Shlomo Pinkasovitch was born on February 12th 1886, in a small village in Ukraine, into a poor but scholarly Chassidic family (who claimed descent from Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, the friend and follower of the “Baal Shem Tov”).Shlomo’s father was an itinerant Hebrew teacher, who died when Shlomo was barely nine years old. To help his widowed mother, and her six children, he left home and took service as a chorister with a travelling chazan, with whom he stayed some three years, learning the traditional Cantorial style thoroughly, and making a name for himself as a boy soprano. Many well-established Cantors of that time vied for his services, and he was able to obtain additional work at various Synagogues, and thus earn extra fees which, together with what he made as a permanent chorister, he dutifully sent home.
At the instigation of an uncle, an educated man, who wished to help his nephew in his career, the boy applied for a Scholarship at the Imperial Conservatoire of Odessa, and after a gruelling examination, was granted free tuition and other necessities, and entered the Conservatoire as a full-time student of singing and composition. To obtain such a Scholarship was a great achievement for a Jewish applicant! Shlomo stayed at the Odessa Conservatoire until his graduation, at the age of eighteen. At the age of nineteen, Shiomo set off for Vienna, together with his newly-married bride.
For two years the young student worked under a great singing-master, Anton Habock, but then, the little money he had brought with him, gave out. In an interview with Gustav Mahler, then Director of the Vienna Imperial Opera, the great composer spoke encouragingly of Shlomo’s talents, but was unable to give him work. Shlomo had always loved the music of the Synagogue, and, indeed, had never abandoned it for even as a student of music he often sang at Synagogue Services, either as a choral soloist, or taking a full Cantorial Service.
A small Synagogue in Vienna had need of a Chazan, and he applied, and was immediately engaged. It was a small beginning, to what was to become a first-class Cantorial career.
In 1912, Shlomo (who now called himself Salomo) was appointed Chief Cantor of a famous Synagogue in the old Hapsburg-Austrian Empire, the ‘Tempel’ of Czernowitz, a large town on the Russian and Rumanian border. His fame began to spread, all over Austro-Hungary and Germany. In April, 1914, he made his first recordings at the “Schwartzer Adler’ Hotel in Czernowitz. Unfortunately, no trace of these early records can now be found, despite diligent enquiries at HMV, which made them.
The First World War interrupted the beginnings of the brilliant young Cantor’s career. As he was technically a Russian subject, he was interned in a wretched camp, and would have languished there, but for the intervention of the Governor of Upper Austria, who noticed the delicate-looking internee and enquired about him. Having heard him sing, the Governor granted him his liberty, and gave him a free ticket to Vienna.
In Hungary, things were much better, and Pinkasowitch decided to apply for a post in that happier country, and before long, was engaged as the Cantor of the great Miscolc Synagogue, where he remained for some five years, loved and admired by all, Jew and Gentile alike. Unhappily, all this changed overnight, with the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire. After a while, the small, but highly respected Adass Yisraei Synagogue of Berlin advertised a vacancy for a Cantor. Pincasowitch applied, and was immediately offered the post.
His fame grew rapidly, aided first, by a few recordings for the small “Homochord” Company, but very soon for the top-ranking “Deutsche Grammophon Gesseischaft”, for whom he recorded three hundred or so pieces! These liturgical records were sold all over Europe and the U.S.A., as well as Africa and Australia; wherever Jewish music-lovers could he found, who valued the style and singing of a great Cantor.
In 1921, Pinkasovitch visited England for the first time, singing in London and Manchester. It was there that the eminent critic of the “Manchester Guardian”, Samuel Langford, wrote a long and enthusiastic article about him. The name of “The Jewish Caruso” had often been given to Pinkasovitch by admirers and connoisseurs. Langford agreed that this name was not too extravagantly bestowed. “He is an abnormally beautiful singer and has greatly enlarged our ideas as to what the voice of man can do.”
Back in Berlin, with the inflation, life had suddenly become unbearable. Pinkasovitch was only too glad to accept the offer of the New Synagogue of Manchester, whose Cantor he became for the next three years. Then a ‘call’ came to him from South Africa – – the post of the Wolmararis Street Synagogue – – a glittering prize in the Cantorial World – – in Johannesburg. Everything was perfect: climate, status, permanence secured by a life-contract, yet Pinkasovitch could not stay. He felt cutoff from Europe, and the centres of Jewish Culture, and had to return.
Had he known what was to befall Europe, and, above all, Germany, he would have hesitated to accept the Cantorial post at the “Alte Synagog” of Berlin, in 1928. But no-one could have foreseen the rise of Nazism then, and Pinkasovitch felt happy and honoured to lead the Service each Sabbath in the famous Synagogue, which was the oldest in Berlin, and could boast of Levandowski as one of its choir-masters. His singing was now at the height of its power. A German musicologist praised, in a newspaper article, the ‘handful of natural singers’ of every generation, He listed such luminaries as Caruso, Gigli, Maria Ivogun, Chaliapin, and ‘the Jewish Cantor Pinkasovitch’.
But again, all this was to end quite soon: The reign of terror of the Nazis began: It was fortunate for Pinkasovitch, that while living under British rule, he had taken out naturalisation papers for himself, his wife and family (three daughters and a son). Because of this, he was able to return to England unhindered by the Nazi rulers.
After the war, Pinkasovitch took up his last post: not this time as a Cantor, but as lecturer in the newly constituted Department of Chazzanut at Jews’ College, a post he held from 1947 to his death in 1951. Pinkasovitch lived in a troubled time of world history. Two World Wars and the Nazi persecution robbed him again and again of peace and security. But it could not rob him of his greatest reward, the satisfaction of bringing worshippers everywhere a reminder of past greatness, and the hope of even more future greatnesss,through his inspired chanting of the Music of the Synagogue.
the Cantors’ Review, November 1972)