Cantor, composer and scholar, Eduard Birnbaum was born in Cracow in 1855 and was educated there as well as in Breslau, Magdeburg and Vienna. As a long-time cantor in Koenigsberg, Birnbaum dedicated himself to collecting materials related to all areas of Jewish music, ultimately achieving international recognition as the leading expert in the field of synagogue music. Among the materials he collected( which are now exceedingly rare and of greatest historic importance) are complete, handwritten vocal scores dating from 1825 through the 1860s of liturgies for the entire Jewish calendar arranged by community. The Birnbaum Collection contains the world's only copies of scores created before 1840. Cities represented include Hamburg, Braunschweig, Hanover, Magdeburg, Breslau, Stettin, and Koenigsberg. In addition, approximately 300 folio volumes give a nearly complete picture of liturgical as well as musical developments in Central Europe during these years.
The Birnbaum Collection was acquired by Hebrew Union College in 1918 during Librarian Adolph S. Oko's trip through Europe to buy Judaica for the expanding HUC library in Cincinnati. Musicologist Eric Werner, a founder of the School of Sacred Music, described Birnbaum's catalog to his collection as a "musico-liturgical one, listing all melodies of synagogal songs printed or written in Europe between 1700 and 1910, to which are added many bibliographical references." Werner noted that the catalog illustrates the development of Jewish liturgical music, reflecting the secular and Christian liturgical music environments in which it developed. The Birnbaum Collection thus reflects a virtually untapped source for scholars and historians of European early music, church music and other genres. The complex structure of the Collection and high percentage of largely unindexed materials have hindered musicologists from delving into this treasure trove of musical riches.
The Birnbaum Collection will be presented during the 50th anniversary of the SSM in an academic conference and exhibition; themes to be explored include the Jewish Enlightenment in Germany and liturgical music of the era as an expression of cultural synthesis; the historical context in which Birnbaum assembled his Collection; and the significance of the materials to musicologists, historians and the Jewish community.