Cantorial Music

Learning to appreciate hazzanut (cantorial music)

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Gershon Sirota (1874-1943) was one of the most powerful and highly trained tenors of his time, with climactic top notes and outstanding voice control. The only one of the great hazzanim of his era not to accept a position in America, Sirota perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. You can hear the emotional intensity of his dramatic tenor voice in the famous "Retzei" and in his rendition of "Unetaneh Tokef." You can also hear his extraordinary vocal agility in "Veshamru."

Mordechai Hershman (1888-1940), one of a line of great hazzanim to serve at Temple Beth-El in Borough Park, Brooklyn, was a master of Yiddish folksong as well as hazzanut. The elegance and warmth of his singing and the power and sweetness of his tenor voice are evident in such pieces as "Eilu Devarim," "Umipnei Chata'enu," and "Tal."

Zavel Kwartin (1874-1953) is best known for his rendition of "Tiher Rabbi Yishma'el," one of the most dramatic and moving pieces of hazzanut ever written. The intensity of Kwartin's phrasing and delivery in such pieces as "Ve'al Yedei Avadecha" and "Uveyom Simhatkhem," make him very worthwhile listening to.

Moshe Koussevitzky (1899-1966) is still remembered by many as the greatest hazzan of the post-World War II era. He had a graceful and powerful lyric tenor with a phenomenal upper register with which he could do wonders. For sheer artistry, it is hard to beat his "Hashem Malach," "Esa Einai," or "Ledor Vador." Koussevitzky's rendition of Israel Schorr's "Sheyibaneh Beit Hamikdash" is his most famous recording.

There are, of course, many more hazzanim 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 hazzanim of our day, look for concerts by Chaim Adler, Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, Joseph Malovany, Benzion Miller, Yaacov Motzen, and Benjamin Muller, among others.

Since hazzanut 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.

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David Olivestone, director of communications and marketing at the Orthodox Union, contributed several biographies of famous hazzanim to the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He can be reached at davido@ou.org.