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May 9: Yossele Rosenblatt

May 8, 2016

115594253Yossele Rosenblatt, known as “the Jewish Caruso” and the greatest cantor of his generation, was born in the Ukraine on this date in 1882. He was a child prodigy within his religious community but received no formal musical training at any Jewish academy. Rosenblatt lived and performed at various stages of his life in Vienna, Hungary, Germany, the United States, and Palestine, and sang on stages worldwide without ever departing from his Orthodox garb and traditions — traditions that made him feel compelled to turn down operatic roles. Yet he did learn operatic arias as well as ethnic folksongs, and in 1918 performed at Carnegie Hall. Upon his death at 51, two hundred of Rosenblatt’s fellow cantors assembled on the Carnegie Hall stage to sing his music in a memorial concert. “[N]one of the virtuoso hazzanim apart from Rosenblatt succeeded in attracting non-Jewish audiences and admirers to the extent that he did,” notes Neil W. Levin at the Milken Archive of Jewish Music. “Perhaps even more telling was his appeal to nonreligious Jews, in whom the echoes of traditional synagogue worship resonated faintly if at all, and who otherwise were disinterested in if not put off by the aesthetics of Orthodoxy that his art encapsulated. Moreover, no other cantor ever captured anything approaching his share of the American imagination or achieved so widespread a folk hero status.” To hear him sing, look below.

“He possessed a magnificent tenor voice of great beauty and extraordinary range, with a remarkably agile falsetto. In addition, he had perfect pitch and could read the most difficult musical score at sight. The sweet timbre of his voice, the superb control he displayed — particularly in coloratura passages — and his trademark “sob,” inspired his congregants and thrilled his concert audiences. And much of what he sang, and later recorded, was his own composition, significantly influenced in its tunefulness by his Chassidic background.” —David Olivestone