By Jeremiah Lockwood

The cantor (Hebrew: חַזָּן‎ ḥazzān, plural ḥazzānimYiddish khazn; Ladino hazan)) is a ritual prayer leader in the synagogue. Cantors are responsible for maintaining knowledge of music for the intricate Jewish liturgical cycle. The work of the cantor occupies a nebulous place in Jewish tradition: cantors are both religious functionaries and artists. The cantor’s dual identity creates opportunities and conflicts in the musical life of the community, engendering controversies about the appropriateness of different kinds of sounds for the experience of prayer. The modern conception of the professional cantor is predicated both on the role of cantors as preservers of tradition and as musical innovators. This attractive paradox continues to pull musicians into the cantorial field.

The figure most associated with the emergence of the professional cantorate is Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890), the chief cantor of Vienna at the time Austria was first experimenting with legal emancipation of Jews and permitting Jewish residency in its capital. The small community of economically elite Jews living in Vienna sought a cantor who could musically represent their community and its aspirations to be “moderns” by participating in the majority culture. They sought a cantor who could both engage with contemporary art music while maintaining Jewish particularity. This balancing act is audible in Sulzer’s music, which sounds a lot like Austrian classical choral music of the period. Although his music was a self-conscious departure from older strands of Jewish prayer, Sulzer was also a preservationist. He maintained the Hebrew language, at a time when other Germanophone Jewish communities were adopting German as the language of worship, and he collected and published his arrangements of old synagogue melodies, codifying what had hitherto been mostly an oral tradition. 

The Sulzer musical revolution spread throughout the Jewish world, influencing communities as geographically disparate as San Francisco and Istanbul. In the Russian Empire, where the majority of the world’s Jews lived, Sulzer’s music was influential, but was critiqued by cantors as excessively assimilative. Cantors working in elite urban choral synagogues in Russia and Poland developed a style that synthesized elements of choral music with the highly melismatic and ornamented vocal style associated with Eastern European cantorial performance. The resulting style allowed for highly virtuosic performances that moved between worlds, embracing the sublimity of Western art music and the mystical orientation and visceral emotionalism of the synagogue. 

It was at this moment of musical experimentation with modernity that the Gramophone era came into bloom. Cantors played a powerful role in the new media explosion. Star cantors such as Gershon Sirota (1874-1943) and Zawel Kwartin (1874-1952) made records that sold in the hundreds of thousands on both sides of the Atlantic, unifying a Jewish listening public that was increasingly dispersed in the period of mass migration to the United States. After the ravages of World War One that destroyed much of small-town Jewish life in Europe, cantorial music became increasingly focused on memorialization. The sound on the classic cantorial records of the 1920s present a sonic mélange of operatically tinged compositions that drew on art music, folkloric prayer sounds and Yiddish theater. Virtuoso singers used the highest registers of the male voice to powerful effect, sculpting performances to the time limitations of the 78-rpm record, tearing small pieces from synagogue ritual and reconfiguring them as stand-alone works of art and theatrical memory objects. In the era of cantorial mass popular culture (roughly 1903-1950), the role of cantors as artists flowered and performers with “outsider” identities were increasingly able to become arbiters of sacred sound, including non-observant men, African American cantors, and khazentes, female cantors who typically did not sing at the pulpit but rather performed cantorial pieces on record or as part of theater productions, sometimes cross-dressed as men. 

In some ways the flamboyant, ebullient and aesthetically focused cantors of the early 20th century in the United States may have been the victim of their own success in musically depicting the life of the immigrant generation. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the institutions of American Jewish life became focused on creating stability and order and the Jewish population moved from urban ghettos to suburbia. The sounds of cantorial performance were domesticated into a style that fit the new goals of community leaders. The cantorate in the United States became a unionized labor force and its members were trained in seminary conservatories, ensuring a homogenous approach to prayer music that was distinct from the focus on creativity and experimentation of gramophone-era cantors. In the 1970s and 80s new sounds of Jewish worship music, spurred by the innovations of guitar-strumming Jewish folk singers such as Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman, ushered in a new norm of sing-along participatory music as the preferred sound of liberal movement synagogues. Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox congregations for the most part never fully embraced the professional cantorial sound and continue to be mostly lay-led in their prayer services.

While the era of recording star cantors has passed, and the period of institutionally supported seminary-trained cantors also seems to be on the wane, reports of the death of cantorial music seem to be premature. In the Chassidic community, a small but impressive cohort of young singers including singers such as Yanky Lemmer and Yoel Kohn have embraced early 20th century recorded cantorial music as their style of choice, articulating a form of musical rebellion and artistic self-seeking through the sounds of century-old Jewish records. At the same time, Jewish experimental musicians from the opposite end of the communal spectrum also look to the cantorial legacy for inspiration, notably in the work of composer and singer Judith Berkson. My band, The Sway Machinery, falls somewhere in this mix as well. Newly accessible through instant digital streaming files on the internet, classic cantorial records continue to resonate, waiting to hail new listeners and to foment new forms of creative response that embrace the uneasy balance of the sacred and the aesthetic that defines cantorial sound. 

Jeremiah Lockwood is a musician and scholar, disciple of blues legend Carolina Slim, founder of The Sway Machinery, recent PhD from Stanford University. He is currently living in Brooklyn and pursuing research on Jewish liturgical music while performing and writing.