Heinrich Schalit (1886-1976) was born in Vienna, Austria, and studied organ
and composition at the State Academy of Music in Vienna. A widely respected
composer, poet, organist, and musical director, Mr. Schalit was the organist at
the Great Synagogue in Munich before it was annihilated by the Nazis. Forced to
leave Germany in 1933, he subsequently accepted an offer to become the musical
director of the Great Synagogue in Rome. In 1940, Mr. Schalit was exiled from
Italy, whereupon he immigrated to Rochester, New York. Further stays in
Providence, Rhode Island, and finally Denver and Evergreen, Colorado, produced a
lifetime of work. Mr. Schalit has composed choral anthems and instrumental works,
as well as sacred, liturgical, and life-cycle musical settings.
Heinrich Schalit was one of several composers associated with a 'renaissance' in the music of the American Synagogue that occurred roughly between 1925 and 1975. Born in Vienna on 2 January 1886, Schalit attended Vienna's Konservatorium für Musik und darstellende Kunst and studied piano with Polish pianist Theodor Leschetizky (1830–1915) and musical composition with Robert Fuchs (1847–1927). He graduated from the Konservatorium in 1906 and that same year won the prestigious Austrian State Prize for Composition. Schalit relocated to Munich in 1907 and embarked upon a successful career composing post-Romantic Lieder and chamber music. His 6 Liebeslieder ('Six Songs of Love') were published in Vienna by Universal Edition in 1921. The carnage and privations of the First World War profoundly affected Schalit. On a 1936 list of compositions, he wrote: '1916 Beginn der Schaffensperiode der Musik jüdischen Inhalts u. jüdischen Characters' ('1916, Beginning of the creative period of music of Jewish content and character'), and for the remaining sixty years of his life he would compose almost exclusively Jewish liturgical or art music.
During the 1920s Schalit composed, performed and published several important pieces of German-Jewish art music. His Seelenlieder ('Songs of the Soul') for voice with piano was published in Vienna by Universal Edition in 1921. His 1928 hymn In Ewigkeit ('In Eternity') for chorus, organ, harp and violins was performed and well reviewed in Munich, Frankfurt, Augsburg, Dresden, and Berlin.
Schalit's early German-Jewish works influenced two younger Jewish musicians who studied at the State Academy for Music in Munich: renowned Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim (né Frankenburger, 1897–1984) and Herbert Fromm (1905–95), who became one of the most important creators of American synagogue music in the twentieth century.
In September 1927 Schalit assumed the post of organist and music director at Munich's Hauptsynagoge (Main Synagogue). He remained there until late 1933, when he and his family were forced to leave Munich to avoid Nazi persecution. Perhaps the high point of his long musical career was the premiere, on 16 September 1932, of his Eine Freitagabend-Liturgie in Berlin's Lützowstrasse Synagoge. This Friday-evening service was highly praised by, among others, German musicologists Alfred Einstein, Hugo Leichtentritt and Curt Sachs for its use of contemporary modal techniques as well as traditional Eastern melodies discovered by Jewish musicologist A. Z. Idelsohn (1882–1938).
After living in Rome and London, the Schalit family arrived in Rochester, NY, in August 1940. Schalit would work periodically as a music director in American synagogues and continue composing and publishing until his death in Evergreen, Colorado on 3 February 1976.
Dr. Eliott Kahn, Music Archivist
Heinrich Schalit is one of the principal names associated with serious mid-20th-century American synagogue music for Reform worship—although some of his settings had currency at one time in liberal Conservative synagogues as well. He was one of the leading figures among the circle of European-born synagogue composers who emigrated to the United States during the 1930s—many of them as refugees from the Third Reich—which included Herbert Fromm, Isadore Freed, Hugo Chaim Adler, Frederick Piket, and Julius Chajes. Collectively as well as individually, those composers established a new layer of repertoire and a new composite aesthetic within the Reform orbit, which—together with the music of American-born colleagues such as Abraham Wolf Binder, earlier arrivals such as Lazare Saminsky, postwar émigrés such as Max Janowski, and second-generation émigrés such as Samuel Adler—pretty much dominated the Reform musical scene until at least the early 1970s. That repertoire has continued to reverberate despite the inroads of more populist styles.
Schalit was born in Vienna, where he studied composition with Robert Fuchs (1847–1927) and with Joseph Labor (1842–1924), who was also one of Arnold Schoenberg’s teachers. In 1927 Schalit was appointed to the position of organist at the principal Liberale synagogue in Munich, whose learned cantor and productive resident composer, Emanuel Kirschner (1857–1938)—a former singer in the choir of Louis Lewandowski in Berlin and a follower in his path, albeit in a more artistically sophisticated vein—appears to have exerted a lasting influence on him. His first synagogue composition was a setting of v’shamru for the Sabbath eve liturgy, which he then incorporated into his first full Sabbath eve service, Eine Freitagabend Liturgie. That service, published in Germany in 1933 and later revised for American publication in 1951, remains one of his seminal achievements, notwithstanding his substantial subsequent oeuvre. By that time he had grown dissatisfied with what he called an “unorganic mixture of traditional cantorial chants with congregational and choral music in the German style of the 19th century,” and he felt that the synagogue of the 20th century required its elimination. Liturgical composition became for him a sacred calling, with a sense of mission that he posed as a challenge to contemporary Jewish musicians to “prepare a change in style and outlook,” as he wrote in the preface to his first service. His goal was to “create a new, unified liturgical music growing out of the soil of the old-new, significant and valuable source material” that had become available through recent musicological studies. In his own music for worship he therefore consciously avoided the 19th-century harmonic idioms that had become so firmly accepted through Lewandowski’s hegemony, forging instead his own less conventional harmonic language that often incorporates moderate, controlled dissonance within a basically if sometimes gently pungent diatonic framework.
In 1933, following the National Socialist victory in Germany and the appointment of Hitler as chancellor, Schalit accepted the position of music director at the Great Synagogue in Rome, where, despite the Mussolini regime, the racial and anti-Jewish parameters of Italian Fascism had yet to emerge. In 1940, after it had become necessary once again to relocate, he immigrated to the United States. After serving a number of synagogues in the East and on the West Coast, he settled in Denver. After a brief period in Los Angeles, he returned to the Denver area and retired in Evergreen, Colorado.
Among Schalit’s other important works are a Sabbath morning service; a second Friday evening service; a setting of the k’dusha; settings of texts by medieval Spanish Hebrew poets; individual prayer settings; and many Psalms.
Heinrich Schalit : The Man And His Music
Livermore, Ca: Michael Schalit, 1979