By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert Jews and Vienna, City of Music, performed on Feb 8, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Salomon Sulzer was born in 1804 in Hohenems and died in 1890 in Vienna. He was the chief cantor (Oberkantor) of the Viennese Jewish community for nearly three quarters of a century. His career bridged the pre-1848 culture of Vienna and the late nineteenth-century period that was marked not only by Brahms and Bruckner, but by a massive Jewish immigration to the city that began in the late 1860s. Hired by the elite and privileged Jewish community of the late 1820s, Sulzer radically reformed the Jewish liturgy and created the basis of the Viennese rite that in turn influenced synagogue cantors all over the world. When Sulzer came to Vienna, he found a city in which Jews and non-Jews, particularly in the area of music, shared common public and private spaces. Sulzer was highly respected as a singer outside of his cantorial role and also taught at the Vienna Conservatory. He commissioned Schubert to set a psalm in Hebrew. He befriended Lizst, Meyerbeer, Paganini and Schumann. Sulzer also wrote secular music, setting the texts of the Austrian poet Nikolaus Lenau. Sulzer’s son Joseph, who helped edit later editions of Sulzer’s monumental compilation and arrangement of Jewish liturgical music, Schir Zion (Song of Zion), became principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic. Sulzer’s fame extended well beyond the confines of the Jewish community.
In order to understand this unusual and gifted man, it is important to note that the Habsburg monarchy, which in 1867 had become a dual monarchy because of the Austrian defeat by the Prussians, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, was until its dissolution, a dynastic enterprise. Its politics and culture were dominated by an Imperial presence and an aristocracy. The Emperor for most of Sulzer’s life was the venerable Franz Joseph, whose attitude toward Jews was benevolent. The Emperor (as the pro-monarchist and the nostalgic Austrian Jewish writer Joseph Roth never tired of reminding his readers), was distinctly resistant to anti-Semitism. He considered Jews to be his loyal subjects treated them like all the other cultural and national groups in his vast realm: all were equally subordinate. In return, the Jews of the monarchy revered the Emperor and Empire.
Loyalty to the Habsburgs, the imperial city, and pride in one’s Jewish faith were for Sulzer’s generation entirely compatible. This rare symbiosis is best exemplified in Sulzer’s music. The first work on the program is a bittersweet picture of the confidence his co-religionists felt as Habsburg subjects. It is sharp with irony for the modern listener. From Schir Zion, this is a setting of the Habsburg imperial anthem written by Franz Josef Haydn: “God Preserve the Emperor.” Sulzer intended it to be used in the Sabbath service, much in the same way as today in most reformed and conservative synagogues, there is a prayer for the United States of America and for the leaders of the government. Sulzer’s interpolation of a verse of a Hebrew psalm into his setting of the hymn resonates with the optimism and security of the integrated nineteenth-century Jews in Vienna. That this hymn was taken up in Nazi Germany does not delegitimize its prior history or its presence here. It is a grim reminder not of what might have been, but what should have been preserved.
The Hymn is followed by a setting of Psalm 111. The musical language is distinctly influenced by the style of early Romanticism of the generation of Schumann and of Schubert and Mendelssohn. The westernizing of what was at that time considered an “oriental” tradition, a Mediterranean if not Eastern religious faith transplanted into Europe, was pioneered by Sulzer and later in northern Germany by Lewandowski. It would of course come under fire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the rise of radical anti-Semitism in German-speaking Europe. The synthesis of Judaism and western culture that Sulzer personified came up against two currents widespread in later generations. His form of modernization and accommodation was challenged on one hand by the embrace of an Eastern European tradition, including Hassidism, as the authentic and uncorrupted tradition of Jewish autonomy and spirituality, and on the other hand by Zionism, which sought a political future for European Jews outside of Europe. But for many, including the great theorist (and practicing Jew) Heinrich Schenker, a friend of Joseph Sulzer and like Eduard Hanslick an admirer of Salomon Sulzer, Salomon Sulzer’s musicality and aesthetic were not concessions, but instead compelling symbols of Jewish achievement.