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Legendary Voices: The Education of the Great Cantors

Jeremiah Lockwood
December 2, 2014

Cantor Samuel Vigoda Opens a Window Onto a Nearly Lost Era

by Jeremiah Lockwood

18_frontI RECALL SITTING AROUND THE TABLE with my grandfather, singing together either one-on-one or with my cousins. He was a great cantor of the old school, and singing was the central family activity. At times, my grandfather would sing a phrase and ask me to come up with a response; I remember the thrill and anxiety of being put on the spot in this context. If I sang a line that made sense to him, he would praise me, and if I moved off mode or didn’t sound good to his ears for whatever reason, he would correct me. Alternating high praise and harsh criticism were a standard part of the learning experience with him. It was a nervewracking yet incredible way to learn, and central to the creation in me of a love and understanding of cantorial music.

Last Spring I participated in a seminar on archival research being given by the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. Built into the seminar were periods of time in which participants could conduct their own research. The archive in that building is shared by five organizations with wonderful collections of Jewish historic materials. It includes the priceless YIVO archive of Yiddish materials gathered in Eastern Europe before the Second World War. The reading room at CJH is an amazing place in which to get lost in dreams from out of the past.

While working in the archive, I discovered a wonderful book called Legendary Voices, written by Cantor Samuel Vigoda. Cantor Vigoda (1893-1990) published his memoirs in 1981as an old man looking back on a forgotten past. Through his storytelling, I was granted a charming and intoxicating view of the world that created the modern legacy of chazzanus, the cantorial traditions of Eastern Europe that were carried to America. Most intriguing to me were Vigoda’s stories about the relationships between masters and disciples and the culture of apprenticeship that was central to the creation of modern chazzanus.

VIGODA WAS ONE OF THE MASTERS of the “Golden Age” of early 20th-century cantorial music in America. Along with Yossele Rosenblatt and Moshe Kousevitsy, he was one of the cantors chosen for RCA Victor’s iconic cantorial music triple-LP, The Art of the Cantor. Vigoda’s memoirs consist mostly of stories about the great generation of cantors in Eastern Europe in the early to mid-19th century. He recalls the fame and glory or musical work that by and large was not documented by the revolutionary new technology of sound recording.

Reading Vigoda’s book felt a bit like running into an old relative who I hadn’t seen in many years. Legendary Voices has a breezy, at times absurd tone, run through with bilingual puns in outrageous poor taste, juxtaposed with quotes ranging from Voltaire to the Talmud.

The book is framed as an encounter with an old chorister named Yossel Bass at a cantors’ convention in a resort in New Jersey. As his name would imply, Yossel was a bass singer and an old hand at leading choirs. He had sung with all the greats of cantorial music, and was already an old man in the 1940s when his encounter with Vigoda is depicted. Bass was a repository of tales and of wisdom from another era and had enough stories to keep a room full of cantors hypnotized for hours on end. In the reverie of the aftermath of a heavy meal, he presided over an epic gossip session about the old generation of European cantors — a generation that had been dead for decades.

Early in the book, Vigoda states that although it is believed that cantorial music is an ancient art form, as far as can be verified through documentation, the style of chazzanus that is familiar to us from early 20th-century recordings had its origins only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In this period, Eastern European Jews, responding to the Reform synagogue music coming out of Germany, developed the cantorial recitative, a style of composition that builds coherent musical pieces out of a pastiche of modal material taken from the old synagogue modes, or nusakh. In contrast to the high Reform synagogue music, which leaned stylistically towards European classical music for its source of ideas, the Eastern European cantors sought to preserve the historic Jewish music traditions in a new and highly virtuosic artistic presentation. They called their cantorial music chazzonus gefil, feeling-full prayer leading, or sogakhts, improvisation. The latter term points to the importance of spontaneous creativity and receptivity to inspiration while singing the prayers. Yossel Bass recalled the titans of this creative outpouring, cantors whose voices were still remembered and whose compositions were still sung generations after their deaths.

BASS BEGINS HIS RECITATION with the story of the rivalry between Yeruchom HaKatan (Yeruchom the small) and Nissi Belzer (Nissi from Belz), the two greatest cantors out of Berdichev, Ukraine in the early 19th century. Yeruchom, the elder of the two, was originally Nissi’s teacher, with the younger cantor serving as a meshorer, choir member.

The great cantors present a very different image than their contemporaries, the saint-like khasidic rabbis who sit firmly ensconced in hagiography and legend. Unlike these rabbinic figures of mythic piety, the great cantors are inseparable from their human weaknesses. Yeruchom and Nissi are presented as having been incredible artists while at the same time being defined by their absurd mischief, petty jealousies and various other misfortunes of the artistic ego. Vigoda’s own attempt at constructing a hagiography of the great cantors is frustrated by the tension between the holiness of prayer that they embodied and the limitations and frailties inherent in their creative process. The identity of the cantor as a holy man, a spokesman for the community, is often in disharmony with the frustrations to which the cantor is susceptible. The liminal quality of the occupation of cantor, which sits in a grey area between the holy, Torah-upholding Jew and the less respectable role of a semi-obscure artist, often led to the suspicion that cantors were not pious and God-fearing Jews.

Yeruchom HaKatan, the most celebrated cantor in Berdichev, was famous for his incredible tenor voice. He could bring an entire congregation to tears of penitence and prayer. The young Nissi Belzer, while a gifted musician, was not a naturally talented singer and could not possibly live up to the vocal standard set by his teacher. After searching in vain for a career path, Nissi decided to try his hand at composing cantorial music (not exactly a well-worn path to fame and riches). He wrote an elaborate choral arrangement of a prayer for the High Holy Days and presented it to Yeruchom — who took a look and decided it was so worthless that he tore it to shreds. Mortified and gravely insulted, Nissi decided then and there that he would become the greatest chazzan in Berdichev, if only to spite his old teacher.

But how could he possibly hope to achieve greatness as a cantor and become a rival to the great Yeruchom without a naturally beautiful voice? His solution was to create a new manner of presentation of chazzonus that heavily featured the choir. He set about cultivating the young talented singers in the community into a professional choir. To supplement his meager income as cantor at Berdichev’s New Synagogue, he took his choir on frequent tours of Jewish towns in the Pale of Settlement. While on tour he was always on the lookout for new talent for his choir. Talented boys as young as 6 would be drafted into Nissi’s choir. Nissi would pay their parents exorbitant fees for four-year contracts to induce them to entrust him with their talented children. The meshorerim would live in his household and begin their education, singing with the older boys of the choir under Nissi’s conducting and instruction.

In the words of Vigoda, Nissi was responsible for the creation of “primitive, homegrown conservatories, in which countless disciples received their indoctrination, [so] that there was developed a definite renaissance.” It is hard to tell from Vigoda’s tone whether this assertion is made in all seriousness or if he is indulging in verbal hijinks (akin to his puns and his out-of-context quotations from Plutarch). Does the fact that Vigoda’s history is being recounted in the lobby of a Jersey hotel decrease the veracity of his claims about cantorial history? Or is Vigoda in earnest when he states that the first cantorial academy was attended by pre-adolescent yeshiva bokhers in a small Ukrainian city amid an atmosphere of anarchic pranks, artistic jealousy, and, most importantly, a familial atmosphere of conviviality and shared talents?

It is telling that Nissi’s concept for creating a viable style that could compete with that of his teacher involved him in recreating the family dynamic in which he had acquired his own knowledge of cantorial music. After having been rejected decidedly by his own artistic “father,” Nissi ended up “birthing” many sons who would champion the musical tradition of chazzanus. His program for cantorial education seems to have been modeled after father-to-son tradesman skills transmission. The paternalistic relationship of master and protégé held firm even when the young meshorer was not the biological offspring of a cantorial family. In “Nissi’s kheyder” (Nissi’s elementary school), as Vigoda dubbed it, the young choir members were more than likely not the sons of cantors themselves. In order to attain the practical knowledge and spirit of the music tradition, they needed to become live-in disciples. The practice of communal living apprenticeship spawned a generation of great cantors, including some, like Mordechai Herschmann, who is well know to us today through his recordings and compositions.

BOTH YERUCHOM HAKATAN AND NISSI BELZER GOT THEIR START in the choir of an even older Cantor, Betzalel Shulzinger, also know as Tzalel Odessaer (Tzalel from Odessa). The familial music-making ethos was central to the act of cantorial education in Tzalel’s choir: He would compose new cantorial recitatives while sitting around the table with his meshorerim. He would sing a phrase, and then the choirboys would devise a chordal accompaniment or a melodic response. Tzalel would continue with his composition, inspired by the input from his choir members. The confluence of collaboration and pedagogy that this kind of group music-making experience allowed must have powerfully shaped the skills and the artistic imagination of the young cantorial novices.

This “table music” culture of cantorial music was very much alive in my family when I was growing up. Reading about the choir-cantor interactions in the old world suddenly threw a light on my childhood memories of singing with my grandfather around the dining room table. This kind of apprenticeship model, whether in the family or in a professional environment, represents an essential means of replicating both the skills and the psychological understanding needed for the preservation of traditional art forms. The atmosphere of pedagogy and emotional need for approval creates a heavily structured and controlled atmosphere. At the same time the structure of the language of the art form and the conviviality of the familial setting made me feel free to create and to play within the confines of the idiom. The intergenerational dynamic of this “education” planted an essential seed that has blossomed in me ever since.

Jeremiah Lockwood’s newest album, Songs of Zebulon, from Blue Thread Music and Books, is a creative reworking (with Frank London) of the cantorial music of Zebulon Kwartin. Lockwood is the leader of The Sway Machinery, a blues/world beat/cantorial music ensemble. His own storied musical education included singing in the choir of his grandfather, Cantor Jacob Konigsberg, and over a decade of playing in the subways of New York City with Piedmont Blues legend Carolina Slim. You can see Lockwood playing blues guitar and more all over the Internet.