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Chazzanut Online - Articles

David Koussevitzky

1912 - 1985


By Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler

It would be a very brave person who would unequivocally state that any one of the four Koussevitzky brothers, Moshe, David, Jacob and Simcha, was the best. They were all known for individual qualities and, in truth, each was an outstanding Chazan in his own right.

David certainly had a most unusual voice, and was able to maintain long phrases on very high notes. Others have tried to copy him, but few have succeeded in coming anywhere near the excitement that he could generate by his extraordinary singing - which I once heard him attribute to the particular bone-structure of his face.

I often felt that listening to David sing, was akin to watching a tight-rope walker high above the Victoria Falls. The excitement is generated by the possibility that he might actually fall off. The attraction of listening to David Koussevitzky was the possibility that his voice might crack. To the best of my knowledge it never did, of course, even in his advancing years - but nevertheless, the possibility was still there that he might!

As a child David Koussevitzky sang in the choir in the Vilna Great Synagogue and was intent on following a musical career from the start. He studied at the Vilna Academy of Music and became a choir master at the age of eighteen. After serving in the Polish army, he continued his voice studies in Warsaw, officiating at various Synagogues before becoming the Chief Chazan in Rovna.

In his middle twenties, he accepted a call to the Hendon Synagogue, London, where he stayed for twelve years.

Koussevitzky was not enamoured with the life of a Chazan in the United Synagogue in London, in those days. In his book, 'Chosen Voices,' Mark Slobin quotes from a verbatim interview with David in which David says:

"[Working for the United Synagogue] was like a government. Each shul sends their representative, like to the House of Commons... it's like the Church of England... They all had their traditional music. They had a Blue Book that they give you, and they tell you, "use it as much as possible..." You had to be there every shabbes... and [I] taught in Jews' College. I used to share the weekday services with the rabbi. I did Sunday morning. No layman was allowed to officiate..."

He relates how he did not want to leyn (read the Torah), and eventually got an agreement with the 'chief warden' that he wouldn't be expected to do so.

A business man, who used to travel frequently between England and the USA, persuaded David to set his sights further afield and in 1948, after helping him to obtain a visa, he went to America and was appointed to the highly prized position at Temple Emanu-El in Boro Park, Brooklyn.

Throughout his long career, David Koussevitzky travelled the world, singing in the most prestigious venues. He was an outstanding showman who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand. His top notes could rattle the chandeliers and make your hair stand on end, and his soft notes - his piano, could bring tears to your eyes.

Amongst his numerous recordings are many of his own compositions.

© Copyright Rabbi G. Shisler

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