East European Chazanut



From earliest times, Chazanut pre-empted the focal place in the spiritual life of our People. Sacred Song was an integral part of our whole spiritual make-up. It was always the creative force which gave strength and substance to Jewish survival.Chazanut has dominated our religious life for the last two centuries. The Jew in the diaspora who prayed to the Almighty, always had good reasons to ‘pour out his heart’ before Him. The Chazan was for him, a most wonderful instrument – through him, he could express his aspirations, sorrows, and anxieties.

Most of the early Chazanut was founded upon ‘free spontaneous’ singing, improvised, while chanting the prayers in the Synagogue. The Chazan had to create his own music, and therefore he sang the prayers in musical terms, which appealed to the “Heart of the Jew”.

Most of the Ashkenazi-Chazanut arose in East-European countries, where it was influenced by the native folk-lore of the non-Jewish inhabitants. This is apparently demonstrated by the fact, that the dominating Key of Chazanut was, and still is, the MINOR. Later on, it developed into a special Minor Key which is known as the Minor “Freigish” mode. This has been so described by Jewish composers, but, in true musical terms, it is the “PHRYGIAN MODE”, which is a minor scale with augmented seconds. With this scale of music, we frequently sing our Shabbat Morning prayers, and it is characteristic as the “AHAVA RABBA” mode in Chazanut.

The “FREIGISH” or the “PNRYGIAN” mode stems from various sources: the Turks, the Tartars, the Greeks, according to some opinions – PHRYGIA was the name of a province of Ancient Greece, in Asia Minor.

Jews adopted this mode of music, for it suited their mood in time of distress. In Russia, Lithuania and Poland, the Nussach of “MINOR FREIGISH’ was readily accepted, and since then, has become a framework for Chazanim to express the peoples’ pain and suffering, heartfelt as it was.

Eastern Jewish Music was not known among the Jewish Communities in Germany and Austria. This kind of Chazanut did not appeal to them, since they were not to know persecution, unlike their brothers in Poland and the Ukraine, until the rise of Nazism, It is, for this reason, perhaps, that their style of music in prayer was completely different. They were rather jubilant in their Synagogual Music, and most of the Nusschaot of Prayer were composed in the “MAJOR”. The composers of Western Jewish Communities, like Lewandovski, Zulzer, Naumburg, were completely divorced from the sorrowful and mournful East European Jewish Music.

It is possible to assume that in an environment such as the Western Communities, the Chazanut of today, which we inherited from the great Cantors of the past, would not have survived. A classical example of this trend, are two compositions on the same text of “OMNOM KEIN” – the Yom Kippur Evening Piyut, the first, by Lewandovski in C Major, with a jolly, happy tune, which English Congregations enjoy singing, and the other, a composition by ZEIDEL ROVNER in C Minor, for bass-solo and choir – two different worlds in music, set to the same text.

Idelsohn writes: “It is remarkable that while the Berlin Chazan Baer wrote some sixty compositions of “LECHA DODI’ and “MI CHAMOCHA, he has not a single tune for texts like “AV HARACHAMIM”, “UMIPNEI CHATAEINU”, for each of which East European Chazanim, and especially SOLOMON KASHTAN, left a multitude of settings”.

In the course of time, certain ‘modes’ were created in the field of East European Chazanut. From there, various Nusschaot stemmed, and branched off into many motifs, or, melodious forms, which all composers used. Chazanim of old added many modulations and passages of coloratura which adorned the chanting of Synagogue Music, forming the Chazanut of today.

Thus, we find that the individual styles of great Chazanim of the past enriched and influenced the music of Chazanut. Their style was always emulated by their followers, just as many Chazanim of today emulate the great Chazanim of “The Golden Era”. The source of such styles is hard to pinpoint, but it is known that the ‘cradle’ of East European Chazanut was in the Ukraine, in the county of VOHLIN (that which gave Chazanim the ‘Vobliner style of Chazanut’). From thence came two styles of Chazanut, which influenced Chazanim all over the world.

One, was the style of SOLOMON KASHTAN, which found its recognition in the Northern and Western Communities of Europe, and the other style, which turned to South and East Europe, was created by the famous Chazan BEZALEL SHULSINGER.

BEZALEL SHULSINGER, born in 1790, lived in Odessa, and was known as “Bezallel Odesser”. In him, we find an excellent example of the development of Chazanut. It is obvious that his style of Chazanut was the foundation upon which many Chazanim and composers based their creations.

His was the singing of ’emotion with order’, one might almost say, “well-mannered Chazanut”; he was a genius of the realms of Ancient, Jewish Music, who never needed a teacher, and, perhaps, never had one. He was, himself, a source of NEGINAH – a man who imbibed his knowledge from the soul of his people, and traditional tunes from ancient folklore. He established a style of elegant and beautiful Chazanut.

His style of Chazanut was distinguished for its simplicity and grace. In 1826, he was already renowned as a Chazan of great stature, serving in the Great Shul of Odessa, and he became a legend in his lifetime. BEZALEL was a ‘motivator’ of a certain manner in improvised Chazanut. Many of his contemporaries emulated him, and considered themselves of his ‘school’. Though without any knowledge of musical theory, he composed Chazanut which was written down by his many pupils, who had acquired a knowledge of music, and they spread his Chazanut over all the countries of Eastern Europe.

The first Chazan whose compositions were written down and preserved was SOLOMON KASHTAN, born in 1781, in Old Constantin. His, was the greatest voice of his time. According to the testimony of his contemporaries, he possessed a coloratura which was inimitable, even by instruments. Kashtan’s style had more depth, thought and dignity, while Bezalel’s was the more lyrically sweet.

SOLOMON KASHTAN was a man of profound religious devotion and piety; a man of scholarly knowledge of Hebrew Literature. Officially, he was Chazan in Dubnov (Lithuania), but, throughout the year, he travelled all over Poland and Hungary to officiate as “Guest Chazan”. His performances were artistically overwhelming. No-one could resist being moved to tears, when he intoned tunes which expressed pain and suffering.

His son, ZVI WEINTROBE, who became Chazan in his own right, was, in his youth, the Choir-leader in his father’s Shul. He relates in his Memoirs: “When my father recited “HINENI HEONI MIMAAS”, everyone present became so excited, that one could see many with tears in their eyes”. “‘ I myself” ‘, he said,”although still in my twenties – a son of a ‘new generation’ – had to stop the Choir’s ‘humming’, until I could regain my composure”.

Kashtan had many pupils who acquired the “Art of Chazanut” from him. Among them, was his brother NACHUM LEIB KASHTAN, who was also Chazan in Bardichev. Although he did not possess such a warm and great voice as his brother, he had similar qualifications, and was a prolific composer of recitatives.

Tragically, they both died in the same month in 1829, in early middle age. It is impossible, therefore, to distinguish from the pen of which brother their innumerable compositions originated.

Although there were, and still are, a number of different styles in the Chazanut of Ashkenazim, each is merely a modification of the general East European pattern, with the melancholy Minor, and each new style of a well-known Chazan which has its own special embellishment and ‘personality signature’, is of the same evocative origin, the same traditional method, patterns, and recurring idioms.

Evidently, the pensive mood and the crying pathos with which East European Chazanut is always sung, is due to the long and unceasing grief and tribulation which our People has experienced, throughout its long history in that region.

(Taken from Cantors’ Review April/May 1974)