The 1820s, although a very repressive period politically for most Austrians, marked increasing religious toleration for the Jewish community, at least in legal terms. The Heskalah, the process of Jewish Enlightenment in Vienna, gathered momentum as the walls of the ghetto crumbled away. In 1821 the Emperor had ennobled nine Jews, and he agreed that a new synagogue might be erected, the first officially recognized building of its kind since 1671. A new rabbi for this large house of worship was selected by hearing trial sermons; the choice fell on a remarkable man from Copenhagen, Rabbi Isaak Noah Mannheimer, a radical reformer who preferred to preach in German rather than Hebrew. It was Mannheimer's wish to modernize the life of the religious community, and this included the important musical side of the services. He invited Beethoven, no less, to compose something for the consecration of the house, but the ailing composer could not be persuaded. In the end it was Josef Drechsler, Kapellmeister at St Stephen's, who provided a cantata for the opening of the temple on 9April 1826. As Elaine Brody points out in Schubert Studies, Mannheimer and Sulzer, the precocious young cantor who was the new rabbi's adventurous but canny choice, proved a fine team. Sulzer was less in favour of sweeping changes than Mannheimer; he preferred to modify only certain aspects of the service, while keeping to tradition in other respects. Thus a compromise was reached which balanced the wishes of the reformers with those of the conservatives: Sulzer insisted that the Eastern style of cantillation should be conserved, and that the music should continue to be unaccompanied (it was only much later that an organ was installed). For High Holidays the traditional melodies of the church continued to be used, but Sulzer felt that music by non-Jewish composers might be heard at the Friday night and Saturday services (thus Schubert's setting of this Psalm for the Sabbath).
As Sulzer had been charged with the reorganization of the musical side of the service in the new synagogue, he set about commissioning pieces of music from well-known composers which could be used for liturgical purposes. The first volume of his anthology Schir Zion ('The Harp of Zion', 1839) consists of 159 musical items of religious music; 122 of these are by Sulzer himself, but the collection also includes works by Josef Drechsler, Josef Fischer and Michael Umlauf, as well as this Schubert Psalm. It is self-evident that Vienna's leading Jewish composers should have taken an interest in such a project, but it remains unclear what led Schubert to compose this Psalm in July 1828. He was always short of money and it is possible that the arrangement was purely financial. But the composer is also said to have admired the beauty of Sulzer's voice and his artistry. There is an apocryphal story that Schubert insisted on hearing the young singer perform Der Wanderer three times in succession, and was astounded by Sulzer's rendition of Die Allmacht. Liszt certainly admired Sulzer at a later date and, perhaps as a result, arranged Die Allmacht for tenor solo and large male chorus. Someone at the end of the nineteenth century saw fit to provide written evidence that Schubert had been the cantor's fervent admirer. There is a letter to Sulzer, purportedly from the composer, which lauds the cantor extravagantly- and rather uncharacteristically (Schubert was rather sparing in his praise of younger artists). Otto Erich Deutsch pronounced the letter a forgery, and it was thus not included in the Documentary Biography.
But one thing is clear: Schubert could have chosen to deliver this Psalm to Sulzer in German, but chose instead to set it in Hebrew. As an unaccompanied work, this Psalm shows the composer at the end of his life to have been open-minded and interested in religious viewpoints other than those from his own cultural background. Walcher's teasing phrase about not believing in one God comes to mind, perhaps meaning the limited vision of a purely Roman Catholic God. Schubert seems to have gone out of his way to honour Jewish traditions and language with his serious attention to detail; he went to some trouble to provide Sulzer with a piece that was as authentic as he could make it. Some years earlier the composer had been tempted into a project with the poet Craigher which aimed to widen the appeal of his songs by publishing them in other languages. Schubert obviously had an ecumenical streak which delighted in working with other religions and cultures.
The technical difficulties of setting Hebrew to Western music are not to be underestimated. These arise because there is no metrical system as such with a constant number of feet- Hebrew poetry is in fact poetical prose. Traditional Jewish melodies with their freely flowing characteristics also resist being confined in the straitjackets of exact Western notation. The composer omitted the first verse of the Psalm and set the next eight (2 to 9) for a group of soloists and chorus in alternation. A baritone solo for Sulzer was included at the heart of the piece. There is nothing like this in Schubert's other choral music, and it is obviously based on the tradition of the meshorim, where the cantor sang his melodies with a boy soprano and a bass on either side of him who accompanied his melodies. It is clear that the composer consulted Sulzer on matters of Hebrew accentuation and meaning. Despite the fact that Schubert made no attempt to use any traditional melodic material for the setting (this was Sulzer's compositional speciality), the music is tinged with a trace of what might be termed 'Middle-Eastern exoticism'. It is also the consensus that Schubert did rather well in his handling of Hebrew: for example, correct accentuations of the syllables 'noi' and 'yôn'; the florid word-painting at 'babôker' ('in the morning') and the downward cadence on 'baleilôs' ('at night'). As Elaine Brody points out, 'at 'lhishomdom' Schubert brings the music to a climax; the setting's highest pitch and forte dynamics combine to stress the meaning of the words here: 'It is that they shall be destroyed for ever'.
The ninth verse contains only a single line- a four-word Hebrew sentence which is repeated six times. The piece concludes with a simple (and appropriate) repetition of the word 'leôlom' ('for evermore'). It is likely that Schubert deliberately stopped at this verse to enable Sulzer to chant the remainder of the Psalm in recitative. According to Brody, the fact that Schubert stopped on this word rather than on the written 'adônoi' ('Lord') has counted against later performances in synagogues. The manuscript, extant in the 1870s, has since been lost. But the Psalm, and the way he set an unfamiliar language, provides a fascinating glimpse of the composer's intellectual curiosity as he looks beyond the borders of his own background and experience. If it is tempting to think of 'Schwammerl' as a sedentary soul, this work proposes another Schubert- one who would have made an enthusiastic and fascinated traveller had he been given a chance to explore the wide world beyond Austria's borders. More than this, even in his own lifetime there were signs of something that we now take for granted: Schubert's musical genius enabled him to be a mediator and link between different cultures and faiths.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998
Other albums featuring this work