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:
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.