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Cantorial Revival

By Jeremiah Lockwood

Published Oct 7, 2022

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Cantorial Revival (Part 1/8)

From the left: promotional photos of cantorial recording stars Joseph Shlisky, Pierre Pinchik, and Mordechai Hershman. Courtesy of YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. 

 

In the early 20th century, a Jewish music phenomenon emerged in Europe and the United States. Cantorial music, referred to as khazones in Yiddish, took on the status of a popular art form through its presentation outside of the synagogue on records, radio and in concerts. The cantorial “golden age” was represented by record stars such as Zawel Kwartin (1874-1952), Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) and Pierre Pinchik (1900-1971), whose artistry blurred the line between ritual and art, the sacred and aesthetics. Their dramatic musical style called upon sounds of the Eastern European Jewish past reconfigured as a form of art music, performed with an athletic virtuosity that inspired fevered fandom. These cantors fed the imagination of Jewish listeners who were hungry for a sonic representation of themselves, their imagined past, and their aspirations towards the sublime in music.
 

The gramophone era style was largely sidelined over the course of the 20th century, both by the newly professionalized and unionized cantors in the United States who sought to establish a more rational approach to prayer music than the dramatic intensity of “star” cantors, and by the tastes of American Jews gravitating towards music associated with the “mainstream,” away from sounds of Jewish ethnic particularism. These historical trends have shaped a decline narrative that influences the way cantors and fans think about the music. 

  

At the turn of the 21st century, a remarkable new turn in Jewish music has come into focus: cantorial revival. This music scene is located in Orthodox communities such as Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn, and its key players are young Chassidic singers. In the ultra-Orthodox community, older forms of Jewish music have largely been displaced by pop-music that sounds a lot like what you would hear on the mainstream radio, but with lyrics in Yiddish or prayer book Hebrew, tailored to pious religious themes. A small but vibrant group of young singers have taken up the style of pre-World War Two cantorial music as their art form of choice, performing tracks recorded almost a century ago as their key repertoire. While some of these singers grew up in families with elder cantors they could learn from, other artists discovered the music directly from old records. In what might look to outsiders like an environment that discourages self-expression, these artists delve into the past to find their own expressive style. 

Cantorial Revival (Part 2/8)

From the left: Brooklyn-based cantorial revivalists Yoel Kohn, Yoel Pollack, Shimmy Miller and Zevi Steiger. Photo credit: Tatiana McCabe. 

 

Key artists in this style include Yanky Lemmer, Yoel Kohn and Motti Boyer. Lemmer is perhaps the best-known cantor under the age of 40. He began his cantorial career posting YouTube videos online, and soon found his talent attracting the attention of an international audience. 

Cantorial Revival (Part 3/8)

Above: Yanky Lemmer sings Samuel Malavsky’s “Shomea Kol Bichiyos”.

Cantorial Revival (Part 4/8)

Above: Samuel Malavsky’s original, recorded in the 1950s with his famous family choir. 

Cantorial Revival (Part 5/8)

Above: Yoel Kohn sings David Roitman’s “Hashkiveinu”.

Cantorial Revival (Part 6/8)

Above: David Roitman’s original, recorded in 1925.

 

While the cantorial revival is focused in the Orthodox world, gramophone-era cantorial repertoires have inspired artists across boundaries of identity. Another key figure in Jewish music exploring the cantorial archive is experimental composer, avant garde vocalist and cantor, Judith Berkson. 

Cantorial Revival (Part 7/8)

Above: Judith Berkson sings her own “V’shamru”, that creatively uses the sounds of golden age cantors as the basis for her composition. 

 

The recording star cantors of the 1920s imagined themselves as defenders of the folkloric Jewish past, endangered by the transformations of modernity. At the same time, cantorial music itself is deeply modern, twisting and transforming elements of old Jewish sound into art and personal expression. Cantorial revivalists of the 2020s walk in the footsteps of the old masters, transforming sounds of the past with new energy to address new needs for expressive power and soulful truth telling. Their music is a revolutionary new step in Jewish music, commandeering the skill and sound of an old sacred art form and harnessing it to the needs and energy of the contemporary moment. 

Cantorial Revival (Part 8/8)

Above: A cantorial jam session in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 

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Jeremiah Lockwood is a scholar and musician, working in the fields of Jewish studies, performance studies and ethnomusicology. He is the founder of the band The Sway Machinery and is currently a Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. His work engages with issues arising from peeri...

Reflections

For everyone: 

Does music change meaning when it is transplanted from one historical context to another? How? 

For musicians: 

Do musicians interact with records in ways that are different from other listeners? How? 

For everyone: 

What can we learn about music from the past from the way that musicians AND listeners interact with the music today? 

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