04 November 2020

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
17, Schubert’s setting of
Psalm 92 for the synagogue

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) … the only great composer before the 20th century to compose a setting in Hebrew of the liturgy for the synagogue

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided after my recent visit to Vienna to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

With the attack on Monday night on the Stadttempel, the only surviving pre-war synagogue in Vienna, I have been reminded that Franz Schubert is the only great composer before the 20th century to compose a setting in Hebrew of the liturgy for the synagogue.

A few months before he died in 1828 at the age of 31, Schubert produced a setting in Hebrew of Psalm 92, Tov Lehodot La’Adonai (‘It is good to give thanks to the Lord’), for the Stadttempel Synagogue on Seitenstettengasse in Vienna.

Schubert was born in 1797 and in his short life of 31 years, he composed hundreds of songs, string quartets, sonatas, and ensemble pieces to be played in small, intimate settings.

His career as a composer began at the age of 14, when he created his first surviving vocal work. The intense ‘Hagar’s Lament’ sets a poem about the story in the Book of Genesis about the Hagar who bears a son Ishmael for Abraham, and is sent into exile in the wilderness.

Schubert regularly opened his living quarters and invited musicians and guests to his ‘gatherings,’ in order showcase his new music and that of other composers. Although he was desperately poor, he was a magnet for Viennese classical society, and his evenings were famous.

Schubert was commissioned along with other contemporary composers by Salomon Sulzer, the hazan or cantor who was in charge of singing at Vienna’s main synagogue, the Stadttempel on Seitenstettengasse, for 45 years from 1826 on.

Sultzer had the reputation of having the finest baritone voice of his time and was an influential composer too. His still-familiar settings include Ein Kamocha, Yehalelu Es Shem, and Shema Yisroel. He also edited liturgical music, and he cared deeply about settings in the Hebrew language.

Sultzer was a frequent guest at Schubert’s musical evenings and commissioned Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92. This is a work for a four-part choir and solo baritone and was clearly intended to draw positive attention to Sulzer’s skills. Sulzer sang Schubert’s arrangement at the consecration of the synagogue on 9 April 1826.

The Jewish community had asked Beethoven in 1825 to compose a cantata for the dedication of the Stadttempel. He was unable to accept the commission, although he apparently carried out a preliminary study of Musik der alter Juden, perhaps with this in mind. Instead, the cantata was written by Josef Deschler (1742-1852), a kappelmeister at the Stephansdom, Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and Franz Schubert wrote his setting of Psalm 92 for the choir of the synagogue.

The musicologist Elaine Brody suggests in Schubert Studies: ‘Sulzer was meticulous in his text-setting; he must have advised Schubert on these matters.’ Schubert could have fulfilled his commission by writing music to a German translation. Instead, he decided to work with the Hebrew language.

Schubert’s Psalm 92 sounds like many of his other melodies and part-songs. Elaine Brody is of the opinion that, stylistically, his setting of Psalm 92 ‘resembles church music more than synagogue music; it displays no characteristic Hebrew melody.’

Psalm 92 was not his only composition to identify with the Jewish people. In 1828, he composed ‘Miriam’s Victory Song,’ setting a poem inspired by the Book of Exodus in which Aaron’s sister rejoices at the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.

This work was praised by Franz Liszt who heard in at a service at Sulzer’s synagogue before Schubert died in Vienna on 19 November 1828.

The German Catholic composer Joseph Mainzer later wrote that no Viennese church of the time ever offered singing ‘as noble and lofty as that synagogue.’

Because of Schubert’s collaborative work with Sulzer and similar works, German Jews still considered him a friend over a century later. German Jews familiar with his tragic life history saw Schubert as a metaphor for their own suffering. His Psalm 92 and ‘Victory Song’ were performed by the Berlin Jewish Culture League in the 1930s as encouragement to the Jewish community after the Nazis came to power.

An early portrait of Schubert, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, was long denied by Austrian art historians to be Schubert ‘because of the Jewish-looking features.’

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

The beginning of the end
for American democracy
and the ‘American dream’?

Patrick Comerford

I have stayed up all night, watching the US election news and results. I am exhausted, physically and in many other ways too, and I am about to go to sleep … at last.

It has been an emotional roller-coaster of a night, and the roller-coaster may continue until Friday, for the next few days or weeks, perhaps right up to inauguration day in January. As I go to bed this morning, there is chaos in the counts in Georgia and Arizona, Trump is claiming 'they' are trying to steal the election as he prepares to claim victory before the count ends … and in a Tweet within the past hour he cannot tell the difference between polls and Poles.

I said in my blog posting last night, with a nod to Leonard Cohen’s song ‘Democracy,’ that this election may not mark the return of democracy to the USA, but the beginning of the end of the US.

That may sound a remote and difficult prediction this morning, to some it may even sound absurd rather than a possibility. But who in the early 1980s could have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany or the break-up of the Soviet Union?

Who, even ten years ago, could have seriously considered the possibility of Brexit? The collapse of the ‘One Nation’ Tories and the hijacking by the far-right of the Conservative Party? Already, serious commentators are talking about the break-up of the United Kingdom within the next ten years.

The past four years have seen many people deluded by the lies of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. And this year’s elections in the US show not only how weak and fragile democracy is in the US, but may also presage the break-up of the United States.

A Trump victory could yet see the majority of states within the United States invoking their own rights and over-ruling presidential decrees.

A Trump victory could see open defiance on city streets, troops, the National Guard and state militia being called in, and even Trump-supporting far-right militia gangs attempting coups in Democrat-run states, as happened recently against the Democratic Governor of Michigan Gretchen Whitmer.

A Trump victory would lead to a rampant rise in Covid-19 infections in the US, and undoubtedly encourage the rise in attacks on synagogues, churches and mosques that has been passively encouraged by the Trump regime in the past four years, and the continuing erosion of human rights and press freedom. In the past few weeks, we have seen voter suppression and voter intimidatiion, reinforcing the fear that in Republican eyes it is no longer so that every vote matters, that every vote counts.

I am certain of this: a Trump victory would bring the United States to a place similar to that of Germany on the eve of Kristallnacht in November 1938.

A Biden victory, although this morning it seems less and less likely, could lead to weeks of egregious, vexatious and expensive court challenges by Trump and his thugs right up to inauguration day.

A Biden victory could intensify that open defiance on city streets, with Trump-supporting far-right militia gangs more violent in their attempted coups in Democrat-run states.

All trust in the institutions and processes of democracy has been destroyed by Trump and his regime in the past four years. The Supreme Court has been packed, the Senate has become a rubber stamp for the White House, and the electoral college system in itself has made it a dysfunctional democracy.

Any democracy in any country depends on an opposition that can speak out openly, critically and with independence and moral confidence. But throughout this campaign Democrats have been intimidated by Trump supporters, and in the event of a Biden victory the Republicans have become devoid or moral credibility.

Even with a Biden victory, the percentage of votes garnered by Trump means a large section of American society is going to continue to be a threat to national security. Racist and far-right groups, including local militias, the Ku Klux Klan and swastika-waving neonazis, have been given four years to organise themselves, to be emboldened, to undermine everything that was once labelled collectively as ‘American values.’

As I go to bed this morning, there is still no clear outcome, although Trump seems to have won in Florida, and most of the swing states have yet to declare. Perhaps the nightmare is only beginning.

Speaking as President of the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) against Trump’s policies during a protest outside the US Embassy in Dublin