Chazzan Wolf Bogzester – affectionately called Vevel in Yiddish and better known as William in the U.S.A. – was born June 6th 1904 in Briceni, Bessarabia (modern day Moldavia). Briceni had a population that consisted for over 95 percent of Jews at that time, so he was really steeped in the environment of a pre-WWII shtetel. Like many Chazzonim of that era he started his career as a chorister. At the age of 7 he started as boy alto in choirs in the city of Stanislav. Here he sang with the famous Chazzonim Skolnik, Sherman and Shaposhnik. Soon thereafter he was brought to Vienna, where he sang with the big names of that metropolis, like Basser, Morgenstern and Fuchs.
Since the age of 9 he studied to play the violin and in Vienna he graduated from the Acadamy of Music. After his graduation he started to study voice with some of Vienna’s acclaimed teachers (among them Professors Wolf, Suffrien-Cohn and Weiss). He was initially trained to become an opera singer, but because of his profound knowledge on Hebrew and Jewish liturgy his teachers advised him to become a Chazzan. His studied cantorial music with Margolies, Muller and Frankel, among others.
Due to existing Austrian laws at that time, as an alien he wasn’t allowed to hold a steady position as Chazzan in Vienna. As an alternative Chazzan Bogzester sang in several synagogue choirs, functioned as choir director and was a successful teacher of music. As violinist he was also a member of a local Vienese orchestra, the ‘Wiener Tonkünstler Orchester’. When WWII broke out his career was interrupted by Nazi occupation. Luckily Chazzan Bogzester was able to survive the Holocaust.
After WWII Jewish life in Europe wasn’t the same anymore and Velvel, who was still in the prime of his life, decided to leave his beloved Vienna and build a new life and career in America. In the U.S.A. Chazzan Bogzester officated at the High Holydays around the New York area for several years. Notwithstanding the fact he posessed a heroic tenor voice of great heft and could have had a successful career as a Chazzan (or opera singer for that matter!), once again his main focus would be elswhere.
It turned out he was also a very gifted composer and his compositions became sought-after amongst his colleagues. Many Chazzonim appreciated his work and sang his compositions at their concerts. Chazzan Bogzester was a very active member of Der Khazonim Farband and there weren’t many concerts of the organization on which there wasn’t one of his compositions sung. He even made special choral pieces for the choir of the organization. He also published a complete Maariv service, which was well-received amongst fellow Chazzonim. His most famous concert piece is probably his ‘Habeit Mishomayim Ur’eih’, which is still sung on many concerts and recordings.
Besides his work as a professional composor Chazzan Bogzester once again picked up his job as a music teacher. He had his own studio at Carnegie Hall, where he taught Nusach and general music theory. Here he gave many young Chazzonim the solid fundament to become a good Chazzan.
Regardless of his bad experiences during WWII Chazzan Bogzester never lost his love for Vienna. On many occasions you could see him strole down the streets in New York with an Alpine hat like a Tyrolean dandy. He was a small, strong-bodied man with a ruddy face and a cheerful character. This resulted in him getting the nickname ‘Willie Best’ from his colleagues.
Chazzan Bogzester died quite suddenly of a heart attack in 1970, just before his 66th birthday. His striking personality has been missed ever since, but his legacy lives on through the beautiful music and accomplished students he left behind.
(Many thanks to Jeffrey P. Lieuwen for this biography)