One man’s vast collection of Jewish music manuscripts is open to the public for the first time

Victor Tunkel amassed a huge collection of Jewish liturgical manuscripts


Gillian Tunkel opening the Victor Tunkel Jewish Music Collection at Leo Baeck Library (Photo: Sophie Stern)

While Victor Tunkel was a lecturer of law by trade, his love of music since childhood led him to become one of the most prominent experts on synagogue music in the UK. Over 50 years, Victor, who died in 2019, built a vast collection of predominantly Jewish liturgical music manuscripts – which is now open to the public at Leo Baeck College Library at the Sternberg Centre, in Finchley, north-west London.

The Victor Tunkel Jewish Music Collection places Leo Baeck on a par with other institutions which house large collections of similar works, such as the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Jewish Music Research Centre at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“In terms of a private collection, it must be one of the biggest in Europe,” says his son Daniel, who painstakingly catalogued the many manuscripts. “It has therefore become a very important public resource, which musicians and scholars can arrange to view to further their research interests.”

Daniel believes the collection would be “impossible” to build again from scratch due to the increased value of manuscripts, which his father picked up from the likes of cantors and widows “desperate to get rid of” them.

Within the dust jackets of the collection, people will find newspaper cuttings and letters relating to the texts and references to other sources. “The librarians have said to me that they regard those as precious, and they’re keeping all of those there and making sure they don’t fall out, so that you can see this was a man’s working library. He didn’t just collect books – these were books that he used, read and cherished. He’d been through every one of them, and he informed his own singing and performance through books on cantorial art and had a large collection of books about Torah reading.”

To this library, Daniel has added a Yamaha keyboard so that there is a workstation, where someone can pick a book off the shelf and play the music.

Victor was a chorister at Hendon Synagogue as a boy, graduating to the Habonim Choir, and becoming a founding and longstanding member of the Zemel Choir, before he began, in the 1960s, to collect sheet music that captured the synagogue melodies he loved. He developed an interest in leyning (chanting from the Torah), and after he retired in 1998 from lecturing full time at Queen Mary University of London, he wrote the book The Music of the Hebrew Bible and the Western Ashkenazic Chant Tradition.

Victor also led synagogue services and became the chazan sheni (second cantor) at Mill Hill Synagogue for the High Holy Days.

“He was blessed with a strong and high tenor voice, more than sufficiently accomplished to lead synagogue services himself,” Daniel says. “He understood not merely about the musical production issues, but also the technical, historical and cultural issues that are laced through the music of the synagogue service.”

On his passion and talent for music, Victor’s wife Gillian adds: “He had a very lovely singing voice. When the children were growing up, we were able to bench. Everything was to music. He could also play the piano by ear, so he would accompany anybody.”

Gillian is thrilled to see the collection being opened to the public, a project which has taken five years because of delays due to Covid.

“I am very happy because Victor’s wish has been fulfilled. It was his heartfelt wish that the collection stayed in England. He didn’t want it to go to Israel. He didn’t want it to go to the States – he said they already had plenty – and a lot of the collection is Anglo-Jewish.”

Given that the “substantial” collection “dominated” several rooms in the family house and occupies 40 metres of shelf space at Leo Baeck, Victor’s family have even more reason to be pleased that it has found a new home.

Gillian says: “I'm greatly relieved because it took over the house. And even when we wanted to downsize about 20 years ago, we couldn't because it would have meant putting it into storage, and Victor wouldn't have had access to it. He was using it, so we couldn't do that.”

A concert will be held on June 30 at Belsize Square Synagogue to showcase the collection, with the selections chosen drawn from different periods and geographic locations, “as evidence of how effectively one can use a research music resource of this type to programme Jewish music concerts and events”, says Daniel.

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