Louis Lewandowski

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Postage stamp showing Louis Lewandowski

Louis Lewandowski (April 3, 1821 – February 4, 1894) was a Polish-Jewish and German-Jewish composer of synagogal music.

Louis Lewandowski

He contributed greatly to the liturgy of the Synagogue Service. His most famous works were composed during his tenure as musical director at the Neue Synagoge in Berlin and his melodies form a substantial part of synagogue services around the world today.


Lewandowski was born in Wreschen, Grand Duchy of Posen, Prussia (now Września in Poland). The name Lewandowski is derived from the place name Lewandów, itself derived from the Old Polish word lewanda – 'lavender' (lawenda in modern Polish).

At the age of twelve he went to Berlin to study piano and voice, and became solo soprano in the synagogue. Afterward he studied for three years under A. B. Marx and attended the school of composition of the Berlin Academy. There his teachers were Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen and Eduard Grell. Lewandowski was the first Jew to be admitted to the school at the request of Felix Mendelssohn. After graduating with high honors, he was appointed in 1840 choirmaster of the Berlin synagogue. In that capacity he rendered invaluable services in the development of music for synagogue ritual.[1][2]

In 1866 he received the title of "royal musical director." Shortly afterward, he was appointed choirmaster in the Neue Synagoge, Berlin, for which he composed the entire musical service. The Neue Synagogue was what would then have been called a conservative synagogue and what now would be considered progressive. His arrangements of ancient Hebrew melodies for choir, cantor, and organ are considered masterly productions, characterized by great simplicity and a profound religious sentiment. Many of Lewandowski's pupils became prominent cantors. Lewandowski was the principal founder of the Institute for Aged and Indigent Musicians, an institution that prospered under his management.[3]

Lewandowski died in Berlin in 1894. He and his wife Helene are buried in the Weißensee Cemetery. On their gravestone is inscribed: "Liebe macht das Lied unsterblich!" (Love makes the melody immortal!) A daughter, Martha (1860-1942), died in Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp, in 1942, at the age of 82.

Contribution to Jewish liturgical music[edit]

Lewandowski's principal works include: "Kol Rinnah u-Tefillah," for cantor; "Todah ve-Zimrah," for mixed chorus, solo, and organ; 40 psalms, for solo, chorus, and organ; symphonies, overtures, cantatas, and songs. During Lewandowski's life the issue of whether an organ should be part of a synagogue service was one of major contention. Lewandowski advocated communal singing and the organ was essential to facilitate this. Eventually organs became commonplace in synagogues around Europe, hence the popularity of "Todah ve-Zimrah". Lewandowski's writing is quite unique in that it incorporates the strict four-part harmony of church music with ancient cantorial modal melodies.[4][5]

Lewandowski's music today[edit]

Today Lewandowski's music forms a central part of the synagogue service in Reform, Liberal, Conservative and Orthodox communities. It is sung across the world from Europe to Australia and America to South Africa. Most orthodox synagogues across the world refrain from a mixed choir or instrumental music, hence much of this music has been arranged for a capella male choir. Even in communities without choirs one can hear the melodies of Lewandowski either chanted by the cantor or a communal unison.[6]

Over the past decades attempts have been made to celebrate the music of Lewandowski. The "Zemel Choir" of London released an album of the works of Lewandowski according to their original settings entitled "Louis Lewandowski - Choral and Cantorial Works". In 2011 in Berlin an annual international choir festival was started under the auspices of the mayor called the "Louis Lewandowski Festival". "The Synagogal Ensemble Berlin", the resident choir at the Pestalozzistraße Synagogue in Berlin present full Lewandowski Shabbat services every Friday night and Saturday morning, as does Belsize Square Synagogue in London in most of its liturgy for Cantor Choir and organ and which has been edited in digital form thanks to a grant of Mr Henry Kutner. The "Lewandowski Chorale, Johannesburg" is a non-denominational mixed choir focussing on bringing the music of Lewandowski to a wider audience. The Society for Classical Reform Judaism (USA), the international voice of advocacy for the preservation and renewal of the historic worship and musical traditions of the Reform Movement, actively promotes the Lewandowski repertoire for contemporary liturgical usage. In addition to the production of CD recordings of this music, the Society has supported the renewed use of the Lewandowski tradition at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, at its campus synagogues in Cincinnati, Los Angeles and particularly in Jerusalem- where a Classical Reform worship Service and concert have become a major annual event. The SCRJ also supports the use of these compositions, with instrumental and choral accompaniment, at congregations throughout the United States, as well as in Jerusalem and Warsaw. In 2020, Deutsche Grammophon Records released the world premiere recording of his "Eighteen Liturgical Psalms," recorded by the Hungarian Radio Choir and soloists, with organ.


The Jewish Encyclopedia article cites the following references:

  • Mendel, Hermann and August Reissmann, editors. Musikalisches Konversations-Lexikon (12 volumes). Berlin, 1870–1873.
  • Champlin, J. D. and W. F. Apthorp, editors. Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians (3 volumes). New York, 1888–90.
  • Riemann, Hugo, editor. Musik-Lexikon (5th edition). Leipzig, 1900.
  • Jascha Nemtsov / Hermann Simon (Eds.): Louis Lewandowski 'Love makes the melody immortal!' , Berlin 2011, Hentrich&Hentrich Verlag Berlin

External links[edit]