Abraham Baer (1832−1894)

Abraham Baer, born in Filehne (then Prussia) on 26 December 1834 and died in Gothenburg on 6 March 1894, was the cantor of the Gothenburg synagogue from 1857 to 1894. In 1877, Baer published Baal t'fillah oder der practische Vorbeter, a handbook on the music of Jewish liturgy which was widely recognised by Jewish communities around the world and is seen as the 19th century’s most ambitious and trustworthy document of this oral tradition.

Early life and studies

Baer grew up in Filehne, a small town in the Posen province, a part of Poland that had become part of Prussia in the 18th century. The area was marked by a strong tradition of Jewish erudition, but by its proximity to Berlin, it was also part of the cultural aspirations of the German Bildung movement. As a child, Baer received a fundamental Jewish education and began his traditional schooling as a chazan, a Jewish cantor, in the Filehne synagogue. As a teenager he spent a few years as a m’shorer, a wandering apprentice cantor.

It was probably under the cantor Isaac Heymann in Gnesen/Gniezno that he gained his insight into musical theory. Heymann later became the cantor in the Grote Synagoge in Amsterdam, a coveted position among Jewish cantors at the time. Baer also trained as a shochet, a kosher butcher, an occupation often associated with the cantor’s profession in Jewish congregations. After serving briefly in Pakosch/Pakosc and Schwetz/Swiecie, he was recruited to the new synagogue in Gothenburg (Gothenburg), which had been consecrated in 1855. This contact was presumably negotiated by the newly-appointed rabbi, Moritz Wolff, who also came from Posen.

Work for the Gothenburg Synagogue

The Gothenburg synagogue was one of radical reform, in which pervasive liturgical changes were being prepared. It modelled itself on the Berlin and Breslau congregations, the most important centre of the liberal movement. Its musical ideals corresponded with those of the German Bildung movement, and there was an effort to endow the liturgy with the modern aesthetics of art music. The synagogue was equipped with a powerful Marcussen organ in a breach with vocal cantor tradition. As organist, the congregation had enlisted the Bohemian composer Joseph Czapek (1825−1915), a central figure in Gothenburg’s bourgeois music life. With Czapek, Baer was tasked to create a new musical form for the service, suited to the congregation’s reformed 1858 siddur (prayer book).

It was this process of remodelling − sometimes filled with conflict − that paved the way for Baer’s work on Baal t’fillah oder der practische Vorbeter. Baer realised that oral tradition was being lost as a result of the reformist strivings of the community. Greater importance had started being given to the cantors’ academic musical knowledge than to their traditional Jewish competencies. Baer was involved in the reform movement and also participated in the bourgeois music life of Gothenburg as a member of  Harmoniska sällskapet (the Harmonic Society), but wanted his work to draw attention to the culture of improvisation that the traditional cantors kept. An art music liturgy was an evident expression of the ideals of the day, but it should also be possible to transfer something of the old improvisational expressive force to the new music. If cantors-to-be were not able anymore to study their traditional cantorial style (nusach) as m’shorerim, then there should be a handbook for them to gather the basics of the tradition and apply this knowledge in the synagogue according to their choice.

Baer put together tunes to some 1,500 liturgical texts. The collection is organised according to practical aspects, and follows the traditional sections of prayer books, with melodies for the three daily services for  weekdays, Sabbaths and holidays. The pluralistic account of different tunes and variations for many of the prayer texts made the book useful both for reformed and more traditional synagogues. The diversity of the account also reflects Baer’s nigh-ethnological interest in the shifting forms of music of the living tradition, which is also expressed in the academic nature of the foreword, which is marked by Wissenschaft des Judentums, the Jewish reform movement’s cultural studies orientation. His wide competencies in Judaism are also demonstrated in the detailed ritual regulations and the expert treatment of the Hebrew texts.

Baer’s liturgical book (printed at Breitkopf & Härtel in Leipzig) was published in three editions before 1900 (1887, 1883 and 1894), and several facsimiles were published in the 20th century in the US, where Baal t’fillah was used as a textbook in the education of cantors. The work was well-received among Jewish reform cantors, and also became an important source for research in the history of Jewish liturgical music.

The music of Baal t’fillah

Baer was not a conventional composer, but essentially a traditional Jewish cantor who had mastered the art of improvising on a selection of time-honoured modal forms and types of melody. He created a great number of liturgical compositions, and ‘frozen’ scores of many of these form part of Baal t’fillah oder der practische Vorbeter. There is no specification of the division between his own creation and tradition, which he justifies by describing himself as a bearer of tradition. His nusach (personal repertoire and style of delivery) appears in the collection along with other material, since the intent is to cast light on the diversity of the cantorial tradition. Baer’s work is thus summarised in the two editions of Baal t’fillah and the handwritten liturgical books that reflect his work in the Gothenburg synagogue.

Anders Hammarlund © 2014
Trans. Martin Thomson

Publications by the composer

Baal t’fillah oder der practische Vorbeter. Vollständige Sammlung der gottesdienstlichen Gesänge und Recitative der Israeliten nach polnischen, deutschen (aschk’nasischen) und portugiesischen (sephardischen) Weisen nebst allen den Gottesdienst betreffenden rituellen Vorschriften und Gebräuchen, Gothenburg: Baer, 1877 [a second, extended edition was published in 1883 and a new print of this in 1894].

Bibliography

Hammarlund, Anders: Gestaltning, identitet, integration: kantor Abraham Baer (1834−1894) och liturgireformen i Göteborgs synagoga, in: Dokumenterat: bulletin från Statens musikbibliotek, 2008 (no. 40), pp. 4−15.
Hammarlund, Anders:
En bön för moderniteten. Kultur och politik i Abraham Baers värld, Stockholm: Carlsson bokförlag, 2013.
−−−:
A Prayer for Modernity. Politics and Culture in the World of Abraham Baer, Stockholm: Svenskt visarkiv 2013, online publication.
Idelsohn, Avraham Zvi
: Jewish Liturgy and its Development, New York: Sacred Music Press, 1932.
Jacobowsky, Carl Vilhelm
: Göteborgs mosaiska församling 1780−1955. Minnesskrift till 100-årsdagen av synagogans invigning 12 oktober 1855, Göteborg, 1955.
Kalib, Sholom
: The musical tradition of the Eastern European synagogue 1−2. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2002−2005.
Lomfors, Ingrid: 'Den store glömde sonen', in: Judisk krönika, no. 5, 1984.
−−−: 'Kantor Abraham Baer', in: Ingrid Lomfors (ed.), Synagogan i Göteborg 150 år, Göteborg: Göteborgs stadsmuseum, 2005.
Schönberg, Jakob
: Die traditionellen Gesänge des israelitischen Gottesdienstes in Deutschland, Hildesheim/New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 1971.
Werner, Eric:
A voice still heard: The sacred songs of the Askenazic Jews, University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Sources

Baer's liturgical collaboration with Joseph Czapek is documentet in three manuscripts stored at the archive of the Jewish congregation in Gothenburg (Stads- och regionarkivet in Gotheburg). These included choral pieces are gathered from the famous Vienna cantor Salomon Sulzer's collection Schir Zion.
'Musik till sångerna vid gudstjensten i Göteborgs synagoga (1872)', F XXVII:39.
'Musik till sångerna vid gudstjensten i Göteborgs synagoga (1878)', F XXVII:40.
'Musik till Sångerna vid gudstjensten i Göteborgs synagoga (1898)', FXXVII:41.

Summary list of works

Solo songs, songs with organ accompaniment, choral piece.


Works by Abraham Baer

There are no works by the composer registered