Victor Tunkel 1933-2019 – A towering figure in Jewish music
An appreciation from the European Cantors Association
The European Cantors Association and the Jewish Music Institute would like to pay tribute to Victor Tunkel who sadly passed away on 28 July 2019 at the age of 86.
By profession Victor was a barrister, but preferred academia and retired as the senior lecturer in law at Queen Mary University of London, having studied at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School and Nottingham University.
For almost 50 years he was the Secretary of the Selden Society, the internationally renowned society for the promotion of the study of English legal history. He is seen on the left receiving a special medal on his retirement from that position.
But above all, Victor was a towering figure in Jewish music.
From his time as a choirboy at Hendon Synagogue, sometimes singing duets with their cantor, none other than David Koussevitzky, his love of Jewish liturgical music never diminished.
He was a founder member of the Zemel Choir originally formed by his friend Dudley Cohen in 1947 with members from Habonim before its formal foundation in 1955. He collected all the books and manuscripts he could find about Jewish liturgical music, until he had acquired what can only be described as the most significant collection of its kind in private hands.
It contains over 1800 items: books on musicological research; on biblical cantillation; liturgical music; and music scores of liturgical music from the 17th century to the present. Before his death, Victor made arrangements to deposit this collection in its entirety to the library at the Leo Baeck College, and this, his son Daniel is putting into action.
Research and Scripts for JMI
Victor, with his huge knowledge of Jewish music, and his extensive resources, was a respected consultant to many across the world. He was especially valued by the Jewish Music Institute from the time its work began in 1983.
For the first ever Bnai Brith Jewish Music Festival in 1984, Victor researched music and images and scripted a seminal concert for the Zemel Choir of ‘Jewish Music from the 12th to the 20th Century’ which began with a piece found in the Cairo Geniza, and ended with a piece just written for the choir that year. This concert was presented to great acclaim at St John's, Smith Square.
In 1988, it was Victor who researched and wrote the script collaborating with Neil Levin of New York for the JMI ‘Vanished Voices’ concert, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Again, it was Victor who with Music Director of the Zemel Choir, Malcolm Singer, researched the music and text for the Zemel Choir concert in 1990, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Salomon Sulzer – the father of modern synagogue music.
Victor also wrote the sleeve notes for the subsequent JMI CD called ‘Viennese Synagogue Music in the age of Schubert’. Victor reprised this process with Robert Max, in 1994 for another Zemel Choir concert (and subsequent CD) commemorating the centenary of Louis Lewandowski of Berlin.
Victor presented a series of Lunch hour lectures at SOAS on Cantillation of the Bible in the last JMI International Festival of Jewish Music in 2000.
Victor’s seminal book and articles
In 2006, Victor’s book, The Music of the Hebrew Bible and the Western Ashkenazic Chant Tradition, was published by Tymsder in association with the Jewish Music Institute.
In it, Victor especially thanks ‘Geraldine Auerbach of JMI, and Gerry Black of Tymsder for their encouragement and support in promoting this undeservedly neglected yet essential aspect of Jewish musical studies’.
Victor wrote articles and reviews for many Jewish music journals worldwide. The European Cantors Association is fortunate to have several of Victor’s erudite and interesting articles on Jewish synagogue music on its website.
His excellent ‘Introduction to Shul Music’ was commissioned by Hirsh Cashdan from Victor (based on his ‘Daf Hashavua’ contributions to the United Synagogue leaflet printed for synagogues).
This was in the era of ‘Tephilharmonic’, an organisation co-created by Hirsh and Cantor Moshe Haschel of St John's Wood Synagogue, that upheld the interest in synagogue music before ECA was established. You can read this article here. His short article on the Role of the Jewish Cantor and longer one on the Anglo Jewish Cantorate can be read here.
Hirsh comments that "Despite Victor’s erudition and his encyclopaedic knowledge he was a very modest and unassuming man. He was always willing to help a committed student of whatever level and was open to the ideas of others. His passion for the basics of synagogue music, for nusach and leyening were an inspiration to me and no doubt to many others."
For the JMI Library, Victor held the titles of Consultant and Acquisitions Officer. At my request, he wrote a long article about literary resources for Jewish music – a description of what a Jewish Music Library should contain. This he delivered on behalf of JMI to a national meeting of Music Librarians in Birmingham and it was later published in the journal for Music Librarians. This important article can also be read on the Jewish Music Institute archive site here.
Victor was a great colleague and support to me throughout the life of the Bnai Brith Jewish Music Festivals which I directed between 1984 and 2000 - when I became the Founder Director of the Jewish Music Institute. He was involved in so many of our endeavours. And it was JMI’s platform that in many ways, enabled Victor’s knowledge and love of Jewish music to reach a wider audience.
Victor also became an admired consultant to the European Cantors Association, when it was established in 2012.
On JMI’s 25th anniversary, Victor wrote: ‘The Jewish Music Institute’s achievement has been two-fold: It has helped to raise Jewish awareness and pride in our musical heritage, which by many cultivated Jews in this country was long considered a marginal thing of negligible worth; it has won a hearing for Jewish music within the wider British Culture, and most opportunely in these multicultural times. For these achievements you deserve the highest praise and gratitude’.
In turn the Jewish Music Institute, now under the Chair of Jennifer Jankel and the European Cantors Association, Convenor Alex Klein, gives the highest praise and gratitude to Victor for his seminal role in illuminating the work they do with his dependable knowledge and enthusiasm.
We send our heartfelt wishes for long life, health and strength at this sad time to Victor’s dear wife Gilly, son Daniel and daughter Sarah.
Geraldine Auerbach, MBE, Hon Fellow of SOAS
Founder and former Director of the Jewish Music Institute
Co-Founder and Secretary of the European Cantors Association.