Samuel Naumbourg (1817–1880), descendent of a long line of cantors, arrived in Paris from Munich in 1843 and within two years was appointed head cantor of the prestigious synagogue of the Rue Notre Dame de Nazareth. Among those who recommended Naumbourg for this position was the famous opera composer, Jacques Halévy. In 1856 the Conference of Chief Rabbis of France met to tackle a number of issues facing French Jews. To ensure consistent quality and uniformity, they charged Naumbourg with the task of reorganizing the music of the services in all synagogues within the French republic. As part of this effort, Naumbourg included many of his own compositions, as well as compositions by several of his contemporaries. His liturgical compendium of music for the entire year, set for cantor and choir (boys and men), with and without organ accompaniment, was published in several volumes, Chants Liturgicals des Grandes Fêtes (1847), Zemirot Yisrael (1864), and Shire Qodesh (1864). Included in Naumbourg’s anthologies are liturgical compositions by Jacques Halévy and Charles-Valentin Alkan.
Given Naumbourg’s close connection with Jacques Halévy, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Jacques Offenbach, it comes as no surprise that many of the compositions in Naumbourg’s collection are reminiscent of the style of the Parisian opera houses.[i] Naumbourg’s setting of Psalm 24:7–10 is scored for SATB chorus, optional organ (doubling the chorus) and (boy) soprano soloist. It opens with a proclamation sung by the tenors and basses in unison, “Lift up your heads, O ye gates, that the King of Glory may come in,” that could easily feel at home in the grand opera. (example 9).
One of the most striking pieces in Naumborg’s collection was written by the great opera composer, Jacques Halévy. According to some sources Halévy wrote this piece for his father, a Jewish cantor, when he was just eighteen years old. Min Ha-metsar (verses from Psalm 118) is scored for SATB chorus and 3 male soloists. Like Naumbourg’s Se’u She’orim, it also begins with the tenors and basses in unison. But here the voices are singing softly in a mysterious pianissimo. For the text “From a constricted place I called out to God,” the unison tenors and basses sing a rising line in C minor first to the minor third and then from the tonic to the dominant pitch via the plaintive tritone, F#. In the next phrase, “God answered me with expansiveness,” the voices return from their height to the tonic. When the melody is repeated by the full choir, the consequent phrase features a crescendo that lands on the relative major. (example 10)
Samuel Naumbourg—original publications
Naumbourg, Samuel. Zemirot Yiśraʼel/ contenant les hymnes, les psaumes et la liturgie complète de la Synagogue des temps le plus reculés jusqu'à nos jours avec accomp. d'orgue ou piano ad libitum / par S. Naumbourg. Paris: Selbstverl,[ii] ca. 1847.
———. Chants liturgiques des grandes Fêtes, 2. [n.p.], 1847.
———. Shire ̣ḳodesh/ Nouveau recueil de chants religieux à l'usage du culte Israe͏̈lite/ contenant: 96 cantiques, psaumes, hymnes, anciennes récitations à 2, 3 et 4 parties / par S. Naumbourg. Paris: Selbstverl, 1864.
The “Majesty of Holiness” programs, featuring the Zamir Chorale of Boston, can be accessed through YouTube using the following links:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVVSiHtBK-g (Divine Majesty)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZUIi6k5f-4 (The Majesty of Hallel)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-6gPDJ6qlk (Masterworks of Majesty)
Schleifer, Eliyahu. Samuel Naumbourg: Cantor of French Jewish Emancipation. Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich Verlag, 2011.
Werner, Eric. A Voice Still Heard: The Sacred Songs of the Ashkenazic Jews. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.
[i] These three prominent opera and operetta composers grew up in Jewish homes. Halévy’s father was a Parisian cantor and prominent Hebraist. Meyerbeer’s father was a leader of the Berlin Jewish community, who organized synagogue services in his home. Offenbach’s father was a cantor and music teacher in Cologne.
[ii] Selbstverlag, German for "self-published."