How Jewish prayer music suddenly got hot

How Jewish prayer music suddenly got hot


norman lebrecht

February 28, 2020

From my monthly essay in The Critic:

The music of Jewish prayer, like that of the Christian church, exists largely thanks to Reformation. Century after Christian century, Pope after Pope banned anything livelier than Gregorian chant in church until Martin Luther nailed up a competitive liturgy and composers decorated it with tunes. Luther, himself a composer, wrote some 30 chorales. His setting of “Ein feste Burg” — a mighty fortress is our Lord — remains a cornerstone of Evangelical worship….

Lost in this mainstream narrative is the role of music in Jewish worship, a history that remains a closed book to the majority of Jews and musicians. The subject has acquired a sudden topicality with the unforeseen involvement of two major record labels. Briefly, it’s a sob story…

Read on here, with heavenly sound examples.

And here’s one he sang earlier:


  • Simon says:

    Apparently when you say Jewish you mean Ashkenazi.

  • Peter San Diego says:

    “Pope after Pope banned anything livelier than Gregorian chant in church until Martin Luther…”

    That sweeping statement sweeps under the rug centuries of advances in Christian liturgical music, from Perotin and Leonin onward through the high Renaissance. Yes, popes periodically complained and synods sought to ban the more ornate styles, but church music had progressed far beyond monodic chant long before Luther.

  • Gus says:

    I often turn to Shulem and the Shira choir on Youtube.

    Shulem has the most incredible voice which always send shivers down my spine.

    With Dovid Hill he performs “A Million Dreams” who can resist?

  • Ian Coleman says:

    Er… there are also Ockeghem, Dufay, Obrecht before Luther came along, and Taverner, Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, Monteverdi &c – after Luther in date, but hardly influenced by his Reformation outlook – if anything, the opposite!

  • Lest we forget:

    Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was an Italian composer of the Renaissance. He was the most famous 16th century representative of the Roman School of musical composition. Palestrina had a vast influence on the development of Roman Catholic church music, ….Renaissance polyphony.

    Pfitzner’s “Palestrina” –

    Shulem’s brother Yankel Lemmer –

    My personal favorite, Moishe Oysher

    and so many, many, many.

    Shabbat Shalom

  • Simon Hall says:

    I do love this guy’s voice.

  • Save the MET says:

    Of the lyric tenor Chazzans, Azi Schwartz has much finer and cultured voice. Lemmer sounds like he’s more suited to a Broadway stage. That said, he’s definitely better than Helfgott. Never saw much in Helfgott anyway.

  • fred says:

    no way is he a cantor, and in no way is he to be compared with the great ones of yesteryear. He’s a pop singer with yeah a sweet voice but not to be heard without a microphone. In fact the great legendary cantorate died at Auschwitz. It’s remarkable but in a way it resembles the disappearance of thegreat dramatic tenor as well. Schwartz is a joke compared to Rosenblatt, Kwartin, serota, tucker etc..He’s another microphone crooner. They should not be called lyric tenors because they simply aren’t, it’s over, a tradition long gone with the wind…