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Chazzanut Online - Articles

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 that era.

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 discriminating.

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.
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.

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