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
Keywords: David Koussevitzky, Kusevitsky, Kussevitsky, Kusevitzky, biography.