Composer Samuel Adler’s life in North Texas
Photo: David Aaron

By Sam Green

Have you ever had the privilege to attend a prayer service led by Samuel Adler or hear one of his symphonies? At age 94, Adler has had a distinguished career as a composer, conductor, pedagogue and teacher. From 1953 to 1966 — early in his career — he was the music director at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, and still maintains deep ties to the congregation. As their music director, he raised the synagogue’s music program to a world-class standard.

Adler was born in Germany in 1928 to Hugo Chaim Adler, a noted cantor and composer, and Selma Adler. In 1939, following Kristallnacht, Adler immigrated to America at 11 years old with his family; they settled in Worcester, Massachusetts. For his undergraduate education, he attended Boston University, followed by graduate studies at Harvard. He also spent summers at the newly created Tanglewood Music Festival — a festival of concerts and academic programs for musicians in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts — studying with many noted composers and musicians.

In 1950, Adler was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve in his home country, Germany. During his service, Adler founded the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra and conducted numerous concerts around Europe. His orchestra was “America’s way of bringing some joy and hope back to the many war-torn towns of Europe,” Adler said. He even met President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who made sure the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra’s conductor had a specially tailored uniform.

In late December 1952, Adler was released from the army and returned home to Worcester. Soon after, family friend Rabbi Levi Olan called and reportedly told Adler, “I want you to come down to Dallas and tell our music committee how you would envision a great program in a temple for music.” Rabbi Olan had been the senior rabbi at the family’s synagogue in Worcester (coincidentally also named Temple Emanu-El) during the late 1930s and early 1940s. By the 1950s, Olan was senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas. Adler said that he agreed to travel down to Dallas and that Olan “sent me a ticket and I flew down two weeks later. I met with the music committee and there was no talk of jobs. I went home and all of a sudden, they offered me the job of music director and also to teach at SMU. Well, the job at SMU fell through but I did go down to become music director at Temple Emanu-El.”

After Adler arrived in Dallas, he set to work creating a completely unique music and singing program, unlike any other Jewish religious organization in America. He explained they had a choral program structured “from womb to tomb — that is, we had a chorus of third/fourth graders, then 5/6/7, then 8/9/10 and then the older congregants.” At the time that he left Emanu-El in the mid-1960s, there were 100 singers in the chorus, all of whom were members of the congregation except for eight professional soloists. Adler said, “I believe an amateur choir needs leadership of professionals and that’s what we had.”

The repertoire of these choirs was huge. Adler said, “Anyone in America who published choral and vocal music for the synagogue, we sang.” Adler mentioned composers like Herbert Fromm and Heinrich Schalit, a German-American Jewish composer and an Austrian-American Jewish composer respectively, each known for their choral music for the synagogue.

When these composers would come to Dallas, they would visit Temple Emanu-El, and Adler would put on a weekend of Fromm or a weekend of Schalit. No challenge was too tall for Adler’s choir, and he proudly says, “I was there for 14 years and we could do a lot of music.”

The repertoire did not end there. Adler mentioned that he also wrote many works for performance at Temple Emanu-El, and specifically anthems, which are celebratory sacred choral compositions. “We sang very important pieces by the major composers who were writing for the synagogue. In those days, many composers, even Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss, wrote pieces for the synagogue which we could perform because we had a big choir, a big organ and excellent musicians. So we did a formal service every single Friday night.”

Adler even organized music festivals performances of pieces that hadn’t been heard in America for almost 40 years.  Each year, when these huge performances were put on, choirs from universities in Texas would join the choirs of Temple Emanu-El. These included Southern Methodist University, University of North Texas (then North Texas State), Texas Christian University, West Texas University and East Texas University.

Another one of Adler’s responsibilities at Temple Emanu-El included teaching bar mitzvah lessons to the young boys. Adler had been singing Hebrew trope since his childhood, having learned from his father Hugo, and he ended up being the first bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El in Worcester. His father “taught the German Torah trope, which is very different from the American, which is all in major keys instead of in minor keys.” Once in Dallas, he had to learn the American-style trope, which comes from Eastern European Ashkenazic culture.

At first, the 12- and 13-year olds were responsible for both Torah and Haftorah portions, and Adler said it was “very difficult because their Hebrew knowledge was not very good. And we decided that they would only do the Haftorah instead of also learning the Torah trope.” Adler was highly regarded within the congregation of Temple Emanu-El as music director and teacher for the bar mitzvahs. Adler said, “There are many people that I ‘bar mitzvahed’ who still stay in touch with me.”

Outside of Emanu-El, Adler has had a prolific career. He was one of the most important conductors in Dallas in the 1950s and 1960s, conducting the Dallas Opera (known then as the Dallas Lyric Theater); the Dallas Symphony Orchestra commissioned eight works from him including his first two symphonies; and Adler guest conducted many orchestras and operas in the Texas-Oklahoma area. In addition, he composed numerous works commissioned by orchestras in Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma, Fort Worth and others around the country. Adler was also commissioned to compose four complete services for congregations around America to sing. It was an exciting time for a Jewish-American composer and musician.

In the 1960s, he left Texas to become a professor at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He has not returned to live in Texas, but he has had a fascinating life since, including writing a highly regarded orchestration textbook for composers, becoming a professor at Juilliard and composing lots of music. Adler’s children were all born in Texas but they were raised in Rochester once he became a professor at Eastman. His daughter returned to North Texas and taught in the Plano school system for a time, and his grandson attends UT Austin, so he still has some special ties to the Lone Star State.

Adler mused that he has probably written too much music. But I think the world can agree that there is no such thing.

Sam Green is from Plano and a fifth-year student at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, studying music composition and piano performance. He is currently studying harpsichord, clavichord and fortepiano performance as part of a semester abroad in London, UK.

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