History / Repertoire / Concert tours
The history of the choir
“The choir’s love for music, which it cultivates, is genuine and sincere.”
(Prof. Eliyahu Schleifer, Jerusalem, Leipziger Volkszeitung, 31 March 2010)
Werner Sander, who came from Breslau to Meiningen in 1945, was appointed cantor and religion teacher at the Jewish religious community in Leipzig in 1950. A short time later he founded the Leipziger Oratorienchor in order to be able to perform the great oratorios of musical literature with their biblical themes. When the only remaining synagogue in Leipzig was rededicated in 1962 after renovation, Sander, together with the West Berlin cantor and tenor Leo Roth, developed the idea of a choir based on the choral works of the liberal synagogue tradition that had not been performed since the synagogues were destroyed in 1938, the wonderful compositions by Lewandowski, Naumbourg, Sulzer, Lampel and others, and this for a large audience.
Sander began rehearsing with members of the Oratorienchor and of the synagogue choir; the literature he had collected himself over the years. The first concerts took place in May 1963. Under the title "Jewish liturgical singing in the change of style epochs" choral works from the 17th to the 20th century by Salomone Rossi, Salomon Sulzer, Samuel Naumbourg, Louis Lewandowski and Samuel Alman were heard. Leo Roth acted as lead singer alongside the soprano Eva-Maria Straussová and the baritone Peter Zacher, while Herbert Schmidt from the Dresden Music Academy played the organ. Further concerts in similar constellations followed in Karl-Marx-Stadt, Halle, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Magdeburg and Erfurt. Initially still singing under the name "The Reinforced Leipziger Synagogenchor", the name Leipziger Synagogalchor was fixed at the latest when the first record was released in 1965.
This first record "Masterpieces of the Synagogue and the Jewish Folksong" was also licensed in West Germany and the USA. Here and on the next two records from 1969 and 1971, Sander's arrangements of Yiddish folk songs and Hebrew festival songs found their place.
After Sander's death in July 1972, the tenor Helmut Klotz, who had already performed as a soloist with the choir, was appointed artistic director. He now took on the role of the Jewish lead singer and sang the tenor solos while conducting. Under his direction over 40 years, the ensemble has developed into a nationally and internationally renowned concert choir. Concerts at the Leipzig trade fairs, international conferences, commemorations and charity events, musical and literary evenings, Jewish cultural days, in synagogues, concert halls and above all in churches as well as trips to near and far abroad followed in large numbers, as far as the professional life of the choral singers allowed. The choir was and remained a non-professional ensemble that pursued its passion for Jewish choral music in its free time. Further long-playing records and CD compilations were created under Helmut Klotz. Thanks to the initiative of Siegfried Theodor Arndt from the Leipzig working group Church and Judaism and the chairman of the Jewish religious community in Leipzig Eugen Gollomb, the ecumenical memorial service in memory of the November pogroms of 1938 was firmly established in 1980, which the Leipziger Synagogalchor has performed annually in the Thomaskirche since then.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the choir in 2012, Ludwig Böhme took over the artistic direction of the choir and immensely expanded the repertoire, which in synagogue music ranges from the Renaissance to the modern day and includes countless arrangements of Yiddish songs created especially for the choir. Böhme gave new impetus not only in his rehearsal work with the choir, but also to the conception of the programs and to cooperations with well-known partners, leading the choir to a new level of quality and recognition. In the 60th year of the choir, there was another change of direction ‒ Philipp Goldmann has been artistic director since September 2022.
Until German reunification, the Association of Jewish Communities in the GDR was responsible for the choir; to support the ensemble, they received funding from the GDR cultural fund. The Leipziger Synagogalchor has been a registered, non-profit association since 1991; it has been institutionally funded by the Cultural Office of the City of Leipzig since many years. The choir has received numerous awards – e.g. in 1981 he was honored with the art prize of the City of Leipzig and in 1988 with the Star of International Friendship in gold, one of the highest state recognitions in the GDR. In January 2017, the ensemble received the Obermayer German Jewish History Award for outstanding achievements. On the initiative of the Leipziger Synagogalchor, the "Revitalization of synagogue choral music of the 19th and 20th centuries in Central and Eastern Europe" was included in the Register of good practice examples in the Nationwide Directory of Intangible Cultural Heritage in March 2020. The choir is a member of the Association of German Concert Choirs and of the Tolerant Saxony Network.
Tina Frühauf: Werner Sander. “to finally fortify peace”. A Vital Exponent of Jewish Music in the GDR (Jewish Miniatures 213). Berlin 2017.
Tina Frühauf: Transcending Dystopia. Music, Mobility, and the Jewish Community in Germany 1945‒1989. Oxford 2021, pp. 193–306.
“Emotional songs, festive synagogue music, spirited Yiddish and Hebrew folklore”
(Die Welt, 1 April 1996)
The Jewish service was traditionally characterized by antiphonal singing by the cantor (Chazzan) and the congregation. The reform movement in German Jewry that began in the early 19th century led to changes in religious practice and synagogue music, which gradually shaped the practice of music in Western to Eastern European Reformed synagogues. The first organ was built in the synagogue in Seesen in 1810, and mixed choirs were formed. Cantors and choirmasters such as Salomon Sulzer (1804‒1890) in Vienna, Louis Lewandowski (1821‒1894) in Berlin and Samuel Naumbourg (1817‒1880) in Paris established with their liturgical compositions ‒ settings of prayers and psalms for choirs a cappella or with Organ accompaniment ‒ a synagogue music tradition that was based on contemporary Christian church music. Countless cantors, choir directors or teachers at large and small European synagogues followed their example over the next few decades, to name just a few: Max Löwenstamm (1814‒1881, Munich), Hermann Ehrlich (1815‒1879, Berkach), Moritz Deutsch (1818‒1882, Breslau), Salomon Jadassohn (1831‒1902, Leipzig), Abraham Dunajewski (1843‒1911, Odessa), David Nowakowski (1848‒1921, Odessa), Alfred Rose (1855‒1919, Hanover), Eduard Birnbaum (1855‒1920, Königsberg), Emanuel Kirschner (1857‒1938, Munich), Samuel Alman (1879‒1947, London) or Samuel Lampel (1884‒1942, Leipzig). With the seizure of power by the Nazis in 1933, the destruction of the synagogues in 1938 and the murder of the Jewish population, this musical tradition, which had barely a century to develop, came to an abrupt end.
In Leipzig in 1962, Werner Sander, together with the West Berlin cantor Leo Roth, laid the foundation for the forgotten synagogue choral music to be heard again, with a powerful ensemble, not only in the synagogue but also on concert stages. To this day, the Leipziger Synagogalchor is dedicated to this cause. His repertoire ranges from Salomone Rossi's works of the 17th century through the romantic choral music of the 19th century to modern awakenings of the 20th century, such as Ernest Bloch (1880‒1959), Heinrich Schalit (1886‒1976), Paul Ben-Haim (1897‒1984) and Kurt Weill (1900‒1950) named as representative.
In many works, the Leipziger Synagogalchor preserves the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew, as was customary in German synagogues in various regional forms, while modern Hebrew is shaped by the Sephardic pronunciation.
But Werner Sander had also turned to secular repertoire. For his choir he arranged Yiddish and Hebrew songs with solo parts and piano accompaniment. From the 1980s, this repertoire was expanded with numerous arrangements by Friedbert Groß. Bonia Shur and Joseph Dorfman dedicated some arrangements to the Leipziger Synagogalchor. A separate concert program, "Lidl fun goldenem land", was created in 2015 with arrangements by Juan Garcia, Fredo Jung, Philip Lawson, Walter Thomas Heyn, Reiko Füting, Matthias Becker and Ludwig Böhme, for pieces e.g. by Mordechai Gebirtig, Mark Warschawski, Morris Rosenfeld, Itzik Manger, Michl Gordon or Abraham Goldfaden, and for many other songs whose authors are no longer known and which today are loved simply as "folk songs". Numerous pieces are available in chamber music orchestral versions.
The ensemble sets special accents with musical and literary events, joint projects and cross-genre concerts. Outstanding companies were e.g. the participation in the opera production "The Road of Promise" by Kurt Weill (1999/2000), the conceptual participation with Yiddish songs in the dance performance "The Dybbuk" by Anna Natt (2014/2015), the re-performance of the Christian-Jewish concert from the Leipzig liberal community synagogue from 1926 together with the Kammerchor Josquin des Préz (2015/2018) in the Leipzig Thomaskirche and at the Kurt Weill Festival in Dessau, the participation in the premiere of the symphony "Ubi caritas" by Henryk Jan Botor during the International music festival "Pax et bonum per musicam" in Wrocław (2016) and the interreligious psalm program "Sacred Bridges" by the Ensemble Sarband at the Heinrich Schütz Music Festival in Weißenfels (2017), the "Classic Klezmer" fusion with the Ensemble Rozhinkes during the Jewish Week in Leipzig (2017), the Christian-Jewish psalm program "Cantate l'Adonai" with the Kammerchor Josquin des Préz in a whole concert series (2019/2020), the world premiere of Aristides Strongylis' psalm setting "Adonai! kyrie! Lord! Herr!” (2019), “Bloch im Bahnhof”, the performance of Ernest Bloch’s choral symphonic Sabbath service “Avodath hakodesh“ at Leipzig Central Station during the Jewish Week (2019), as well as the Leipzig and Halle premieres of Paul Ben-Haim’s oratorio “Joram” in the Gewandhaus and in the Handel Hall (2022).
"For me, the very special thing about this Shabbat service was of course the choir of non-Jews from Leipzig, who performed the old chants, as I know them from my youth in Germany."
(Prof. Schalom Ben-Chorin, Jerusalem 1993)
Concert tours have taken the Leipziger Synagogalchor to Germany and abroad since the 1970s and increasingly since reunification in 1990.
In 1975 and 1976 the Leipziger Synagogalchor sang in Prague and Brno. From 1983 the ensemble traveled to Poland almost every year. The choir has performed in the synagogues of Warsaw and Wrocław, as well as in the cathedrals of Opole and Katowice. The performances in Lublin and Oświȩcim, where the choir laid flowers in the former concentration camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz, left deep impressions.
A delegation of eight singers, choir director and pianist, undertook the first concert tour to western countries in 1985 to Paris. From 1986, almost all of the choir's singers were allowed to travel to non-socialist countries as East German "travel squads". First performances in Germany took place in 1988 in Duisburg, Hanover and Hildesheim.
The choir has given numerous concerts throughout Germany since the 1990s. In addition to many Jewish and non-Jewish festivals and cultural days, important stations were e.g. concerts in the Dresden Frauenkirche (2006), in the Cologne Cathedral (2008), at the biennial "Music of the Synagogues" in the Ruhr area (2008 and 2010), at the interreligious festival "Musica Sacra International" in the Allgäu (2014), at the international Louis Lewandowski Festival in Berlin (2013 and 2016), in the Stuttgart Stiftskirche (2016), at the Heinrich Schütz Music Festival in Weißenfels (2017), at the Achava Festival in Eisenach (2019), and at the Kurt Weill Festival in Dessau (2018, 2019, 2020, 2022).
In addition to Poland, trips abroad led e.g. to Odessa (1993), the USA (1994 and 2000), Spain and Portugal (1996), South Africa (1998), Brazil (2005), Sweden (2009), the Czech Republic (2013, 2018, 2019) and London (2015). The Leipziger Synagogalchor performed in Israel in 1993, 2010 and 2017. In 2010, a Knesset resolution allowed the ensemble to sing in the synagogue of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.