Significant Jewish liturgical musical collection honoured by Leo Baeck College

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Significant Jewish liturgical musical collection honoured by Leo Baeck College

Victor Tunkel amassed one of largest private troves of Jewish music in Europe, including Yiddish sheet music from 1940s London and rare 19th century editions of cantorial compilations

Gillian Tunkel, March 2024.
Gillian Tunkel, March 2024.

The life-long manuscript collection of a towering giant of Jewish liturgical music has been officially opened at a preeminent institution of Jewish scholarship and learning.

Leo Baeck College’s students, faculty and staff came together on Monday 25th March to celebrate the life of Victor Tunkel, with the opening of The Victor Tunkel Jewish Music Collection.

Tunkel, who passed away in July 2019 at the age of 86, had a lifelong love of Jewish music. In the choir at Hendon Synagogue as a boy, in the Haboinm choir as a youth, and a founding and longstanding member of the Zemel choir, in the 1960s he began to collect sheet music that captured the synagogue melodies he loved.

Pic: Leo Baeck College Library

His interest and knowledge grew and he would spend over 50 years creating one of the largest private collections of Jewish music in Europe.

Leo Baeck College (LBC) now houses the entire collection of books and music, together with a keyboard for researchers, students and visitors to use.

The formal programme at the opening consisted of short speeches of welcome and thanks from LBC principal Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris, senior librarian Cassy Sachar and Daniel Tunkel, Victor’s son, each sharing some thoughts about Victor, the collection and the importance of music at the college and within Jewish life.

The speeches were interspersed with music, from LBC senior lecturer, musician and composer Dr Chani Smith, who performed her own improvisations on Lewandowski’s Baruch Hu on flute and from a group of LBC rabbinic students who created an informal choir and sang an arrangement of Nishmat Kol Chai.

Director of Jewish education Jo-Ann Myers gave a reading on Jewish music and Victor’s wife Gillian Tunkel cut the big red ribbon draped over the book shelves.

Victor’s own special interest was biblical cantillation; having taken over much of the Tunkel family home for many years, his collection now complements the library’s own, and underscores how important music is to communal life and rabbinic practice.

Victor Tunkel

The musicology side of the collection explores the history, development and personalities of Jewish music and its intersection with Jewish law, prayer and identity.

The sheet music supplies the melodies and lyrics in Hebrew, English, Ladino, Yiddish, from synagogue, nursery, campfire and radio. With a focus on liturgical music arranged for cantors and choirs, the collection embraces Jewish music traditions from across the globe, exploring the myriad worlds of Jewish music from the bible to the 21st Century. It includes key reference works and fascinating rarities.

The Zemel Choir will be performing a memorial concert in Victor’s honour later in the year programmed with music from the collection. The library will be giving sessions showcasing highlights from the collection and supporting researchers to explore its treasures. Visitors are welcome by appointment Monday to Thursday.

Senior librarian Cassy Sachar said: “It is so important to continue Victor’s legacy ensuring that the music and scholarship he collected is made accessible to all and preserved for the future. We really look forward to welcoming Jewish music professionals, scholars and enthusiasts to the library. I’m especially excited to see people take inspiration from the collection creating new music and practices and engaging deeply with the ideas and history behind the melodies. We have a keyboard and music stand ready for experiments!”

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