Franz Liszt encounters Solomon Sulzer

Yesterday, for my thesis research, I spent part of the morning reading Franz Liszt’s The Gipsy in Music, which contains a pretty scathing treatment of Jews — perhaps worse than Wagner’s famous one. But his experience in Sulzer’s synagogue can be called nothing less than transcendent. While I would usually paraphrase, I am compelled just to reprint his writing and let it speak for itself. I promise to comment more in depth on this piece at a later date, but right now I’m just letting it sink in and aspiring to someday provide this kind of transformative experience for someone in my own pews.

(From Franz Liszt, The Gipsy in Music, translated by Edwin Evans 1926, p. 52-54.)

At Vienna, we were acquainted with the celebrated tenor, Sulzer; who, in his capacity of Cantor in the Synagogue, had made a reputation the more distinguished through being reserved for a circle of real connoisseurs. Within this artistic organization the regulation mask for concealment of the interior being was not so thick; so that occasionally the actual impress upon his soul caused by the secret paternal teachings might be observed.

It was common to hear him speak as if, after having squared the blocks of stone for the construction of the pyramids, he had witnessed the Egyptian darkness. He seemed to have been an eye-witness of the drowning of the impious Pharaoh and his host; and of the cloud of fire guiding the chosen people, invisible to its enemies; the latter seeming still so to shine in his eyes as to give them an emotional expression—an expression which returned in speaking to Korah, Dathan and Abiram being swallowed by the earth. His account of the sistrum and psalterion sounding together for joy in Zion, and of the tones of David’s harp, as as that of one who had heard them; and he seemed equally to have known Hiram, to have visited Ophir and Sidon, and to have watched with his own eyes the Queen of Sheba mounting the steps of the legendary throne of Solomon, ‘leaving so much aroma behind her that for eight years the streets were still impregnated.’ In the same way he seems to have listened to the songs of the captives on the banks of the Euphrates in the time of Ezekiel, the words of Nehemiah and the orders of Esdras when they raised the Temple from its ruins and when they rebuilt the Holy of Holies.

It was in order to hear him that we went to the Synagogue of which he was the musical head, and where he sustained the upper part.

Rarely has it happened to us to be attacked by so lively an emotion; one to seize so irresistibly all the sympathetic and devotional faculties of our soul, as on that evening when, with a thousand lights dispersed like stars over a vast ceiling overhead, we became aware of a strange choir of dull guttural voices starting to sing.

Each chest seemed a sort of dungeon from the depth of which an impalpable beings as emerging in order to praise the God of the Ark of the Covenant in the midst of the misery and slavery. It seemed a cry to him in a voice resigned by resolute, as if sure to be delivered one day from this endless captivity; sure to be quit of this odious land with its strange rivers, and sure to escape from this new Babylon, the great whore, in order to re-enter into his own kingdom in the sight of all the terrified nations and with triumph, a magnificence without example.

In the course of hearing the Hebrew words pronounced one could easily imagine them as sombre flowers becoming detached from their stems and shedding their vibrating petals and sonorous thongs, and rough discords, float and flutter about; scripting the air like tickling tongues of fire. The air seems specially aglow for the sense of hearing, which is assailed by burning waves, ardent breathings, and inflamed vapours; at a time when everything remains calms and pacific to the sight, and when all seems serene and tranquil in the material atmosphere.

No woman was admitted into this consecrated enclosure, as if therein the act of prayer was reserved for male courage and virile force. It was as if the communion of this chosen nation was with a God angry and firm, prompt and long in punishing, tardy and slow in his rewards; and as if, with that God, there existed a treaty; with respect to the conditions of which, whether properly carried out or not, no third party was able to judge.

For all that, however, the women thus have counted amongst themselves souls of great strength; such as Deborah, Judith, Abigail and the mother of the Maccabees. Others there have also been, full of grace; such as Rachael, Ruth, Bethsaba and the wife of the young Tobias. And others full of greatness, such as Hagar, Zipporah, Esther and Anna, the prophetess. It follows, therefore, that neither force, grace, nor grandeur of the soul are sufficient for the communion with the God of Israel; none are eligible who are not marked with the mysterious sign—the sign of blood.

Quite suddenly all these men (all still bearing the seal which Abraham bequeathed to the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael) started a succession of short movements, rapid and regular, as if in order to render visible the rhythm of their apostrophes. Soon, it seemed as if the Psalms themselves were floating above our heads like spirits aflame; or like a multitude of winged Cherubim floating in space to serve as a footstool to the Most High.

Jubilant with enthusiasm, exultation and heavenly ecstasy, these majestic poems unfolded their story of the powers of God of Abel and of Noah, of Melchizedek and Isaiah. It would have been impossible to resist associating all the sympathies of one’s soul with the grand acclamation of this crowd of the circumcised; carrying on its shoulders the burden of so many ancient traditions, so many divine benefits, so many rebellions and so many adulterous infidelities. Bearers of hard punishments, but, at the same time, of unshakeable hopes.

Whilst a Christian’s imagination was feeling itself cast down by the weight of these remembrances which accumulated before the altar, without victim and without sacrifice—before the sacred parchments and the Holy-Books—those who made themselves victims to replace the holocausts preserved their countenances impassable; betraying neither supplication nor ecstasy, while their provisional sanctuary resounded with the familiar evocation, the terrible threefold name:

Adonaï! Elohim! Jehovah!


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