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Chazzanut Online - Articles

Abraham Saqui (II)

1824 - 1893


By Jonathan Greenstein

Saqui was choirmaster during the tenure of the first two chazanim at Princes road. The first being Professor Jacob Prag and the other the Reverend Harris Berman (great grandfather of Alaster Berman, recently senior warden). The title Professor of Music may have been self-endowed - possibly using the term Professor as in the French usage, for a teacher. But looking at Saqui's obituary in the Liverpool Mercury (see Shul article last year), it is obvious that he was highly regarded in the wider Liverpool community.

Last year I was not sure exactly where Saqui came from but now we have traced him, at least in England, to London's Sephardi Bevis Marks synagogue.

Following last years article, I received some information from a lady who was looking for an Abraham Saqui, Secretary of the Jews' Orphanage. She investigated the marriage records at the Society of Genealogists, where she found four Abraham Saqui's married under the auspices of the Bevis Marks Sephardi synagogue in the years 1854 to 1890. The name is referred to as SAQUI otherwise DE SOUZA. I searched through a number of books from the period, but couldn't find any reference to any De Souza in the Sephardi community of London.

In the History of the Ancient Synagogues 3), there was an Horatio Saqui listed in 1901 as a 'yehid' (ordinary member) of Bevis Marks.

One of the four Saqui's mentioned above was Abraham Saqui, 31, bachelor, Professor of Music of 8 St. Mark Street, Whitechapel who married on 27 May 1855 Julia Samuel, of full age (sic), widow, of 103 Duke Street, Liverpool. His father is given as Abraham Saqui, gentleman and her father as Ellis Elias, deceased. The witnesses and registrar were Mayer Albert, David Piza, Solomon Almosnino (Registrar, brother of the Chazan Isaac Almosnino.). Notes 200 pounds husband's addition, witness on Ketuba D.A. De Sola. The place of the marriage is given as 45 Ludgate Hill.

This certainly seemed to be a close match for Princes Road's Saqui, so following the morning service and Eicha at Princes Road this Tisha B'Av, Edward Marks and I went to the Dean Road cemetery in search of Saqui's grave.

We found the cemetery in a terrible state. Half the gravestones have been knocked over and broken, many others have been sprayed with graffiti and the whole area is overgrown with brambles to head-height. I took a number of photographs and will be sending them to the Synagogue.

We saw a lot of very ornate and grandiose edifices including the graves of David Lewis, various members of the Benas and Braham families but not unfortunately that of Abraham Saqui. We did find the grave of Julia Saqui. The year of birth, name and other details match those of the Bevis Marks records and the obituary in the Liverpool Mercury of August 1893. So one can say with near certainty that this is Abraham's wife's grave. The grave to the left had no stone evident and could possibly be that of Abraham Saqui. Apparently all the Dean Road gravestones were photographed a few years back and it would be interesting to see if Abraham Saqui's inscription in amongst them.

One of the witnesses on the ketuba and presumably the officiant at Abraham and Julia Saqui's marriage was non other than the Reverend David Aharon De Sola 6)

He was the composer of one of the most beautiful Adon Olam tunes in our liturgy. (p.276 of the "Blue Book") The original, chromatic - and more elaborate - can be found at the back of the Sephardi siddur. In Princes Road this Adon Olam is sung on festivals.

There was another Professor of Music at Bevis Marks from the Saqui family, Isaac, who had both a father and son named Abraham. All the male Saquis seem to be called either Isaac or Abraham which makes tracing family histories quite difficult!

In 1890 when the West London choirmaster Verrinder (composer of the well known Esa Enay) died after serving the community for fifty years, Saqui was offered the post. He declined it and the composer Percy Rideout was appointed.

If we bear in mind that the West London Synagogue (Reform) was a breakaway from the Bevis Marks synagogue 1) then it would be quite natural for Saqui, who was obviously well known in the jewish musical world, to be invited 'back' to serve the community that he knew and grew up with. He would have been acquainted with one of the Bevis Marks' former choirmasters M.Moss, reprinting Moss's Hallaluy-ah in the "Songs of Israel." Another connection may have been through the Rabbi of the West London, Woolf Marks. He had been a minister of the Old Hebrew Congregation in the Seel Street days leaving in 1841, well before Saqui's Princes Road days, but he returned to Princes Road in 1879 to deliver the sermon for the Liverpool Hebrew Philanthropic Society service. 4) It may be assumed that Saqui officiated at this service.

Interestingly, the Rev Morris Joseph, Princes Road's first minister, was also appointed to be minister to the West London. He took up his position in 1893, the year of Saqui's death, after the Chief Rabbi blocked his appointment to Hampstead Synagogue.

The Post Saqui Years

When Saqui passed away, the choir training was taken over by the chazan, Rev Berman and then in 1911 by the Rev Coleman. How did the chazan standing on the bima, control the choir in the gallery? There was a set of buttons under the reader's desk which controlled moving signs in the choir gallery. Louder, Softer, Silence etc. Yes, I had a look last month and the buttons are no longer there!

In 1933 when Rev Coleman became ill, Raphael Dorfman was appointed choir master. Raphael together with his brother Charlie, who is the assistant choirmaster and librarian, have been running the choir for 66 years. This must be a world record!

During the Saqui period, the service was based on Saqui's own compositions together with those of the Parisian composer Samuel Naumbourg - a number of whose compositions Saqui reprinted - and pieces from the Blue Book 5) also provided a number of settings by the 'old' English Jewish composers such as Rev Wasserzug, David Waley, Charles Salaman, Verrinder, David Davis, Hast, Mombach etc. Coleman introduced the Kahan Kedusha which is sung on most Shabbatot as well as Kirschner's Tal. After Coleman left, the Dorfman's "reconstructed" the Tal from memory. About six years ago it was performed by Cantor Naphtali Herstik at the annual Bnai Brith music festival in London.

When the Budapest born Chazan, Bornstein, arrived at Princes Road, he brought with him a whole new set of music from the continent. Music by composers such as Finesinger - who was a choirmaster in a rebbe's court - Dunajewsky and others now joined the Princes Road repertoire. "Etz Chayim Hi" by Sheshtapol was introduced by a choir bass Berkoff. This piece also found it's way to Childwall Shul in a somewhat modified form.

Interestingly, Saqui's music, apart from his (now) famous Yigdal, did not spread to the other shuls in Liverpool. This may be due to the fact that, Princes Road's choir, being mixed since the 1940's, hardly ever sang together with choirs from other shuls. Also I think that Princes Road was quite keen on having a distinct musical tradition. The Hebrew schools (Hope Place) used to sing Saqui's Ma Tovu which apparently was the reason why the shul choir decided to introduce the Sulzer version into it's repertoire.

Childwall Shul only started singing his En Kelo-henu about 20 years ago and the undersigned set the opening theme of his ten-page (over) long Baruch HaBa to Naartischa for shabbat musaph.

Looking through the Songs of Israel, one can find quite a number of lovely sephardi tunes which were somewhat angliced presumably by Saqui himself.

These same pieces are also to be found in the Levy Collection 2) which is one of the sources of the repertoire of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue Choir. Saqui adds the comment 'Ancient Melody' to these pieces.

It's likely that some of the pieces in the Levy collection and those of Saqui via Bevis Marks, have a common source in Amsterdam.

Those interested in jewish liturgical music might like to look up the following internet site and join the discussion group where all contributions are emailed to subscribers.

A CD which is a must for those who like English Shul music is the 'English Tradition of Jewish Choral Music'. This was released on the Olympia label last year (COD 647). Tara Publications or the Jewish Musical Heritage should be able to obtain it. Saqui's Ma Tovu in it's original version appears on this disk. Another collection worth having is the complete Princes Road repertoire issued on a set of cassettes a few years ago.


1) The Sephardim of London, Albert M Hyamson 1951. (Victor Tunkel notes: It was to be a congregation of 'British Jews,' de-tribalised.)

2) Liturgio Jedeo-Espanola (Chazzanut Sephardi), 10 volumes 1964 onwards. Collection published in Jerusalem by Isaac Levy (1919-1977)

3) History of the ancient synagogues of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Haham the Rev Dr Moses Gaster. Published in 1901 on the occasion of the two-hundredth anniversary of the inauguration of the Bevis Marks synagogue 1701-1901. This book was to be a forerunner of more elaborate work, treating of the history of the sephardim in England. [This was never published and the notes Rabbi Gaster made were used by Albert Hyamson in the compilation of his 'The Sephardim of London']

This book is mainly about the history of the development of the Bevis Marks synagogue containing a lot of discussions on the Escamot or rules and cherems of the community. The Spanish and Portuguese members both having come directly and indirectly via Hamburg and Amsterdam. Escamot 12-14: No one was to pray so loud as to drown out the voice of the Hazan. No one was to leave the synagogue whilst the Law was being read or being lifted. It is forbidden to publish a Hebrew or any other book in Amsterdam without the permission of the Mahamad and the punishment was confiscation in favour of the sedaca

4) Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation 1780-1974 by David Hudaly

5) The Blue Book aka "The Voice of Prayer and Praise, A Handbook of Synagogue Music." This is still in print and can be ordered from the Jewish book shop.

6) Hazan David Aharon de Sola. Born in Amsterdam in 1796. came to England as a candidate for the post of assistant Hazan at Bevis Marks and was accepted in 1818. He studied English and became one of the most accomplished of English writers in the community. He delivered the 1st English sermon heard within the walls of the synagogue on 26/3/1831. His 1st liturgical publication was a small volume of the blessings in English and Hebrew in 1829. His chief work was the new translation of the hebrew prayer book which appeared in 1836. he also translated the machzor of the Ashkenazi congregations according to the German and Polish minhag in 4 volumes in 1860, 18 masechot of the mishna and according to Rabbi Gaster was a joint founder of the Jewish Chronicle. He also published for the 1s time the ancient melodies of the liturgy of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews preceded by a learned introduction on the history and origins of the poetry and melody of this ritual. He died in 1860. Upon his father's death, Samuel de Sola, his youngest son, was appointed deputy Chazan and then Chazan, but he survived his father by only six years. I am indebted to Ms Liz Keys and to Mr Victor Tunkel, a well-known jewish musicologist in London, for their assistance in obtaining the information on Saqui's genealogy and to Raphael and Charlie Dorfman for our late-night telephone chats about the Coleman and Bornstein years!

© Copyright Jonathan Greenstein, Jerusalem. August 1999.

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