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Birnboym, Avrom Ber

(1865–1922), cantor, composer, and pedagogue. Avrom Ber Birnboym was born in the city of Pułtusk, north of Warsaw. He reportedly learned music from his Hasidic father, and also studied violin in Łódź with Ḥayim Janowski, the founder of the Hazomir Choral Society. Birnboym’s first position was as a cantor and kosher butcher in Hethar, Hungary, where he studied music theory and German. He then took a cantorial position in Prosnitz (Prostějov), Moravia. Birnboym eventually became the chief cantor for the Choir Synagogue in the Polish community of Częstochowa.

Birnboym was also a significant composer, writer on Jewish music and folklore, and a teacher of cantors. He published four issues of a journal for cantors titled Yarḥon ha-ḥazanim (Cantors’ Monthly; Warsaw, 1896–1897), and contributed essays on Jewish music to a number of other journals, including Ha-‘Olam (Vilna), and Die Wahrheit (Vienna). In 1906 he established Częstochowa’s first private school for cantors. His influence outside of that city was also likely facilitated by the printing industry there, which was owned by Jews and which published a number of Birnboym’s works, including a volume of music theory, Torat ha-zemirah ha-kelalit (General Music Theory) in 1902.

Birnboym’s most influential compositions were his two volumes of liturgical music for the Sabbath and High Holidays for cantor and unaccompanied choir, Omanut ha-ḥazanut / Die Kunst des jüdischen Kantorats: Rezitative, Responsorien und Chöre für den jüdischen Gottesdienst (Heb., Cantorial Art; Ger., The Art of Jewish Cantorate: Recitative, Response, and Choir for Jewish Worship Services; 1908, 1912; rpt., 1954). Birnboym’s compositions reflect the principles set forth in the preface to the 1908 edition: a concern with preserving the traditional melodic and ornamental character of synagogue chants while following aesthetic principles and rules of contemporary music. Of note is his use of chorale-like tunes or hymns at the opening of some of the Sabbath services, which he used as leitmotifs and which—in accordance with contemporary aesthetics—created a more unified musical experience for the worshiper.

Birnboym also encouraged the controlled participation of choir and congregation. The music for choir, usually for three- or four-part chorus, serves not only as rhetorical support for the cantor at key dramatic moments but also as a tonal anchor, adding a modern harmonic flavor to traditional scales. He also arranged many compositions for solo chorus—including several with keyboard accompaniment, intended for performance outside the synagogue.

Suggested Reading

Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development (New York, 1992); Israel Rabinovitch, Of Jewish Music, Ancient and Modern, trans. A. M. Klein (Montreal, 1952); Alfred Sendrey, Bibliography of Jewish Music (New York, 1951).