Hohenems: "Cantormania" From Salomon Sulzer to the Jazz Singer

Der Standard (01/24/05)

An exhibit in the Jewish Museum in Hohenems from October 17, 2004 to January 23, 2005.

On the occasion of the 200th birthday of Salomon Sulzer, the Jewish Museum in Hohnems had an exhibition on the exemplary lives of Jewish cantors from the nineteenth century until the present. The exhibition, Cantormania. From Salomon Sulzer to the Jazz Singer, was based on the idea of commemorating Sulzer’s birthday with a virtual singing competition whereby cantors from various times and countries throughout the world were invited.

It didn’t matter whether one came from Berlin during the past 19th century or from Eastern Europe or from New York’s days of Broadway. With their virtual participation, they were all congratulating the cantor, Salomon Sulzer, whose life works changed the course of Jewish religious service, musical form, and also the profession and perception of the Jewish cantor.

Salomon Sulzer, a son of the Hohenems community and High Cantor of Vienna, reformed not only the music of the synagogue from ground up, but he also defined the profession of the Jewish cantor in a very new way. The exhibition began with Salomon Sulzer and the impact he had on Jewish liturgy, on the historical development of Reform Judaism in Central Europe and later developments in North America. The exhibit depicted the various life stories of individual cantors up until the 21st century, particularly in view of the conflict between religious and worldly professions. In the dissension between the synagogue and the stage, cantor from both worlds have been honored as stars and some scolded by the rabbis for their secular successes. Even Sulzer, himself, was not only famous as reformer of synagogue music but also shined as an exceptionally gifted singer in the Viennese society in the so-called Schubertiaden, among others.

Metaphorically formulated, the Jewish Museum in Hohenems was transformed into a backstage - where space was found not only for costumes, notes and souvenirs, but also surprising memorabilia and articles from fans.

The exhibit focused on the biographies of individual cantors and tried to bring together their contradictory life stories. At the same time, it also included world famous opera tenors, like Joseph Schmidt, or someone like Al Jolson (Asa Yoelson), who played the Jazz singer, Jack Robin/Jakie Rabinowitz, in the first American tonfilm. Thus, a cantor became star of the stage. The cantor’s familiy, Malavsky (Israel Singer), was depicted in the exhibit as the great favorite of traditional Polish songs of the synagogue. They all tried to find their way between tradition, reform and art, between religious humility and worldly self-realization.

For the first time recordings of Oriental cantor music were presented from the Austrian Phonogram Archive, collected one hundred years ago in the Middle East during a musical anthropological excursion undertaken by the Austrian Academy of Sciences under the direction of Alfred R. Idelsohn.

Whether with Salomon Sulzer and his reform of the religious service, or with Al Jolson and his focus on the entertainment stage, whether cantors forged careers as adored tenors or bewitched their communities as choristers - the exhibition depicted servants of liturgy and rebels against tradition, conservatives as renovators and revolutionary orthodoxies in their vast diversity between East and West and the Orient, the old and the new world.

Apart from the exhibit, a special cantor concert presenting the diverse musical spectrum of cantoral art in the temple and on the worldly stage took place in the newly renovated room of the former synagogue of Hohenems. Additional events also followed.