Eduard Birnbaum was born in 1855 in Cracow to a family of notable Rabbis and scholars. Birnbaum received his primary education at a Yeshiva in Bydgoszcz. His teachers at Bydgoszcz identified his musical talent early on and sent him to Vilna to study hazzanut with Salomon Sulzer. In 1869, Birnbaum was awarded a sholarship to study hazzanut at the Breslau Theological Seminary, founded by Moritz Deutsch. While studying there, he was contracted to work as a hazzan in the Seminary's Synagogue. In 1872, he received an offer to officiate as the cantor for the Magdeburg community, where he served for two years. In 1874, he moved on to a position as the chief cantor in Beuthen, taking a short two month break between posts to return to Vilna and study with Sulzer. Finally in 1879, Birnbaum replaced Zvi Hirsch Weintraub as the chief cantor of Koenigsberg, a position he held until his death in 1920. According to Birnbaum’s own account, he was offered a position to succeed Sulzer in Vilna, but decided to remain in Koenigsberg where he was offered a life contract and comfortable salary.
Birnbaum was an avid collector of 18th and 19th century Synagogue music. He began his collection by copying the manuscripts in Sulzer’s private library. Aside from amassing important scores and manuscripts, Birnbaum sought out and recorded biographical information about important musicians, composers and hazzanim. He also interviewed prominent hazzanim in order to document the liturgical and para-liturgical musical practices of the major European Jewish communities. To supplement the material that he received from other cantors and researchers, Birnbaum transcribed the Synagogue tradition as he had learned it. All of these efforts culminated in what is known today as the Birnbaum Collection, which is kept in the Klau Library at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Aside from the sheer size of the collection, what stands out most is the meticulous cataloguing of all the material that it includes. It is broken down into two main sections: musical manuscripts and scores, and archival material (i.e. biographical information, newspaper and journal clippings etc…). Each item is referenced on one of several lists organized alphabetically by name, subject, location and community, or the original publisher. He also developed a complex card system which organizes the musical material by melodic and textual introductions.
Though less well known, Birnbaum also composed several liturgical works, a number of which were published posthumously. His arrangements Aseh le’Ma’an, Ha-Melekh, Kedusha, and Lekhah Dodi were included in the supplements of Der juedische Kantor (1927-31).