Abraham Saqui (c.1824-1893)
by Jonathan Greenstein
Abraham Saqui was the 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 four or five of his pieces performed.
He was born in London in or around the year 1824 and he married there, at 45 Ludgate Hill, under the auspices of the Bevis Marks Sephardi synagogue on 27 May 1855. His bride was Julia Samuel, a widow, of 103 Duke Street, Liverpool.
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”. This was at a time when quite a few synagogues throughout Britain did have mixed choirs and, 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.
We know from the preface to “Songs of Israel” that he was choirmaster at the Old Hebrew Congregation from around 1858, which means that he was choirmaster for 16 or so years at the previous synagogue in Seel Street. He mentions the Chief Cantor of Paris, Samuel Naumbourg and reprints some of his pieces, suggesting he was strongly influenced by him. It would appear that the name Saqui is actually French, rather than Spanish or Portuguese. The Saqui book is a great legacy and there are very few copies left – I am aware of just four – some were burnt in a fire at Princes Road in 1979. The two copies in the shul’s possession are starting to break up.
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.
Saqui’s musical style is very lyrical and majestic and he was obviously very fond of Mozart – compare the last section of his famous 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.
When Saqui died suddenly in 1893, he was given an extensive obituary in the Liverpool Mercury, extracts from which read as follows:
“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 Seel 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 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 professorial career, many singers who have risen to eminence owe much of their success to the training received from him.
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 title Professor of Music may have been self-endowed – possibly using the term “professor” as in the French usage, for a teacher.
- Hudaly, D (1974) “Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation 1780-1974″, Liverpool Old Hebrew Congregation, Liverpool. No ISBN.
- United Synagogue (1933) “The Voice of Prayer and Praise: a Handbook of Synagogue Music” (Second Edition). No ISBN.
Abraham Saqui (c.1824-1893): A 21.13
Julia Saqui (née Samuel, his wife; c.1804-1865): A 07.10