The Cantorial Tradition
I have to confess to being only dimly aware of cantorial singing until I read Stephen Banfield’s chapter on stage and screen singers in the Cambridge Companion to Singing that I edited for Cambridge University Press ten years ago. I suspect that this extraordinarily rich seam of tenorial magic hasn’t really found its way into the mainstream and I hope I can expand on its history in the future, both in an updated tenor book and in the History of Singing that Neil Sorrell and I are writing for Cambridge at the moment.
I was delighted to get an email from the distinguished cantor Larry Josefovitz soon after Tenor: History of a Voice was published. He got in touch initially to give me a gentle reprimand for referring to Neil Shicoff’s cantor father Sidney as a baritone, believing that ‘baritone’ doesn’t give a true sense of what cantorial singing is actually like. Our subsequent correspondence ranged over the current state of cantorial singing and its glorious past, and Larry pointed me in the direction of a number of cantors of East European origin which he felt deserved as much recognition as the great Russian opera singers. He urged me to track down an LP of Shicoff senior’s cantorials (which I haven’t yet managed to do). Sidney’s father actually came from Kiev (there is a brief online biography of Sidney together with a picture of the album). Larry actually heard him live and was captivated by his rich sound, but he died before Larry (then still a boy soprano) could study with him.
Danto, Alexandrovitch and Rosenblatt
Larry suggested trying the Florida Atlantic Library Sound Archive for an audio example of Sidney Shicoff. I wasn’t able to find him there, but among the many fine cantors you can listen to on this fascinating site, you’ll come across Josef Rosenblatt, Louis Danto and Misha Alexandrovitch, all of whom Larry introduced me to, having explored YouTube in pursuit of Russian vocal traditions. All three came originally from Eastern Europe: Rosenblatt from the Ukraine, Danto from Poland and Alexandrovitch from Latvia. Alexandrovitch is also to be found on the Three Yiddish Tenors CD (Israel Music 313-04197834) alongside Moshe Koussevitzky and Leibele Waldman. These last two are also represented in the Florida Archive; Waldman is the only one of this quintet of cantors born in the USA incidentally (Koussevitzky was born in Lithuania). These are all remarkable tenors, and they are only the tip of a vast cantorial iceberg. What is immediately noticeable is that they all have rich voices but tend not to chest high notes in the macho operatic fashion; instead they spin the voice into the head in a way that summons up a much older singing tradition. Larry Josefovitz draws a parallel between Danto and Adolph Nourrit, one of the last great singers in the ‘old’ Italian style before it was superseded by the post-Duprez generation of ‘modern’ turbo-charged tenors. He suggested watching Danto’s contribution to the Moshe Koussevitsky Memorial Concert, where I would discover Danto’s voix mixte and elaborate ornamentation. This is indeed a vocal tour de force – extravagant, powerful, subtle and sophisticated yet nothing like a modern opera singer. Danto’s discography is impressive, with performances in many European languages as well as Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian.
Some cantors have had success beyond the Jewish world. Misha Alexandrovitch had a successful career with the Bolshoi (his contemporaries included Lemeshev and Kozlovsky) until he emigrated first to Israel and then the USA. Josef (Yossele) Rosenblatt made many recordings, was admired by fellow tenors Caruso, McCormack and Schipa, and appeared as himself (looking remarkably like Arvo Pärt) in the first talkie (The Jazz Singer, 1927) . Rosenblatt’s technique is extraordinary. He has the trills and portamento that characterise all cantorial singing, but he can use either head or chest voice on high notes. The YouTube clip of him singing Yahrzeit Lied has an exquisite falsetto moment towards the end, which again might be a window on an 18th century sound. If you want to know more about his life and music, there’s a biography by his son Rabbi Samuel Rosenblatt (I’ve just bought the last copy of the 1954 edition on Amazon.com – sorry) and a volume of his music published by Tara Books (1997).
Larry’s latest email recommended more YouTube videos of remarkable cantors. The phenomenal Gerson Sirota (who died in the Warsaw ghetto) can be heard in a scene from The Dybbuk (1937) and in a Stradella arrangement (audio plus old photographs). Mordechai Hershman has a wonderful mezzo voce and silvery head voice, and the comments below the clip include several from collectors of cantors who give lists of singers that are well worth investigating further.
As I mentioned in the book, some cantors went on to successful international operatic careers, but most seem to have felt that the obligations of their calling prevented them from taking such a big secular step. The result has been a tenorial evolution that has not quite paralleled the mainstream, but retained elements that the twentieth century opera stage heard less and less frequently – the histrionics, the huge dynamic range, virtuosic trills and runs, fulsome portamento, an ability to sing almost unfeasibly quietly at the top of their ranges, and a soulfulness that is distinctly uncool (and perhaps rather over the top for today’s audiences). The genre has probably benefited from a lack of institutional (conservatoire) training, with the style and techniques passed on in the time-honoured manner of master and apprentice. It is, by its nature, a conservative tradition, and long may it continue to preserve its links with an extraordinary history.
Larry, thankyou: I wouldn’t know anything about any of this if it hadn’t been for you. Leave a comment and tell me where I’ve got it wrong!