Chazzanut Online

Joseph Schmidt,
Opera and Synagogue


Kathryn Cole wrote the following biography of the famous Jewish singer Joseph Schmidt (1904-1942):

"Few tenors of his era evoked as much affection as Joseph Schmidt, the tiny tenor who in spite of his diminuitive stature, became a beloved figure in both German opera and cinema. Schmidt was born in 1904 in the small Romanian provincial town of Davidende. A child of musical parents from a cosmopolitan community, he was influenced by many cultures and was proficient in Romanian, French and German. His first vocal training was as a classic Hebrew singer in the local synagogue in Cernowitz. His first recital at the academy in Cernowitz included arias by Puccini, Verdi, Rossini and Bizet. At twenty he was sent to Berlin where he studied both piano and voice with Frau Dr. Jaffe and Professor Hermann Weissenborn. He was conscripted for military service from 1926 until 1929. and after his discharge accepted a position as cantor at the synagogue in Cernowitz, soon establishing a reputation that attracted the attention of Cornelius Bronsgeest, a renowned Baritone.

He was engaged soon after to sing the role of Vasco da Gama in a German radio broadcast of Meyerbeer's L'Africaine, and thus began a successful international career. He recorded many albums, mostly for Odeon/Parlophone as well as many films and radio broadcasts. Popular mostly with German and English speaking audiences his career was to run headlong into the emergence of the Nazi party and their hatred of the Jews. Ironically, his popularity was at its zenith at the same time the Nazi's were taking control of the Government and instituting cultural bans on Jewish artists, writers and performers. Richard Tauber did his best to shield Schmidt and scheduled a series of concerts with Tauber as conductor.

In 1937 Schmidt toured the United States, appearing with other eminent opera figures in a concert held at Carnegie Hall and performing in solo recitals across the country. By this time he was forbidden to appear in Germany and Austria, but was warmly welcomed in Belgium and the Netherlands. In 1939 he returned to Cernowitz for a final visit with his recently widowed mother. As war erupted he tried to make his way to America, but made it only as far as a Swiss refugee camp in Gyrenbad. In 1940 he suffered a heart attack and was taken to the camp infirmary. He was quickly released, his complaints interpreted as excuses to escape the hard work of the camp. Forced to return to ditch digging he soon succumbed to a second heart attack and died. He was thirty-eight years old.

Renowned for his phenomenal upper register, Schmidt is often heard effortlessly ascending to As Cs and the occasional high D. His warm lyric voice is perfect for the melodies of Schubert and Lehar; a rich velvety amber. Like so many before and after him, Joseph Schmidt was a victim of his time. Still greatly admired for his technique and vocal qualities, many recordings are currently available on CD. Truly, no opera collection is complete without at least one recording of the amazing Joseph Schmidt."

Joseph Schmidt was not only an important opera singer, he was also an outstanding performer of Jewish cantorial music.

This is what Raymond Goldstein has to say about his chazzanut:

"Josef Schmidt was NEVER the composer (of his cantorial recordings), and most of his pieces with the exception of the Lewandowski items are by David Moishe Steinberg - from Vilna - e.g: "Habet," "Ana Avda" and "Kohanecha."

None of these pieces have been printed in anthologies. In England, many years back, the Kohanecha was reprinted though in a Feigelbloom transcription, but is really quite shoddy - only 80% accurate.

Various other chazzanim like S.B. Taube and Noah Schall have transcribed over the years the various selections found in the collections of handwritten chazzanic recitatives. However, I honestly advise you to do what we all do... transcribe it yourself with a go slow tape recorder. It's a bit of a pain at first, but it really helps one's musicianship thereafter.

By the way, these pieces are fiendishly DIFFICULT, and I would only hesitatingly give them to my top students, who have a similar unique vocal techniques to either Steinberg or Schmidt... anyone else, BEWARE!"

There is also a comprehensive Discography available online by J.M. Lindeijer, together with an extensive article and many nice photos. Rabbi Shisler wrote an article with some more information on Schmidt's Jewish background.

Raymond Goldstein was born in 1953 in Capetown where he completed his musical studies. Since 1978 he has been a member of the faculty of the Rubin Academy of Music and Dance in Jerusalem, specializing in opera. He also holds the post of arranger/composer (and associate-conductor) for the Jerusalem Great Synagogue choir where he has over 525 works to his credit. In 1991 he was appointed senior teacher at the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute. As musical director and accompanist, he frequently appears both on stage, radio and television in Israel and has undertaken concert tours in Australia, the USA, the Carribean, and Western Europe. He has made professional recordings with prominent cantors and vocalists. His compositions include chamber opera, orchestrations, works for chamber ensemble, and numerous arrangements, sacred and secular.

Compiled by
Irwin Oppenheim

up _________________________________________________________________ Last update: 04 January 2006
Keywords: tenor Joseph Schmidt, Raymond Goldstein, Jewish Music, Opera, Cinema, Steinberg.