Music has always been important to the Jewish people, and it has formed part of the traditional element of worship from ancient times. Its first mention in the Bible is when Laban reproached Jacob in the Gilead mountain after Jacob had fled from him. Laban told Jacob he would have given him a good send-off with "celebration and with songs and with tof" (i.e. a little drum or perhaps a tambourine) "and with kinnor" (i.e. a harp [Genesis 31:27]). Moses' song at the Red Sea is the first song of freedom (Exodus 15:1-18), and one of his last acts was to sing on the banks of the Jordan in sight of the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 32:1-43). The Second Book of Samuel (23:1) refers to David as the "sweet singer of Israel." The Bible is full of references to music, especially in Tehillim, The Book of Psalms. Psalm 92, for example, instructs us to give thanks to the Lord by singing praises unto his Name, and Psalm 100 tells the people to "enter the presence of the Lord with singing." That music is important in Jewish prayer is illustrated by a hymn commonly sung at the end of the Shabbat Musaf service--An'im Zemirot--which begins with the words "I will chant sweet hymns and compose songs, for my soul yearns for You."
The golden age of Ashkenazi chazzanut ended with the destruction wrought by Hitler. From Solomon Sulzer in Vienna in the 19th century, the founder of modern cantorial singing, to Gershon Sirota in Warsaw, there was a great line of personalities who all helped to enrich the synagogue service. Some great chazzanim did survive the Holocaust to continue the traditions of their predecessors, mainly in the United States, although for some the concert platform and the stage became rivals to the bimah. Now there are some quite gifted amateurs conducting services.
Throughout the centuries, the role of the chazzan has been an important feature of Jewish life. The synagogue has been the spiritual center for all classes of society, and his devotional chant has brought comfort and consolation to many worshippers. He has had much influence on Jewish liturgy and music, and without him, many services would be dull and lifeless. Older readers will remember how much gramophone recordings of the great chazzanim meant to people in the early decades of the 20th century. The advent of CDs with the ability to remove many of the imperfections of the old gramophone record has also played a part in a resurgence of interest in cantorial song. One movement, the Chasidic, however, has musical customs that differ quite substantially from those of the others prevalent in Jewish religious life.
The golden age may have started with Sulzer, but the function of the chazzan is an ancient one that goes back many centuries. There have been dramatic changes in his role, however, and the early rabbis would find it hard to understand the changes brought by Sulzer's time. In the Temple, the Priests and the Levites intoned the liturgy, but in ordinary assemblies of worship, a "precentor" or "baal tephillah," a learned member of the community, would lead the prayers. As these prayers began to be amplified with chanting--cantillation--it became more and more necessary to have someone with a decent voice to lead the prayers, and it was from this that the chazzan developed. Rabbi Yehuda Gaon, the head of the famous Sura Academy in the 8th century, was a leading precentor, and he was responsible for arranging the musical tradition of synagogues in Babylon, but he did favor professionals. Another Sura Academy head, Amram Gaon, recommended that every congregation should have a fully qualified "messenger of the people" or 'shaliach tzibbur," that is, someone with deep learning to lead the prayers, but he accepted that, if such a person was unavailable, then any male above the age of 13 could conduct the service. Rashi and his school agreed with this.
The word chazzan is of Assyrian origin. In rabbinical literature, the term chazzan indicated a number of different officials with different functions. One was overseer of the city, another inspector of the Beit Din, a third ensured that Beit Din judgments were carried out, another was in charge of the utensils of the Temple, and the fifth, the chazzan haknesset, was the superintendent of the synagogue. It was from him that the chazzan, as the term is understood today, came into use. Originally he had many tasks that were later taken over by the shamash. But he also taught children to read, and sometimes he assisted the schoolmaster. It was said "the chazzan ought to teach the children all day long and part of the night so as to educate them and to fulfill the Scriptural commandment: "Thou shalt meditate therein day and night." (Joshua 1:8) Whenever asked, he had to read the Torah passages aloud in a speech-song manner, and it was this function that resulted in a new profession of musical interpreter. In traditional cantillation the emphasis lay on the syllables of the Hebrew words being specifically arranged to give these words the deepest meaning--not the music--and this meant that in order to act as Torah reader, the chazzan had to be a learned man. This inevitably limited those able to serve in this capacity.
From the 10th century onward, music began to be important. Sa'adia Gaon's Book of Philosophical Doctrines and Beliefs (933 CE) has an important paragraph on music. Sa'adia, also a Head of the Sura Academy, investigated the influence of music on the human mind, and his approach centered on its rhythmic and not its melodic aspect. On Shabbat, it became the chazzan's task to entertain his congregation in much the same way as did ancient folk bards, troubadours, and minnesingers. His chanting was accompanied by appropriate hand movements from one or two helpers who stood beside him using fingers or hands to indicate the direction of the melodic line (up, down, level). Rashi, in the 11th century, reported on seeing visiting rabbis from the Holy Land using hand signals as they chanted from the Bible. In the Middle Ages, the rabbis separated prayers from Torah readings with prayers being chanted from a lower level and the Torah read from an elevated platform--a bimah. The lower level was an indication of reverence and humility prescribed by Psalm 130:1 ("Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord").
Initially the chazzan had no regular salary. If he was poor, he would get free lodgings and food from the wealthy, but he was paid as his functions increased. In some communities, he would get a percentage of the dowries and receive extra for brit milot (circumcisions) and weddings when a plate would be passed around. Sometimes, he would be paid for entertaining in private homes. He also became responsible for composition and his status gradually grew in Northern Europe. Many eminent scholars doubled up as (unpaid) chazzanim. Rashi was one as was his grandson, Shlomo, and Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, but the most famous of all was Rabbi Jacob Levi Mollin called the Maharil (circa 1356-1427). The Maharil reformed synagogue song, but he clinged to and preserved old melodies. The Sefer Maharil is a book that contains details of his chants, and his renditions were said to "elevate the spirits of the hearers and moved the worshippers to devotion." Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, a great spiritual leader, pronounced that if an impoverished community could not afford to employ both a rabbi and chazzan, then preference should only be given to a rabbi if he was a distinguished man and an authority on the interpretation of the Law; otherwise, there should be a chazzan so that the community could perform its duties in prayer.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, some chazzanim pursued their skills by traveling from place to place, and this helped to create a unified musical tradition. But this led to secular melodies and folk songs being introduced in order to enliven their performances. Folk song was introduced because Hebrew melodies were in short supply for the increasing number of hymns being sung by the chazzan. There has been much debate over the years about the propriety of non-Jewish melodies in Jewish prayer. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, in his amendments to the Shulchan Aruch, wrote: "A chazzan who acts indecently or sings non-Jewish songs must be reprimanded and dismissed if he does not listen," but there has been argument on whether this applies to all non-Jewish songs. Rabbi Joel Sirkes, an eminent 17th century Cracow rabbi, ruled that only melodies especially composed for the church were forbidden, a ruling that seems to have been accepted by most (but not all) authorities. Sirkes said, "Music is neither Jewish nor Christian but is governed by universal law."
In Spain, Arabic tunes were used, and in Central Europe some church tunes were introduced. Some attempts were made to justify use of the latter on the basis that the church had borrowed or stolen these tunes from the Temple. Yemenite Jews have preserved hundreds of melodies that are known to be identical to Byzantine and Gregorian chant, although in actual fact, it is now accepted that these were borrowed from the Yemenites.
Jewish religious music was strongly influenced by the non-Jewish environment in which Jews lived. Maoz Tzur, the familiar Chanukah song, is a good example of this. It is based on an old German folk song, and the tune appears in some manuscripts where it accompanies the recitation of the Catholic Credo. Martin Luther also used the melody. There are many other examples such as the well-known Ein Kelohenu hymn that is an adaptation of a German folk song. Rabbi Solomon Hirschell, who was rabbi at the Great Synagogue in London and who can be regarded as the first British Chief Rabbi, was shocked to be told that the chazzan had introduced Don Juan into the previous Friday Evening's service. This Don Juan music had presumably come from Mozart's Don Giovanni.
In Verona in the 18th century, it was customary to sing many prayers to the melodies of popular love songs and dance tunes, and there was quite a debate on whether to allow this. Some rabbis were in favor and some against, but in Italy, France, and Germany, all argument was futile as chazzanim went their own way and continued to borrow from secular sources with the result that they became more popular as they used the popular melodies!
There is another side of this coin in that the secular has borrowed from the religious. The Kol Nidrei melody, for example, is the basis of the well-known work for cello and orchestra by Max Bruch (a noted antisemite) and the same Kol Nidrei melody also appears in a late Beethoven quartet (#14, Opus 131) as well as in a Shostakovich Piano Trio. It has even been transcribed for solo Hawaiian guitar! Creators of Yiddish folk songs did the same thing, especially when they wanted music to depict moods of sadness or loneliness or despair. Understandably, some rabbis were unhappy at the way the chazzan's role was developing. The Frankfurt rabbi and chazzan, Herz Treves, once complained, "They have ceased to be writers of Torah, tephillin, and megillot. All they are concerned with are their songs without regard to the true meaning of the words." By the end of the 16th century, there was a profound difference between Sephardi music that was influenced by the Arab tradition and the Ashkenazi with its more colorful European style. In the Ashkenazi rite, the chazzan was a leading figure in shaping the music, whereas, in the Sephardi liturgy, the participation of the congregants gave it a simpler and more uniform rendering.
When were choirs introduced? There had been choirs of sorts in the Jerusalem Temple consisting of a minimum of twelve men with boys often included to "add sweetness to the sound." But it really originated in the 3rd century when two "prompters or honor guards" (tomechin or mesayim) assisted the chazzan. He recited from memory and they often joined in, but the first mention of a professional choir is found in Babylonia in the 9th century. Later, influenced by the Renaissance, music began to be seen as an important aspect of prayer in Italy. In the 17th century, men like Salomone Rossi of Mantua, who was a court musician and a colleague of Monteverdi, wrote a lot of music for the synagogue and with Rabbi Yehuda Leone of Modena introduced choral singing into the service. Leone, who once tried to write musical notation with the notes reading from right to left as in the Hebrew, had eight voices to assist him in part-singing his own compositions "according to the rules of harmony." But rabbinical opposition soon put a stop to this. The introduction of choirs into the service provoked violent controversy, but nevertheless, a synagogue choir appeared in Amsterdam in 1700 and then in Frankfurt and Hamburg. A bitter struggle developed between the rabbis and the chazzanim, and it took many years for choirs to be fully accepted.
The chazzanim won their own personal battles with the rabbis, and they became important personalities, especially if able to combine musical gifts with learning and piety. According to the historian Salo Baron, the chazzan's position became "the most permanent and continuous synagogue office, one which underwent relatively few changes after the Middle Ages." They engaged helpers to assist them because in the larger synagogues their solo voices were often deemed insufficient for the congregation to hear. Musical instruments had been used to accompany singers in Temple times, as the Talmud says: "merely to sweeten the tune," but they were forbidden on Holy days except in the Temple itself. This was because it was feared musicians would be tempted to carry out makeshift repairs if they were needed as they played, whereas only Temple Priests and Levites could be entrusted to ensure that the halachah was not transgressed.
After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., instrumental music was banned as a sign of national mourning with the Talmudic command that "the ear that listens to music shall be deaf." Despite this, instruments were used post-Temple. In the 12th century, for example, the great traveler, Benjamin of Tudela, reported that he had heard the ancient melodies being performed "in traditional manner" in Baghdad, which meant with instrumental accompaniment. But instruments were not apparently played on Holy days. Gradually, instruments returned to use--not of course on Shabbat but on special occasions like weddings or Purim or Chanukah or even for Kabbalat Shabbat. Organs were banned in the Middle Ages because they had become such an essential part of Christian worship, although they were then introduced into the Jewish service in Germany. In Prague, Rabbi Meir Mahler built an organ in 1716, and later there were other organs in Prague--one in the old Pinkas synagogue and one in the famous Altneushul. Interestingly, during the early history of the Christian Church, some of its leaders were against organs because they were said to be "Jewish instruments" that might help to seduce some Christians to adopt the "hateful religion of Judaism."
An 18th century book Travels in Israel mentions that Prague had some famous chazzanim who "use singers and also flutes, organs, violins, cymbals, and various instruments of percussion for every Friday to usher in the Sabbath." There was an orchestra in Prague that played prior to the Friday evening service. A contemporary record read: "With the help of these instruments, they sing not only Lecho Dodi, but after they finish the poem, they continue to sing several sweet tunes for about an hour's time." What modern congregation would allow its clergy to follow this practice?
The status of the Ashkenazi chazzan reached its peak in the 19th century, and there were many in Galicia, Poland, and Lithuania with fine voices and a flair for public performance. But there were also so-called "voiceless" ones. These were men with no special voices but who were excellent choirmasters and composers, and they were listened to with great respect because of their other musical gifts. Nisson Spivak, the Nissi Belzer, (1824-1906) was one of the leading synagogue figures in Eastern Europe in the middle of the 19th century. Through an accident, he lost his voice, but he was an outstanding composer of synagogue music and was strongly influenced by Chasidic nigunim (tunes or melodies). He introduced a new style of singing and gave his choir a primary role and not a supporting one. The Sephardim, both the Near-Eastern and the so-called European Sephardim, had leading chazzanim, but their importance tended to be lessened because of the direct involvement of the congregation singing side-by-side with the chazzan. There has, however, been quite a chazzanut revival in recent times, and a new Institute for Sephardi chazzanut has been founded in Jerusalem. The Sephardi emphasis has been on religious music outside of the actual synagogue service. In Jerusalem, one regularly sees posters advertising Sephardi liturgical concerts.
The 19th century was full of great Ashkenazi chazzanim, but one of the first with technical musical training was Ahron Beer in late 18th century. Meir Cohen early in the 19th century was the first to harmonize Jewish melodies, but the greatest impact was made by another.
Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890), who introduced a new era of cantorial art, is recognized as the father of modern synagogue music. He was the first to take the ancient modes and melodies and shape them into well-formed choral works. He became a chazzan when he was sixteen and was in Vienna from the age of twenty-one until his death. With a light baritone voice, Sulzer belonged to the moderate Reform school in Germany/Austria, and no-one had more influence on religious music than he. All his orthodox successors followed his trend. He accomplished what Salomone Rossi had failed to do in reforming the music of the synagogue. He was an important personage in Vienna. Schubert, a friend of his, set to music the important Shabbat Psalm 92 for him--and in Hebrew too! Sulzer had very modern views. He insisted on being called "cantor" after the manner of Bach, but while his role in fashioning and developing synagogue music was a major one, he did require help from Eastern Europe, only becoming familiar with the real nusach (the prayer chants) through Eastern European chazzanim. Apparently, he had a habit of changing to German-sounding melodies in the middle of his singing, although he returned to the original mode before finishing the prayer. Many came to Vienna to hear and learn from him, and as already noted, he was also well-thought-of by non-Jewish musicians.
Schubert once said it was only after hearing Sulzer sing his song "The Wanderer," that he, Schubert, properly understood it. Liszt said after visiting the synagogue in Vienna that "only once were we given the opportunity to hear what a true Judaic art could be. We have seldom been moved as deeply as we were that evening, so stirred that our soul was entirely immersed in meditation and participation in the service." Paganini was another admirer. Sulzer may have had some contact with Beethoven, and it is possible that Beethoven may have gotten the Kol Nidrei melody in his C Sharp Minor string quartet from Sulzer. Sulzer was followed by many great chazzanim such as Louis Lewandowski in Germany, Samuel Naumberg in Paris, and Yossele Rosenblatt who gave concerts from the age of 19 and who ended up in New York. Lewandowski was the most significant composer of synagogue music after Sulzer.
One of the great chazzanim, Eliezer Gerovitch (1844-1913), a traditionalist who resisted the temptation of an operatic career and who had a fine reputation amongst non-Jews, has left us an interesting document that he wrote at the height of his powers and which vividly shows how tastes were changing. In a letter to his congregation in Rostov-on-Don, he complained of the way in which they wanted a new style of musical service. He wrote: "Evidently, my strict truly sacred style, the stately and noble order established by me in our musical service, does not seem to be entertaining enough.... My noble recitatives are the true synagogue singing ... the Western cantors have edited the traditional songs so drastically that almost nothing Hebrew is left of them.... For twenty-seven years, I have tried to refine the taste of our worshippers, and I have succeeded. For God's sake, do not destroy my creation on which I have labored so long." This plea tells much about how the chazzan was now being viewed.
The golden period, 1900 to 1939, saw synagogues and halls filled with those who yearned to hear the great singers who continued the tradition of touring around Europe and America, and the gramophone also helped to spread their fame. The first great chazzan to use this latter medium was Gershon Sirota (1874-1943). He had a powerful dramatic tenor voice, and when he was chazzan in Vilna, he used to sing annually before the Russian Czar. He was the only great chazzan of his time not to go eventually to America, and with his family he perished in the Warsaw ghetto.
Many of the great 20th century's chazzanim finally ended up in the United States. Some emigrated prior to World War II, but a number of Holocaust survivors made their home here. Yossele Rosenblatt, in fact, came to America in 1912 to take up a position with the Ohev Tzedek congregation in New York, but he died at the early age of 51 while working on a film. He has been compared favorably to Caruso, and he once turned down the chance of singing in Halevy's La Juive at the Chicago Opera for a large fee. His voice was heard in the first talking movie The Jazz Singer.
Berele Chagy, who was born in the Ukraine, first officiated on High Holy Days when he was but seventeen. He emigrated to America in his early twenties and became chazzan at Temple Beth-El in Brooklyn. Later he was chazzan in Boston and Newark but returned to Temple Beth-El after a period in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Koussevitsky brothers, Moshe, Jacob, Simcha, and David were pre-eminent post-war chazzanim in the United States. Moshe, the greatest of the family, succeeded Chagy in Brooklyn, and he was dubbed by his contemporaries, Chazzan ha-Dor (the cantor of his generation) and Prince of the Amud (Prince of the Prayer Stand). He toured widely in South Africa and Israel as well as in the United States.
Samuel Vigoda succeeded Rosenblatt at the Ohev Tzedek synagogue after being chazzan at one of Budapest's large synagogues. He died in New York in 1990, aged 95.
One of the classic chazzanim was American-born. Leibele Waldman was noted especially for the number of recordings that he made.
And finally, some chazzanim achieved fame in the opera house--Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill, Jan Peerce, and Marko Aron Rothmuller were four--and Dutch-born Leo Fuld went on to the vaudeville circuit.
It is remarkable, incidentally, how many classical composers were sons of chazzanim--the most notable are Jacques Offenbach, Karl Goldmark, and Kurt Weill.
Great Britain, too, has had some notable chazzanim and choir-masters. A chazzanut department was started at Jews' College in London as long as 140 years ago. John Braham (ne Abraham) was a "boy wonder" with a phenomenal voice. He was considered to be the finest tenor of his day. Charles Lamb, a leading London literary figure, heard him and said, "The little Jew has bewitched me." He eventually made his debut at the Covent Garden Opera House where he was a sensation, but he was lost to Jewry. Another important chazzan in London was Meir Leoni, also known as Leon Singer. He was an opera singer first but became a chazzan, and his sweet voice brought many, including non-Jews, to hear him. He is now best remembered as the composer of Yigdal. There were constant problems relating to music at the Great Synagogue in London. Its choir once went on a prolonged strike, choosing to start their strike just before Rosh Hashanah!
In the 19th century, with the chazzanim gaining more and more influence, serious complaints again were made that they were introducing their own or borrowed compositions into prayers that had never been sung before. The speed at which some prayers were sung was another concern. "The chazzanim run through the main prayers with such rapidity that even the swiftest horses could not follow them; while on the Kaddish or Psalms they spend so much time and effort that the annoyed congregants begin to converse" complained one observer. Many secular melodies were introduced like dance-hall songs and those from the music halls, and some chazzanim were even accused of taking tunes from the Catholic Church. Operatic arias have formed part of the repertoire of some chazzanim of the past, and Verdi's La Traviata has been said to be the most plagiarized opera. Two interesting tunes known to have been used for the Kaddish prayer are "La Marseillaise" and "The Girl I left behind me."
What of women's role in the musical life of the Jews? Mixed choirs in Orthodox synagogues are all but unknown, and the very sound of women singing religious or even secular songs is taboo to the ultra-Orthodox. There is evidence, however, that women's voices were accepted in Biblical times. 2 Samuel (19:36) refers to the comments of Barzillai the Gileadi who had to decline King David's invitation to go with him to Jerusalem because he could not "hear anymore the voices of singing men and women." Female voices are often mentioned in the Bible. After the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, Miriam sang to all the women who went with her (Exodus 15:21), and the women celebrated David's victory over Goliath by greeting King Saul with a 'Joyful song" (1 Samuel 18:6-7). Solomon, furthermore, arranged for "men-singers" and "women-singers" to entertain his guests at banquets (Ecclesiastes 2:8). And the Book of Ezra reports (2:65) that, of 7,337 servants of the rich who returned from Babylon, 200 were male and female singers although the Book of Nehemiah (7:67) puts this at 245. There is only one passage in the Bible in which a male and female sang in unison, and this was when Deborah and Barak who may have been husband and wife sang together after Barak's victory over Sisera (Judges 5:1-31).
The Talmud (Berachot 24a), derives from the passage "for sweet is thy voice" (Song of Songs 2:14) that a man may not listen to a woman singing except his wife because praising a woman's voice could lead one astray. And finally, there is evidence that there used to be female chazzanim (should it be chazzanot?) before the days of Reform and women's Liberation Movements. In Worms, the women had a separate building only connected to the main synagogue by a gallery, and medieval records make reference to two lady precentors with the very picturesque names of Urania and Richenza in Worms and Nuremberg respectively.
As indicated previously, the musical customs of the Chasidic movement differ from those of the other movements in Jewish religious life. The chazzan plays a minor part in its liturgy with the congregation taking a much more prominent role. The Chasidic outlook is based on a happy and zealous understanding of prayer, and Chasidic niggunim (tunes, melodies) combined with dancing are expressions of innermost emotions. Alongside the study of the Torah and the performance of the mitzvot, worship of the Almighty is stressed more through music. Chasidic melodies, many of them composed by great Chasidic rebbes themselves who were not musically trained, have sometimes been taken from non-Jewish sources. The eminent musicologist A. I. Idelsohn has pointed out that some of these melodies have been drawn from Ukrainian and Slavic folk songs and from Cossack dances and military marches.
But to return to the mainstream, there still are professional chazzanim of quality officiating in some of the leading synagogues in the Western world and in Israel, but their numbers are sadly in decline.
It is unlikely that the voices of men of the stature of Sulzer, Sirota, and Rosenblatt will ever be heard from shul bimot again. We can "thank" Hitler for this since a primary source of talent that came from Central and Eastern European Jewry was decimated by him. Nevertheless, there are amateurs with the dedication to present their musical gifts, even if these are limited, for the benefit of their Jewish communities, and they play an important part in the preservation of our synagogue musical traditions. Long may they survive!
CECIL BLOOM lives in Leeds, England. Now retired, he spends much of his time researching aspects of Jewish history, music, and literature. His last article in Midstream, "Aaron Aaronsohn: Agronomist, Spy, Zionist, " appeared in our May/June issue of 2004.…