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Chazzanut Online - Articles

Abraham Saqui (I)

1824 - 1893


By Jonathan Greenstein

Abraham Saqui was first Choirmaster at Liverpool's Princes Road Synagogue and to this day the Synagogue's repertoire is substantially based on his compositions.

A typical Shabbat will see 4 or 5 of his pieces performed.

In 1878 the London publisher, Boosey, Patey and Co. published Saqui's "Songs of Israel," a book of mainly own compositions set for a non-mixed choir because as he put it: "...females do not take part in the choral service of orthodox congregations..." !

And this at a time when quite a few Synagogues throughout Britain did have mixed choirs. In fact all the settings in the United Synagogue's "Blue Book" of Music are set for mixed choir. Nowadays, Princes Road is the only Orthodox Synagogue in Britain, to still maintain a mixed voice choir!

When I was in Liverpool last month, I spoke to Dr. Levy about the possibility of the Synagogue reprinting Saqui's "Songs of Israel" and he suggested that I write an article about him. "Sure," I replied and then realised that I knew absolutely nothing about the composer!

So who was Abraham Saqui? Where was he born? Where did he come from? Where did he go when he left Princes Road?

In the last few weeks I've been trying to find out something about him.

We know from the preface to his 1878 book that he was choirmaster at the Old Hebrew Congregation from around 1858-1878, which means that he was choirmaster for 15 or so years at the previous Synagogue in Seele Street.

He mentions the Chief Cantor of Paris, Samuel Naumburg, in the preface to his book and reprints some of his pieces. From communications with various "Saqui's" on the internet, it would appear that the name Saqui is French rather than Spanish or Portugese as I had first thought...

He was well enough known in Anglo Jewry to have his beautiful setting of Ma Tovu included in the "Blue Book" - the United Synagogue Handbook of Synagogue Music, published in 1899.

His "Songs of Israel" is listed in the 1951 edition of the "Bibliography of Jewish Music," compiled by Alfred Sendrey, along with all the other major jewish composers.

Raymond Goldstein, a well known shul musician/composer and Musical Arranger at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, told me that in one of the volumes of the "Repertoire Musical Liturgique Del la Synagogue De Bruxelles" published by Eduard Samuel (Belgium, 1905), he saw Saqui's name mentioned along with Halevy, as one of the Naumbourg Clique.

Last week, I called my brother David, and asked him to root around in the Town Hall archives and the City Libraries. This he did and he struck gold!

It transpires that Saqui was born in London in or around the year 1824.

He appears in Gore's Directory of 1859 and 1864 as Professor of Piano and Singing, as well as Mc Naught & Smith's Illustrated Catalogue of 1863. His obituary from the Liverpool Mercury of 2nd August 1893 is printed below. In Gore's directory of 1867 a Jonathan Saqui appears. His address is given as 5 West Derby St, East and Jewellers shop at 40 Manchester St, West. He may have been a relative of Abraham, but not a son since Saqui had no children.

Musical Chronologically/Saqui contempories:

  • 1840 Salomon Sulzer publishes his Shir Zion in Austria
  • 1871 Lewandoski publishes Kol Rina
  • 1878 Abraham Saqui in Liverpool, publishes his Songs of Israel
  • 1879 Marcus Hast, in London, publishes his 1st volume of Hymns saying that his is the first of it's kind.
  • 1887 Hand book of Synagogue Music, Precursor of the "Blue Book"
  • 1899 First Edition of the Blue Book is published in London containing one composition of Saqui (Ma Tovu)
  • 1910 Marcus Hast produces a set of three volumes of Synagogue Music.

Saqui's music is now performed in a number of Synagogues throughout the world and I'm very happy that I had a small part to play in facilitating this.

Four of his compositions are in the Jerusalem Great Synagogue repertoire - three of them, the "Great" Yigdal, En Kelo-henu and Lecha Hashem are regulars. The fourth, Havu Lashem did not transfer well to male-voice choir and needs to be re-arranged. The Yigdal is the congregation's and the choir's favourite hymn. It is included in every choir performance on tour.

The St John's Wood Synagogue Choir in London perform this Yigdal - and according to their Chazan, Moshe Haschel, the congregation go "ga ga" for it! They are about to release a CD which includes this piece on it.

The Zemel Choir have just recorded a CD "The English Tradition of Jewish Choral Music" on the Olympia label (OCD647), which contains the Saqui Ma Tovu.

Saqui's musical style is very lyrical and majestic and he was obviously very fond of Mozart - compare the last section of the Yigdal with Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and you'll see that Saqui found that the words fit perfectly!

His Lashem Ha'aretz is the only one I know of, that is written in the minor key and is suitable for use on the festival days when Yizkor is said.

In the preface to "Songs of Israel," Saqui says that the book contains " melodies, a selection from which is published in this volume." Maybe there are some manuscripts lying around in a vault beneath the shul, containing more of his compositions ?

The Saqui book is a great legacy and there are very few copies left - I am aware of just four - some were burnt in the fire of 1979. The two copies in the Shuls' possession are starting to break up. I'm hoping that funds can be found to reprint it for the Synagogue's 125th Anniversary. Alternatively, it could be issued on a CD-ROM.


"Abraham Saqui 1824 - 1893"
From "Liverpool Mercury," August 2nd 1893:

"The announcement of the death of Mr Abraham Saqui, choirmaster of the Hebrew Synagogue, Princes Road will be heard with regret, not only by the Jewish community of the city, but by a wide circle of friends with whom he had been brought into contact, mainly by means of his musical talent.

His death, which was unexpected, took place yesterday morning at his residence, 127 Bedford Street, the cause being paralysis of the brain. Although he was suffering from what he supposed to be neuralgic pains in the head, he only absented himself from the Synagogue for the past two Sabbaths.

Born in London, 69 years ago, Mr Saqui came to Liverpool at an early period of his life. He settled down as a Professor of Music and it now more than forty years since he received his first appointment as trainer and leader of the Old Hebrew Congregation, which then worshipped in the synagogue in Seele St and afterwards removed to the present building in Princes Road.

His abilities as a musician and teacher have been widely recognised outside the jewish community, and he had probably more pupils among christians than among members of his own faith.

In his own particular department, the training of the choir, he took the highest rank in hebrew circles in this country and under his guidance, the choir in Princes Road, was reputed to be one of finest of any synagogues in England.

His services, with those of his choir, were often in request at the consecration of new synagogues all over the kingdom.

In October last, the Princes Road choir under his conductorship was selected for the musical portion of the consecration of a new synagogue at Dublin. In May of this year, when the Chief Rabbi made a pastoral visit to the Princes Road Synagogue, he sent for Mr Saqui at the conclusion of the service and complimented him upon the exquisite and devotional manner in which the choir had rendered the musical portion of the service, adding that for impressiveness, no synagogue choir, in or out of London, could equal it. Some years ago, Mr Saqui was offered the position of Choirmaster to the West London Congregation of British Jews, the richest and one of the most influential synagogues in the country, but so much attracted was he to his associations in Liverpool, he refused the offer, advantageous as it would have been.

He composed and published a number of hebrew melodies under the title of "Songs of Israel" and during his long professiorial career, many singers who have risen to eminence owe much of their success to the training received from him.

In dramatic representation, Mr Saqui was at one time favourably known and some years ago he regularly travelled from Liverpool to Manchester to play in "Macbeth" to Miss Glynn's Lady Macbeth.

Mr Saqui was a widower and leaves no family. His wife died about 30 years ago and since then his sister who survived him, has kept house for him.

The funeral will take place on Thursday at Deane Rd cemetery at 4 o'clock."

© Copyright Jonathan Greenstein, Jerusalem. This article was written for the Synagogue's Rosh Hashana magazine, September 1998.

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