Musical Career

In 1869 Nowakowsky was offered the post of assistant conductor to Nissim Blumenthal at the newly built Brody Synagogue in Odessa, and to instruct in the choir school that Blumenthal had established.

Blumenthal had experimented with the use of western songs and the German language with traditional Jewish choruses. For instance, he used Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus fromThe Messiah sung to the words of Psalm 113: “”Halleluhu: hallelu avdei adonai” (“Praise the Lord, O servants of the Lord”).

Nowakowsky followed this concept but used Hebrew instead, adapting Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 91 setting of Psalm 98 for his chorus. This led to some fame for the synagogue, which was often visited by the nobility and the military elite simply to listen to the music. Their use of organ during services was soon picked up by larger synagogues, who’s members were visiting Brody.

The congregation expected to hear a new piece almost every week. Nowakowsky obliged and did so for 53 years. We can describe his output as follows: The bulk of his music is for the synagogue service, with members of the choir accompanying the Cantor who sang the solos. The choral works range from simple four-part harmony to up to 16 separate parts with organ and contrasting rhythms for the cantor’s solo voice.  There were also instrumental works that were presented at concert halls, over 100 organ preludes, folk-song arrangements and German and Russian Lied.

Besides his work leading the choir, Nowakowsky also taught other cantors how to compose music. To do so he hand-wrote textbooks on harmony and counterpoint. Three of these instruction manuals are part of the archives now stored at the YIVO institute in New York. One is in German, another in Hebrew, and a third in the Russian language. Many of the students in his choir later became cantors themselves.

Although the David Nowakowsky Foundation thought we had all of Nowakowsky’s music, a researcher at Leeds University, discovered a previousluy unknown work in  Johannesburg South Africa, taken there by one of Nowakowsky’s pupils.

One Commentto Musical Career

  1. master says:

    Once approved by the congregation, Nowakowsky began writing his own melodies to the prayer book in Hebrew using traditional Jewish prayer-modes. This put him at odds with Blumenthal, who wanted the music to sound western, not Jewish. In actual fact, Jewish prayer-modes are nearly identical to the Russian and Greek-Orthodox prayer modes that you still hear in their churches. Where Nowakowsky differs, is that he adds western harmony and counterpoint to the bare melody line (trope). In addition to 4-part harmony, he sometimes expands to writing for 8 and even 16 voices with a solo line for the cantor above the choir or alternating verses with them.

    Not all the music was performed in the synagogue during services. Occasionally one of the Odessa concert halls was rented and the program would include works by other composers and have musical instruments: piano, organ, strings, harp and woodwinds to accompany the now famous Brody, all male Synagogue choir and its cantor and vocal soloists.

    For a contemporary mixed male/female choir, there are two or three difficulties that have to be overcome when singing Nowakowsky’s music. The first is that the choir be of top quality. Many amateur choirs cannot do justice to the works. 2nd: Boy soprano and alto lines have to be switched in certain places with each other and the Tenor lines for the music to work using a mixed choir. And the final difficulty is that most synagogues and concert choirs have changed how Hebrew is spoken from the pronunciation and accents used in Nowakowsky’s lifetime (Ashkenazic) to that of modern Sephardic Hebrew. For example: many words using the Ashkenazic pronunciation that use an “s” sound have to be changed to a “t” when appropriate, and the accents have to be adjusted.

    Of the 2,000 works composed by Nowakowsky, there are now over 100 compositions that have been edited for use by a mixed choir, using the Sephardic pronunciation. Most of these adaptations has been done by Cantor David Lefkowitz and a few by Dr. Noreen Green and Roger Wagner.

    Because the Brody congregation originated in Germany, there are several compositions written in German, and a few art songs (Lieder) in both German and in Russian.

    Nowakowsky admired Felix Mendelsohn’s music. If you listen to Mendelsohn’s setting of Ps. 115 and Nowakowsky’s Ps. 115 you would be hard-pressed to be able to tell who wrote what. The clue is that there are a few passages in Nowakowsky’s setting that use Ukrainian-Dorian modes. Otherwise the compositions are very similar. Both use a large choir that splits into a 2-part double chorus, There are chorales, fugues, solo arias. Mendelsohn’s, in addition to Nowakowsky’s two solos for soprano, has a soprano/tenor duet, and a baritone aria. Both use a similar size orchestra, with strings, brass and woodwinds, to which Nowakowsky adds a harp. Both are exquisitely beautiful.

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