This article by Rabbi Raymond Apple is excerpted from his book, “The Great Synagogue: A History of Sydney’s Big Shule”.
As fixed forms of Jewish prayers developed, various rhythmical chants were introduced and became popular among the people. By the time the Anglo-Jewish tradition became established in the 19th century there was a chazanic profession, though at first no choir; the chazan frequently had two vocal assistants, a bass and a tenor, and their musical interaction was often improvised.
The great period of choral development came in mid-19th century. By the time the Great Synagogue, Sydney, came into being it was taken for granted that there should be westernised music following a regular pattern, with a choir adding body and quality to the music. There was no chazan as such until the time of Rabbi Wolinski, though the first chazan chosen as such was Rev Marcus Einfeld.There were attempts to form a choir from 1852 or even earlier, at the time when the York Street Synagogue was consecrated in 1844 and the musical arrangements were in the hands of Isaac Nathan, the father of Australian music. The membership of the choir fluctuated between men and boys and mixed male-female voices. Eventually, from about 1870 the choir settled down as a mixed choir and remained such until 1974.
The consecration of the Synagogue in 1878 had an impressive musical flavour, including a number of original compositions by Sydney Moss, the first choirmaster, who was the leading figure in the musical life of Sydney. Instrumental music accompanied the service of consecration which was held on a weekday. Moss wanted to use an organ for Shabbat services, but this was vetoed by Rev Davis. Rabbi Cohen supported the use of organ music on Shabbat, but the board would not agree. However, on special occasions held on weekdays there was often a band, for example at the military Chanukah services held from 1907 until World War I and then as recently as 1988 when the Bi-Centenary Chanukah service was accompanied by a brass band arranged by Dr David Schwartz, the then choirmaster.
Over the years there were a number of highly accomplished professional musicians appointed as choirmasters including Alfred Hill (the “Beethoven of Australia”) who, though not Jewish, had a Jewish wife Mirrie, herself an eminent musician and a descendant of Phillip Cohen, founder of Australian Jewish community.
Other early choirmasters included W Arundel Orchard, who became director of the NSW Conservatorium and members of the musical Mote family including WIB Mote, Livingstone C Mote and Arnold R Mote. Jewish choirmasters included leading figures such as Louis Shifreen, Ralph Levy, who held office off and on for 40 years, Werner Baer, head of music at the ABC, and Henry Adler. Later choirmasters were Leo Grouse, David Hatfield, James Altman, David Schwartz, Joseph Toltz, Bob Borowsky and Robert Teicher.
For many years the majority of choristers gave voluntary service though more recently almost all have been paid. At times the choir appeared on concert platforms, took part in radio and TV broadcasts, and contributed to special services at other synagogues. Until about the 1970s choristers were garbed in academic caps and gowns; when the mixed choir gave way to a male choir, the board frequently attempted to impose a dress code but without noticeable success. Not all choristers could read music; indeed, very few could read Hebrew. The musical scores therefore required the words to be transliterated into English letters, which created problems with the adoption of the Israeli pronunciation in 1973. The preparation of new transliterations was largely the work of James Altman, choirmaster from 1979 to 1988.
The choir originally sang in the centre block of the gallery but when alterations were made to the Synagogue early in the 20th century, a special choir gallery was built over the Ministers’ Room. In recent years the choir has occasionally sung in the body of the Synagogue, which some congregants prefer for acoustical reasons.
The senior choir has always sung on Sabbath and festival mornings and occasionally on a Friday evening. However, from 1933 there was a junior choir to which girls were admitted from 1936. For many years the training and conducting of the junior choir was in the hands of the Hatfield and Fine family, until a series of teenage boys who had themselves grown up in the junior choir took over. At its peak the junior choir would bring 30-40 youngsters to the Synagogue on Friday evening – not that they were all great singers but their enthusiasm made up for their musical deficiencies. During the 1980s the junior choir underwent reorganisation and older girls were no longer admitted as members. Despite a number of attempts to repopulate the choir in the 1990s, it no longer exists.
The chazanim of the Great have always upheld high highest standards of dignity and musical quality. Rabbi Wolinski, appointed in 1883, is said to have had “a sweet tenor voice”; his son, the artist Joseph Wolinski, was the leading tenor in the choir for many years. Rev Marcus Einfeld, chazan from 1909, was described by W Arundel Orchard as “suggestive of Caruso”. Rev Aaron Kezelman, scion of a chazanic family who came to the Great in 1938, had a clear voice of pathos and emotion.Rev Isidor Gluck, chazan from 1964, brought to Sydney a world class chazanic style, vocal texture and spiritual passion. He enriched the repertoire with Eastern European melody and style. Rabbi Edward Belfer joined the Synagogue in 1988 and became chazan in 1989. His sweet voice and deep piety worthily maintained the musical tradition. Cantor Sloman enlivened the musical life of the Synagogue and introduced new melodies.
Over the years there were a number of long-term chazanic locums, especially Abraham Rothfield, and Willy Link, Mrs Porush’s brother, who assisted on many occasions. In addition, outside officiants were employed for the High Holyday overflow services, whether at the Maccabean Hall or in the Israel Green Auditorium of the Synagogue.
In the early period the musical influences were Anglo-Jewish, relying on the stately compositions of Sulzer, Lewandowski, Mombach and Hast. Marcus Hast, chazan of the Great Synagogue in London, was the father of Rabbi Cohen’s wife and Julius Mombach was choirmaster there when Rabbi Cohen was growing up. Cohen himself did not have a great voice but was an expert on and contributor to Jewish liturgical music; he was music editor of the Jewish Encyclopaedia, published at the beginning of the 20th century. The Synagogue repertoire still uses “the Blue Book” (The Voice of Prayer and Praise) jointly edited by him.
The Synagogue uses a few Sephardi influences, for example such as the De Sola Adon Olam and the congregational chanting of Shirat HaYam, “The Song of the Red Sea”. An Eastern European flavour shows itself in compositions such as Tal (the Prayer for Dew), V’chol Ma’aminim (“And All Believe”) and the popular Chassidic Kaddish. There are Israeli influences in some of the tunes used for Hallel, Kedushah and Adon Olam; Australian influence are reflected in the work of Alfred Hill and Arundel Orchard and local compositions for Alenu and Adon Olam. Occasionally one discerns a Carlebach melody introduced in the style of the popular rabbi–chazan Shlomo Carlebach.
Some congregants love sing-along melodies, especially for Adon Olam, whilst others object to what they deem “drunken sailor” tunes.
Zorach Balkind, one of the more orthodox members of the congregation, served in the choir from 1911 to 1935. The choir’s leading bass and soloist, with a powerful bass voice likened to the big brass drums behind an orchestra, he became a close friend of Professor Arundel Orchard. Balkind had the knowledge of a chazan musically and Hebraically and rendered invaluable assistance to Arundel Orchard, giving him an insight into Jewish liturgy and synagogue music.
This collaboration continued through Livingstone C Mote’s term as choirmaster. Marcus Einfeld, Zorach Balkind and the choirmaster pored over and rehearsed the liturgical works of all the famous composers, incorporating and adapting them for use in the services. Their work sessions and rehearsals occupied many nights of the week.
In this group the names of Harry Ratner, a fine tenor, and Abraham Rothfield, better known as headmaster of the NSW Board of Jewish Education, should be included.
Some of Balkind’s own compositions, such as Uv’nucho Yomar, continue to be sung by the choir on High Holydays and Sabbaths.
The consensus was that the choir reached its zenith when Einfeld, Balkind and Ratner sang together. Balkind’s musical library was given to the Synagogue by his family.
Son of Rabbi and Mrs Wolinski, Joseph Wolinski was an artist and singer, and achieved fame in both areas. A newspaper report in 1922 wrote that in him “Sydney Jewry has produced a painter whose name looms largely amongst the artists of Australia. Visitors to the Sydney Art Gallery cannot fail to be struck by the intense feeling, the solemn power, and the force of expression of that pathetic painting, After Life’s Fever He Sleeps Well“.
As a boy, Wolinski showed a strong talent for painting, but did not make a real start until he was 17. He then studied under Julian Ashton and Frank Mahoney. He exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, and the National Academy of Design, New York. Prior to this he gained, as a student, prizes for antique painting and the President’s prize for composition. Two heads drawn in charcoal and a painting entitled An Interlude, were purchased by the National Gallery.
For a time Wolinski abandoned painting for singing and besides being a leading tenor in the Synagogue choir, he sang at many concerts. Proceeding to Europe to continue his musical studies, he received instruction in Paris from Senor Sbriglia, teacher of the eminent singer Jean De Reski. At the same time he renewed his studies in painting at a well-known art school. For some time he sang at concerts in London and the English provinces and also toured with Ada Crossley.
After experience abroad, especially in America, where his art gained wide appreciation, Wolinski returned to Australia in 1911. A comparison of his Summer, a landscape, which was purchased by the National Gallery, with After Life’s Fitful Fever, showed the wide range and versatility of the artist.
Amongst his portraits are those of Chief Rabbi Hertz, Rabbi Cohen, Rabbi Wolinski (the artist’s father), and Moritz Gotthelf, many times president of the Synagogue.
One of the most ardent female choristers during the days of the mixed choir, Miriam Solomon had a lifelong relationship with the Great Synagogue.
Born in 1925, her association with the Great began in early childhood, when she accompanied her father to High Holyday services at the Maccabean Hall and was fascinated as a five year old with Rabbi Falk and his Lithuanian accent.
Sabbath attendance was a weekly feature of her life before World War II and continued up to her death. She was “confirmed” in the Sabbath School in 1938, and her first “service” for the Shule occurred at the age of 12 when she joined the junior choir in which her older sister Emily also sang. At 17 she graduated to the senior choir and remained a dedicated chorister until 1974. As a chorister she sang the alto part and described herself as “a low woman”. She was honorary secretary of the choir for many years, starting as assistant secretary under Norman Goldberg during World War II. Miriam saw her association with the choir as her greatest joy. She said “I loved that choir”!
The list of her activities in the Synagogue was prodigious. Her first job after graduating from the Metropolitan Business College in 1942 was as junior book-keeper/clerical assistant in the Synagogue office. She stayed eight years, becoming a senior in the office in 1948. She left to gain wider commercial experience with Hi-Lite Pty Ltd before a trip overseas in 1952. She was employed in London by the Federation of Synagogues in a position similar to her earlier one at the Great.
She was in GSY from its inception in the 1940s, holding various offices until she went to England; member of the Journal Committee for several years; minutes secretary for the Services Committee; treasurer of the Parents’ Association during the 1970s; member of the Women’s Auxiliary most of her married life (and treasurer for two years); a Synagogue tour guide; and honorary treasurer of the Australian Jewish Historical Society for 20 years from 1983. She also undertook voluntary clerical work for Rabbi Falk and Rabbi Porush. The Great was her second home.
Outside of the Great she took Scripture classes at Clovelly Primary School when her children attended there. She was also Secretary of the Kingsford-Maroubra Synagogue for some time and was Executive Secretary of the Sydney Beth Din during the 1980s.
She was introduced to David Solomon by his cousin Ralph Levy; the Synagogue choirmaster. They were married at the Great Synagogue in 1962, both aged 37. Their children respectively had their Bar- and Bat-Mitzvahs in the Great. David died in 1996; an instrument-maker and craftsman, the Synagogue possesses many artefacts he designed and crafted including the mezuzot for the Education Centre.
The present choirmaster, Robert Teicher, has performed as a solo classical pianist and singer for over 30 years with a repertoire of Yiddish, Hebrew and English songs. He trained for many years with Raymond Myers, Werner Baer, Donald Shanks and Florence Taylor.
Robert has been with the Synagogue choir as bass soloist since 1985 and has been choirmaster and organist since 1995, re-arranging some choral pieces and composing new works specifically for the choir, as well as resurrecting “old favourites”. His mentors in developing choral arrangements and conducting skills were Werner Baer and Tommy Tycho, giants in Australian music history.
Robert has sung in several Sydney Opera House productions. His main musical influence was his father, Dan Tudor (David Teicher), an opera star and leading bass soloist with the Israeli National Opera (1951-1995), the Rumanian National Opera (1949-1951) and Russia’s Kiev Opera House (1947-1949); in Israel, he made several recordings for Kol Israel Radio.
In 1999, Robert sang in the Capitol Theatre’s production of My Fair Lady, which starred Anthony Warlow. “Doing eight shows a week for several months,” Robert says, “and watching Anthony from the wings and on stage was a great experience”.
Robert conducted the Waverley-Randwick Philharmonic for five years and for 14 presented The Jewish Week on 89.7 Eastside radio, interviewing many famous international and local personalities including Jerry Lewis, Jackie Mason, Victor Borge, Tommy Tycho, Simon Wiesenthal, Gottfried Wagner and Alan Dershowitz. He also dabbles in film directing and one of his short films won second prize at a Fox Studios film competition in 2003. One of the key “actors” in this film was Shlomo Weinstein, an excellent chazan and tenor, who sang at the Great for over 30 years and who originally inspired Robert to join the Synagogue choir.