Learning to enjoy Chazzanut
By David Olivestone
Of all the different types of Jewish music, chazzanut
may be the most difficult to appreciate. In a sense, it
is the Jewish equivalent of classical music. Just as
classical music is an acquired taste, chazzanut needs
to be worked at to be understood. By becoming more
familiar with it, one can learn to enjoy it.
At one time, before the advent of recordings and easy
access to popular entertainment, a performance by a
chazzan and his choir was the major form of
entertainment for Jewish people. But somehow, the line
between entertainment and davening became blurred.
Chazzanim started singing many elaborate pieces in shul
that were composed for the concert stage but were never
really intended to be used during davening.
During the first half of the twentieth century,
chazzanut enjoyed what has become known as its golden
age. While Rosenblatt was one of the first of Europe's
great chazzanim to move to America, he was not the only
chazzan of his time to do so. Scores of highly talented
chazzanim davened in shuls in New York and other major
cities. Recordings and concerts proliferated, and many
of the most famous pieces of chazzanut were composed in
Today, even those who tend to avoid shuls where the
chazzan gives lengthy performances can often sing or
hum some famous cantorial melodies such as "Sheyibaneh
Beit Hamikdash," "Shehecheyanu" and "Retzei." You might
like, therefore, to learn to appreciate chazzanut
outside of a shul setting, through recordings and
concerts. There is a vast range of recordings by
virtually all the great chazzanim of the past century
that you may sample to discover your preferences.
Listen to the music a few times before you decide if
you really like it. See how it reflects your own
understanding of the words of the prayer. Or just enjoy
it for the vocal artistry of the performer. Remember
that---as in any art form--not every piece is of the
same quality, and you have to learn how to be
Here are five of the greatest chazzanim of the twentieth
century, who have left us extensive recordings:
- Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933),
was one of the most prolific composers and recording artists of
cantorial music. To hear his range---both vocal and emotional--- listen
to his "Hineni," "Geshem" or "Ata Yatzarta." His "Shir Hama'alot,"
"Rachem Na," "Vehu Rachum" and "Kevakarat" are perhaps the most
often-heard pieces that he made popular.
- Gershon Sirota (1874-1943) was one of the
most powerful and highly trained tenors of his time, with climactic top
notes and outstanding voice control. The only one of the great chazzanim
of his era not to accept a position in America, Sirota perished in the
Warsaw Ghetto. You can hear the emotional intensity of his dramatic
tenor voice in the famous "Retzei" and in his rendition of "Unetaneh
Tokef." You can also hear his extraordinary vocal agility in "Veshamru."
- Mordechai Hershman (1888-1940), one of a
line of great chazzanim to serve at Temple Beth-El in Borough Park,
Brooklyn, was a master of Yiddish folksong as well as chazzanut. The
elegance and warmth of his singing and the power and sweetness of his
tenor voice are evident in such pieces as "Eilu Devarim," "Umipnei
Chata'enu" and "Tal."
- Zavel Kwartin (1874-1953) is best known
for his rendition of "Tiher Rabbi Yishma'el," one of the most dramatic
and moving pieces of chazzanut ever written. The intensity of Kwartin's
phrasing and delivery in such pieces as "Ve'al Yedei Avadecha" and
"Uveyom Simchat'chem," make him very worthwhile listening to.
- Moshe Koussevitzky (1899-1966) is
still remembered by many as the greatest chazzan of the post-World War
II era. He had a graceful and powerful lyric tenor with a phenomenal
upper register with which he could do wonders. For sheer artistry, it is
hard to beat his "Hashem Malach," "Esa Einai" or "Ledor Vador."
Koussevitzky's rendition of Israel Schorr's "Sheyibaneh Beit Hamikdash"
is his most famous recording.
There are, of course, many more chazzanim to listen to. Some of them may
be easier to appreciate, such as Shmuel Malavsky, Moishe Oysher, Leibele Waldman or Richard Tucker. If you would like to hear a live
performance by some of the leading chazzanim of our day, look for
concerts by Chaim Adler, Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, Joseph Malovany, Benzion
Miller, Yaacov Motzen and Benjamin Muller, among others.
Since chazzanut is a genuinely Jewish art form, there
is a special satisfaction involved in enjoying it. You
may also discover that---through your enjoyment of the
music---your familiarity with the words of the davening
will be greatly enhanced. The rewards are many and
varied, so buy your first tapes or CDs---in Judaica
stores or on the Web---and learn to appreciate the
unique manner in which generations of our people have
chosen to speak to the Almighty---in words and in song.
David Olivestone is director of communications and marketing at
the Orthodox Union. He contributed several biographies of famous
chazzanim to the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He is the editor and
translator of The NCSY Bencher. He can be reached by e-mail via
davido at ou dot org.
Keywords: Chazzanut, Cantorial Music.
This article is reproduced with permission from "Jewish Action," the
magazine of the Orthodox Union. © Copyright by the Orthodox
Union, September 2003. All rights reserved.