1877 - 1947
By Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler
Although Samuel Alman is considered by many as the greatest 'English' composer of synagogue music, he was not born in this country. He hailed from Sobolevka, Podolia, in Russia and studied music at the Odessa and Kishnev conservatories. After conscription, he served as a musician in the Russian army for four years and after completing his service, the terrible pogrom that he witnessed at Kishnev (1903) encouraged him to come to London. In England, he continued his musical studies at the Royal College of Music.
It was not long before Alman was drawn into the Jewish life of London and he was soon appointed as Choirmaster at the Dalston Synagogue.
In the course of time he also became Choir leader of the Great Synagogue, in Duke's Place, as well as at Hampstead.
Although he composed a great deal of liturgical music, there are only a few of his pieces that are known now. They were certainly utilised in the Synagogues where he worked and a number of his compositions he dedicated to various well-known Chazanim of his time, such as Halter, Shechter and Boyars.
Alman was the leader of the Halevi Choral Society and the London Hazzanim Choir. He was a prolific composer of many diverse works; a string quartet, pieces for piano and organ, Hebrew Art songs, and arrangements of Yiddish songs. In 1912, his opera Melech Ahaz (King Ahaz) was performed for the first time, though it now seems to have lapsed into oblivion.
In 1925 and 1938 Alman published "Shirei Beit ha-Knesset", 2 vols, which is his collection of Synagogue music for cantor and choir. Volume one contains the pieces that are still most well-known amongst his compositions, "Yehi Ratson" - the prayer for Blessing the New Moon, and the "sublime" "Hinenei" and "Ribono Shel Olam" for Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer. Although many Ba'alei Tefilla sing the "Yehi Ratson" unaccompanied, it really does require the responses of a Choir to achieve what the composer actually intended.
In 1933, Alman was called upon to update the so-called "Blue Book" - "The Voice of Prayer and Praise," that had first been published in 1899, and is subtitled, "A Handbook of Synagogue Music". This was an expanded version of "Shirei Kenesset Yisrael" - "A Handbook of Synagogue Music for Congregational Singing," that had been published in 1889. It was intended that members of the congregation would have one each and use it to follow the singing during the course of the service. One wonders how many people there were, even in those days, who were able to sight-read a piece of music!
When Alman updated it, he added a supplement of 58 extra items, 15 of which were his own compositions. These include Birkat Cohanim and Havu laShem (Psalm 29), both of which have become very well-known.
Although Samuel Alman undoubtedly had a great influence on the music used in the main London Synagogues during his lifetime, with the demise of interest in the style of service that requires a Chazan and choir, which forms the bulk of Alman's compositions for the Synagogue, it's sadly inevitable that most of his music is destined to become 'lost.'
© Copyright Rabbi G. Shisler
Keywords: Samuel Alman, biography.