meisterwerke der Synagoge und das jüdische Volkslied’ was released in 1965, which was later published in the Federal Republic of Germany and the USA. For Berliner Rundfunk the choir arranged a series of Sabbath celebrations.
Following the death of Sander in July 1972, the tenor Helmut Klotz, who had already appeared as soloist with the choir, was appointed artistic director. He then took over the role of the cantor and sang the tenor solos while conducting. Under his leadership, the ensemble has developed into a semi-professional concert choir with high artistic standards, working closely with renowned soloists and orchestras.
The increased concert activity at home and abroad was an expression of the growing appreciation of the artistic work of the ensemble, which participated in many protocolary important events such as the memorial concert for Yitzhak Rabin in 1996 in Berlin and the concert in the Frauenkirche in Dresden during the opening celebrations in 2006. Since 1980 the choir has been taking part in the ecumenical service at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig to commemorate the victims of the “Kristallnacht” pogrom of 9 November 1938.
Until the German reunification the Federation of Jewish Communities in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was the responsible body for the choir, in support of the ensemble, it received funding from the Cultural Fund of the GDR. Since 1991, the Leipziger Synagogalchor is a registered non-profit organization and is subsidized by the city of Leipzig.
The (since 1990 honorary) special engagement and idealism of approximately 30 singers from different professional groups is due to a large part of the choir’s success. The choir has been honoured with numerous awards, including in 1981 the Art Prize of the City of Leipzig and in 1988 the Star of International Friendship in gold, one of the highest national awards in the GDR.
In 2017, the Ensemble was the first institution to receive the Distinguished Service Award for outstanding achievements at the Obermayer German Jewish History Awards ceremony by the US-based Obermayer Foundation. The choir played a key role in ensuring that the “Revitalization of Synagogue Choral Music of the 19th and 20th Centuries in Central and Eastern Europe” was included as a “good saveguarding praxis example” in the Nationwide Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in March 2020. The Leipziger Synagogalchor is a member of the Association of German Concert Choirs and of the Network Tolerant Saxony.
Since April 2012, the artistic direction ist continued by the conductor and baritone Ludwig Böhme.
The Jewish church service was traditionally dominated by antiphonal singing of the cantor and the congregation. In the 19th Century reforms brought the first men’s and later mixed choirs into the synagogues in Germany and Central Europe. From 1810 organs could also be found in reformed synagogues, and their liturgical music experienced a great bloom into the 1930s. Composers such as Louis Lewandowski and Salomon Sulzer, who worked as cantors in the Reformed Churches in Berlin and Vienna, introduced their own compositions, a musical tradition that was destroyed when the National Socialist regime seized power, and even in today’s Jewish world hardly plays a role.
The Leipziger Synagogalchor preserves besides the works of Sulzer and Lewandowski synagogal music of the 19th and beginning 20th centuries e. g. by Samuel Lampel, Abraham Dunajewski, David Nowakowski and Samuel Naumbourg. The Hebrew texts of the church service songs are psalms and prayers as well as religious texts from the Talmud. With its interpretation the Leipziger Synagogalchor preserves the old Ashkenazic pronunciation of Hebrew, as it was used in German synagogues before the Holocaust, while the modern Hebrew in Israel is characterized by the Sephardic pronunciation today. Another focus is on the works of Salomone Rossi, the most famous Jewish composer of the Renaissance.
According to Jewish tradition and synagogue practice the compositions mostly alternate between the cantor and choir a cappella or with organ accompaniment. The secular repertoire of the choir includes Yiddish songs, which mainly comes from the ancient Jewish communities of Lithuania, the Ukraine, Poland and Romania, as well as Hebrew songs and Israeli choir music. Many of the traditional melodies are performed in arrangements by Werner Sander, Friedbert Groß, Walter Thomas Heyn, Juan Garcia, Reiko Füting, Matthias Becker, Philip Lawson and Ludwig Böhme. They have enriched the songs with virtuoso piano parts or chamber music instrumental versions for concert hall interpretation, vocal soloists take over the role of the narrator.
The wide-ranging repertoire enables flexible programming for venues – large and small concert halls, churches or synagogues – and appropriate occasions.
“What was so very special about this Sabbath service for me, was of course the choir of non-Jews from Leipzig who performed the old songs, as I know them from my youth in Germany.” (Prof. Schalom Ben-Chorin, Jerusalem 1993)
Concert tours abroad have been among the most important activities of the Leipziger Synagogalchor since the 1970s and increasingly more since the Reunification in 1990. They prove the national and international reputation and the ambassadors function of the ensemble.
1975 and 1976, the Leipziger Synagogalchor performed concerts in Prague and Brno. Since 1983 the ensemble has travelled to Poland almost every year. The choir was a guest in the synagogues of Warsaw and Wroclaw, as in the cathedrals of Opole and Katowice. The performances in Lublin and Oswiecim, where the choir laid down flowers in the former concentration camps Majdanek and Auschwitz, left a deep impression. The ensemble has maintained close contact to the Center for Jewish Culture in Leipzig’s twin city Kraków. Due to the commitment of Director Joachim Russek the choir has been invited to more than 30 concerts in neighbouring Poland.
The first concert tour to the West was undertaken by a delegation of eight singers along with conductor and pianist to Paris in 1985. As of 1986 almost all singers of the choir were allowed as a “travel squad” of the German Democratic Republic to travel to non-socialist countries. First appearances in the Federal Republic of Germany took place in 1988 in Duisburg, Hanover, and Hildesheim.
Since the 1990s, the choir has given numerous concerts all over Germany. Important stops were, in addition to many festivals and Jewish Cultural Days, concerts in the Alte Oper Frankfurt (1991), the Dresden Frauenkirche (2006), the Cologne Cathedral (2008), or the Stiftskirche Stuttgart (2016).
Trips abroad have taken them among others to Ukraine (1993), the United States (1994), to Spain and Portugal (1996), South Africa (1998), Brazil (2005), Czech Republic (2008, 2013 and 2019), and UK (2015). It was an honour but also a challenge to participate in the international opera production “The Eternal Road” by Kurt Weill with performances in Chemnitz (1999) and a one week concert tour to New York (2000).
In Israel, the Leipziger Synagogachor performed in 1993, 2010 and 2017. As a sign of reconciliation, the ensemble was allowed by a Knesset decision, to sing in the syangogue of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem in 2010. As moving experiences, the concerts in synagogues and churches in Jerusalem, performances in Kibbutzim, accompanied by encounters with ex-German Jews, as well as concerts in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Leipzig’s sister city Herzliya remain in memory.