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The slow death of the cantor

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As synagogues evolve, the art of chazzanut is in danger of being lost WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

The Jewish New Year always sees our synagogues filled. The crowds meet all their old friends and wallow in the impassioned words of the rabbi. Afterward, the crowds vanish, and the synagogues stand largely empty till next year. And year by year, a growing void has been taking the place of a core part of synagogue tradition.

After 800 years of continuous development, the role of the synagogue cantor is disappearing, and with it the unique art of cantorial chant, known as chazzanut. It is under attack from all sides. Non-Orthodox synagogues are hiring cantors who have never known authentic traditional music. Meanwhile, among the Orthodox, untrained laymen are encouraged to lead services, supposedly because it is more “democratic” and encourages user-friendly sing-alongs rather than overblown solos – although the reality is that it saves money in harsh economic times, made harsher by declining membership in a secular age.

We live in an age of dumbing down, which is affecting all the performing arts. People are no longer willing to invest time and money in concentrated listening. Audiences for sophisticated art forms such as opera and symphonies are declining. The new chief conductor at the BBC Proms, arguably the world’s greatest classical music festival, has complained about arts funders who require new pieces to be very short. We now have five-minute operas, even one-minute concertos. Bite-sized music for people with short or no attention spans has replaced large-scale works that provide more rewards for the listener in proportion to the length of the piece. School administrators are cutting arts budgets.

Even our rabbis are telling us that synagogue services are “boring” – a comment that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Recently, the Montreal-raised, London, England-based Rabbi Naftali Brawer suggested that instead of a cantor leading synagogue services, we should have someone to “curate content-rich Jewish experiences” such as mindfulness sessions and Carlebach sing-alongs. (As it happens I have attended these kinds of activities – one Jewish mindfulness session was constantly interrupted by people eating, drinking, answering their phones and wandering in and out. As for Carlebach, how many people actually know his tunes well enough to sing along with them? Hint: there are now specialized itinerant Carlebach cantors who give teaching sessions.)

How significant is the unique art form of cantorial chant? It was in the musical DNA of every Jewish composer, from Meyerbeer and Offenbach to Mahler, Schoenberg, Weill and Bernstein. (It is reported that when Mahler was a little boy, he irritated the grown-ups in his local synagogue by insisting that they stopped talking during the cantor’s performance.) Every Jewish opera star grew up with chazzanut, from Leoni to Josef Schmidt and Jan Peerce, not to mention Friedrich Schorr, possibly the greatest Wotan of all time.

Synagogue chanting has been well described as “stylized folk song” – it has features of both folk song and classical art music, the simultaneous product of the masses and trained artists. It is constantly being refined and developed through selection by the community as a whole, giving us a body of melodies and modes that we call “traditional.”

Within synagogue chant there is a core repertoire of specific modes and motifs that identify each holiday and each ritual. This core, called nusach, operates like ragas in Indian music, or like the old church modes – each time of day and each holiday has its own distinctive sounds. Hundreds of years ago, any musical churchgoer would know what day it was and what the liturgy was celebrating just by hearing the music. This connection of music to time has now largely been lost in the church, but it still lingers in those synagogues that preserve nusach.

Some of the elements of the cantorial repertoire may be only a few years old, but alongside them are other elements that may be as much as 2,000 years old. The combined efforts of countless cantors and worshippers over the centuries have resulted in the polished, trusted end-product that we know today as our nusach. The poet James Merrill described this selection process in beautiful lines:  “a tone licked clean/ over the centuries by mild old tongues.”

Chazzanut is a form of music that everyone can participate in, and not a studied art form intended for passive listening, yet it is “stylized” in that certain features, such as the use of correct nusach – modes and motifs – remain fixed and are preserved by professionals. The cantor’s role is to be, in the words of Cantor Abraham Lubin, a past president of the Cantors Assembly, a “trustee of nusach.” The cantor has an important role: to summarize and direct the prayers of the congregation through his (or her) knowledge of the liturgy and through vocal mastery. We come together to share the moment in time and space – and this is precisely what the cantor can help us do, as he carries the thoughts and prayers that we cannot articulate for ourselves.

Throughout the centuries, cantors have provided inspiration and solace, especially in times of trouble. And through their improvisation, the cantors, like jazzmen, provide spontaneity and novelty. The cantor’s performance is best appreciated if the hearer knows what nusach to expect before the cantor starts to improvise around it. In this process, the age-old liturgy is refreshed at every performance.

Will authentic cantorial chant really die out completely? Perhaps not – we must hope that there will always be people who will keep it alive, just as there are people, out of touch with the 21st century, who still practise handwriting or care for wild plants. As Isaac Bashevis Singer said of Yiddish, please God, may it continue to die out for many years to come. So may it be for the role of the synagogue cantor. 


Charles Heller is the author of  What To Listen For in Jewish Music.