Ticket to a concert by “the famous Rovno cantor” Mordkhe Shvartsenberg in the “Butchers’ Synagogue,” Brody (now in Ukraine), n.d. (YIVO)

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The cantor, or ḥazan, is (usually) the professional prayer leader in the synagogue. In addition to chanting the service, he—until modern times cantors were invariably male—also functioned as an intermediary for the Jewish community in their prayers.

In Talmudic times, the term ḥazan denoted various synagogue officials; services were led by a sheliaḥ tsibur, a knowledgeable layman. The professional cantor, who was both appointed and paid, first emerged in the seventh century, when the increasing complexity of the liturgy and a relative decline in knowledge of Hebrew placed greater responsibility on the prayer leader, who, until the invention of printing, may have been the only individual with access to a siddur (prayer book).

By the early Middle Ages, cantors had gained in stature within the community and were granted tax exemptions and other privileges. Not only were cantors expected to possess fine voices and considerable musical ability, but they were also required to be well versed in halakhah (Jewish law) and to be of good character. Most important, the cantor was responsible for transforming the relatively fixed structure of ritual into an experience that was not only aesthetically pleasing but also highly emotional, expressing—particularly in Eastern Europe—the communal sorrows of the Jewish people. Much of the history of cantorial practice can be understood in the context of a fundamental tension between tradition and innovation, between the desire to preserve insular musical practices and the urge to adopt and mimic musical developments occurring outside the Jewish community.

Formation of an East European Style

Both musical and liturgical practices of East European cantors are to some degree derived from the medieval central German tradition (minhag ashkenaz). The psalmody, cantillation of the Torah and haftarah, Mi-Sinai nigunim (melodies that could not be altered and were common in rites of both Western and Eastern Europe), as well as the modes and melodies with which they were associated, thus reflect a certain degree of commonality between East and West despite significant variations based on local traditions.

Members of an ensemble known as the Vilna Cantors Quartet, which retained the name even after its expansion into a larger group of performers, Vilna. The photograph was taken in 1941 during the Soviet occupation of the city. (The Yaffa Eliach Shtetl Collection, www.shtetlfoundation.org, courtesy United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Mi-Sinai nigunim, which originated in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, are melodies for particular prayers. The term, meaning from Sinai, points to their antiquity and underpins the prohibition against their alteration. The establishment of a specifically East European musical tradition was partly the result of larger historical forces that led many West European Jews to immigrate to the East in the late Middle Ages and join the small pockets of Jews who were most likely of Byzantine origin. There is evidence that Jews were present in Hungary as early as the tenth century, although these early communities seem to have had few rabbis and teachers and may not have had cantors to lead prayer services.

Several important factors led to the development of an arguably coherent East European cantorial style. First, there was the influence of East European folk and liturgical music that penetrated both the tonal and vocal styles of the modes of nusaḥ (prayer chant) that were to become traditional in the synagogues. This is evident in the use of certain modal inflections, cadence patterns, and styles of vocal ornamentation that can be traced to Russian, Greek, and Armenian chants, as well as to secular folk songs, particularly from Hungary. Second, cantorial music served a special purpose not only in Jewish ritual observance but also in the emotional expression of the community. By the fifteenth century, as East European Jews began to experience more hostility from their neighbors, Jews’ devotion to piety, spirituality, and learning increased. Motivated by the belief that music had a profound effect on the emotions and behavior of listeners, highly expressive cantorial music, laden with features adopted from Eastern music, became an important outlet for the deep emotions and despair triggered by life in exile.

Intersections between East and West

By the middle of the seventeenth century, a variety of factors—including increased hostility in Eastern Europe and the growing economic attractiveness of the West—stimulated the westward migration of cantors and rabbis. These highly skilled individuals became a valuable and sought-after commodity by congregations in West European synagogues, providing a stylistic alternative to the more modern musical practices that had been adopted there. For example, in 1660 Ḥayim Zelig of Lwów became the cantor in Fürth. Several East European cantors were employed by the Jewish communities in Amsterdam, including Yeḥi’el Mikha’el (ca. 1700) and Leib Elyakim (1730).

Although many West European synagogues reformed the service by imitating their Christian contemporaries—adding an organ and choir, simplifying the ornate vocal style, and removing exotic, foreign-sounding melodies—East European synagogues resisted such influences. In the east, the Hasidic movement also profoundly influenced musical styles both inside and outside the synagogue, placing a greater emphasis on the relationship between wordless melody and the mystical, ecstatic experience that was manifest as well in the regular pattern of repetition that structured many Hasidic nigunim. Becoming a cantor was often the only possible artistic outlet for the vocally gifted and also provided a legitimate musical experience for congregants. Thus, while the West European tradition of Jewish liturgical music became more diffuse and more directly influenced by contemporary art music, East European cantors continued to develop their own unique style. Hungary, where Jewish musicians participated more fully in musical life, was an important point of confluence between the German practices and those adopted in Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. For example, in the wealthy city of Pressburg (now Bratislava), the German influence was more strongly felt, while the northeastern portion of Hungary absorbed Polish musical traditions.

Meshorerim and the Choir

Program for a concert by child cantors, 5-year-old Syama (Shimen) and 10-year-old Mulye (Shmul) Stolnits, in the Great Synagogue, Pinsk, 1936. The flyer describes them as “wonder children from Vilna.” Printed by Glouberman. (YIVO)

The tradition of using some sort of vocal ensemble or choir can be traced back to the third century, when the sheliaḥ tsibur was supported by one or two assistants. The practice seems to have become more standardized toward the middle of the sixteenth century in Ashkenaz, when the cantor was frequently accompanied by a boy soprano (or sometimes a voice trained in falsetto) and a bass, who were referred to as meshorerim. They usually sang in alternation with the cantor, providing not only contrasting sonority and dramatic support but also moments of vocal rest for the cantor.

Meshorerim acted as prompters for cantors and in some instances served as repositories of melodies. As was the case with cantors, they were paid by the community. The development of a more classically oriented style of choir music with organ in West European synagogues eventually spread to the East—particularly to the larger cities—in the form of khorshuls (choral synagogues), replacing the traditional sonorities resulting from the combined forces of the cantor plus the high and low voices of meshorerim. Not surprisingly, the reaction to choir plus organ was mixed. Some communities, such as Prosnitz (Moravia), embraced them enthusiastically, while others condemned the practice. Reputedly, the organ built for the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest in 1859 was sufficiently powerful and renowned to have been played by both Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saëns. In any event, the alternation between soloist and ensemble that developed through the use of meshorerim became a standard element of liturgical practice.

Training and Duties

Few East European cantors had access to formal musical education until the early nineteenth century, when a small number were enrolled in conservatories in Moscow, Berlin, or Vienna. The majority learned their craft as meshorerim, beginning their training in the service of famous cantors and eventually assuming their own positions after their voices had matured. A cantor’s first position might typically involve other duties, including serving as a ritual slaughterer or religious teacher. Although the most successful cantors eventually attained positions in which they could devote themselves entirely to the cantorate, others generally sought other forms of employment. For example, Dovidl Brod Strelisker (1783–1848) had no formal musical training and did not study with a cantor. He worked as an accountant and a merchant, voluntarily singing in synagogues during his travels. Ultimately he served as a cantor in Pest, exerting enormous influence over cantorial practices in Hungary. While some cantors were better known as solo singers, others were praised for their compositional abilities and their singing with choirs, thereby retaining their popularity despite limited vocal abilities. This was the case, for example, with Nissl Belzer (1824–1906), who was one of the most gifted composers and choir leaders of the nineteenth century.

Cantors did not officiate at every service. The professional cantor might serve only on alternate Sabbaths (singing the Kabalat Shabat service on Friday nights, leading Shaḥarit and Musaf on Saturday mornings) and would also officiate at important festival services, such as the first and second days of Passover and the principal services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Although every leader was expected to be highly knowledgeable about the ritual and to chant prayers with the appropriate nusaḥ, cantors were also expected to adhere to a higher level of artistry as well as emotional intensity, to treat the texts with greater freedom and expressivity, and to use more elaborate virtuosic display, often absorbing influences from contemporary music.

Dissemination of East European Cantorial Music

Cantor Pinḥas Minkowski (back row, sixth from right) and the boys’ choir in the Brody synagogue, Odessa, ca. 1910. (YIVO)

The somewhat minimal—and often anecdotal—biographical information we possess about East European cantors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries demonstrates both the vitality of the tradition in the major and minor Jewish centers and the relative mobility of the individual cantor. Cities such as Vilna, Częstochowa, Warsaw, Budapest, Odessa, Pressburg, Lwów, Kishinev, and Berdichev boasted important cantors. The men were highly sought after and in competition with one another, particularly in cities that had more than one synagogue. Cantors often adhered to somewhat different aesthetic values, inciting the admiration—or criticism—of rabbinic authorities and congregations. There were certain stylistic and liturgical practices that were associated with specific communities. For example, Cantor Shmuel Vigoda (1894–1990) [listen to a recording] wrote an unabashedly anecdotal history of “legendary voices” (Legendary Voices: The Fascinating Lives of the Great Cantors; 1981), in which he contrasts the more insular practices in the smaller community of Berdichev with the more cosmopolitan musical life of synagogues in Odessa. Nonetheless, attempts to identify a local style—say, a Hungarian versus a Polish style—are often frustrated by the fact that many cantors crossed national and cultural borders, moving from one prestigious synagogue to another, and absorbing various influences (both Jewish and non-Jewish) during their travels. For example, Yossele Rosenblatt (1882–1933) [listen to a recording], the son of a cantor from Kiev, spent five years in the synagogue in Pressburg before moving to Hamburg, and ultimately accepted a position in New York City, where he introduced elements of Hungarian and Russian styles.

Musical Styles and Composed Music

Since the cantorial musical tradition was largely oral and improvisatory, our knowledge of the style and repertoire is indebted to the increase in musical literacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one result of which was the preserving of music in manuscript form and, ultimately, the printing of Jewish liturgical music for consumption by a wider audience. Much of the earliest notated cantorial music from Eastern Europe was copied onto manuscripts that often omitted the names of composers or carried incorrect attributions. In many instances, the manuscripts resembled a patchwork of compositions by different composers, reflecting the shift from oral to written transmission. The works of certain composers did receive fairly widespread dispersal thanks to these manuscript sources, including those of Zeydl Rovner (born Yankev Shmuel Maragowski) [listen to a recording] and Nissl Belzer (Nisan Spivak), who were known both for their solo recitatives and choral compositions.

Cantor Gershon Sirota, ca. 1910. (YIVO)

With the publication of music written in conjunction with the Reform movement in the West—particularly the compositions of Salomon Sulzer (1804–1890) [listen to a recording] and Louis Lewandowski (1821–1894) [listen to a recording]—East European composers also began to compose and notate music for three- and four-part chorus. Choral music was usually metrically regular, serving as a response and punctuation to the cantor’s solo recitatives. Even in Eastern Europe, the choral writing gradually reflected greater adherence to Western precepts. It became customary to assign certain passages of a given liturgical text to the choir; occasionally even entire texts would be sung by them.

East European cantors who published important and influential collections include A. Dunajewski (1843–1911) [listen to recording], Eli‘ezer Gerovich (1844–1914) [listen to a recording], and Barukh Schorr (1823–1904) [listen to a recording] From 1881 to 1891, the Österreichisch-Ungarische Cantoren-Zeitung (Austro-Hungarian Cantors’ Magazine) provided a guide to Jewish music and professional life in Austria and Hungary. It also served as evidence of the increasing centralization and professional status achieved by cantors in Central Europe, as well as the somewhat more Western approaches adopted in Hungary. In Częstochowa, Avrom Ber Birnboym not only printed several volumes of liturgical music for the Sabbath and the High Holidays, but also published a journal for cantors, Yarḥon ha-ḥazanim (Cantors’ Monthly; 1896–1897), attesting to the fact that the cantorate was increasingly regarded by many as a profession.

Mosheh Koussevitzky, chief cantor of Warsaw's Tłomackie Street Synagogue, on a vacation in Otwock, a resort town in Poland, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

Despite differences in quality and outward features of the style, East European cantorial music reflects certain basic characteristics. Much of the ḥazanut (solo cantorial music) proceeds by relatively small melodic gestures, or “cells,” that are combined like building blocks to create tunes. These often undergo variations in terms of sequential treatment, inversion, and decoration, with modulations to new tonal areas that may or may not conform to Western rules of harmony. Frequent textual repetitions accentuate words or phrases singled out for their expressive potential. Different settings are often based on the same textual passage and undergo ornamentation, thus demonstrating a common set of approaches to a given liturgical text. Many settings also involve exaggerated changes in affect—abrupt shifts of key, tempo, and style—that dramatize the progression from sorrow to joy and vice versa, a technique with which the community readily identified. Surviving recordings provide some sense of the vocal techniques that were used. Certain cantors adopted both the Italian manner of vocal production and ornate style associated with the bel canto operatic repertoire. Nonetheless, a number of idiosyncratic vocal techniques were integral to the cantorial style, including turns, sigh motives, glottal stops, bended pitches and quarter tones, and the use of falsetto, which, when combined with modal inflections, created a musical surface with a highly intense emotional quality, one that was an essential part of East European spiritual life.

East European Cantorial Music in the United States

In the early years of the twentieth century, a number of factors encouraged the transplantation of East European cantorial music to non-European centers. With the invention of the phonograph, the cantorial skills of such great singers as Gershon Sirota [listen to a recording] and Zaval Kwartin [listen to a recording] reached a far wider audience, inspiring a number of cantorial concerts, including Sirota’s Carnegie Hall performance of 1926. Some cantors immigrated to the United States, publishing music for American congregations, and, in some cases, even returning to Europe, thus creating a vibrant musical and cultural exchange between European and American Jews. Many popular cantors—to the consternation of others less fortunate—developed careers that resembled those of touring soloists rather than prayer leaders. It is perhaps an accident of fate—and technology—that so many Americans gained an aural impression of the East European cantor through The Jazz Singer, the first talking film.

Since the 1990s, there has been a resurgence of Jewish liturgical music in many communities that were once thriving centers of Jewish life. The music sung in East European synagogues in the early twenty-first century, however, reveals many modern influences and does not necessarily represent a return to “authentic” practices of traditional East European Jewry.


[This list provides brief biographical identifications of well-known cantors who are not the subject of independent entries.]

Belzer, Nissl

(Nisan Spivak; 1824–1906). Born in Lithuania, Belzer changed his name after having served at the synagogue in Belz, Bessarabia. Although he reputedly had a weak voice, Belzer achieved considerable fame for his choral compositions and choral directing. He served in synagogues in Kishinev and particularly in Berdichev (1877–1906). He was inspirational as a teacher, with many of his students gaining prominence as cantors.

Gerovich, Eli‘ezer

(1844–1914). Born near Kiev, Gerovich was renowned as both a cantor and a composer. In addition to holding positions in Saint Petersburg and Rostov (1887–1912), he published two collections of synagogue songs: Shire tefilah (1897) and Shire zimrah (1904).[Listen to a recording.]

Kwartin, Zaval

(Zevulun; 1876–1952). Born in Ukraine, Kwartin held prominent positions in Vienna, Saint Petersburg, and Budapest before immigrating to the United States in 1920. From 1926 to 1937, he lived in Palestine. Like Gershon Sirota, he was one of the first cantors to make sound recordings. He also published three volumes of cantorial recitatives, including the two-volume Zemirot Zevulun (1928–32) and Tefilot Zevulun (1938). He also wrote an autobiography in Yiddish titled Mayn lebn (My Life; 1952). [Listen to a recording.]

Maragowski, Yankev Shmuel

(Zeydl Rovner; 1856–1943). Born in Radomysl, near Kiev, Ukraine, and named after Rovno, the town in which he first worked, Rovner was particularly known for his choral compositions. He held positions in Zaslav, Rovno, Kishinev, and Berdichev as well as in London and Lwów before immigrating to the United States in 1914. [Listen to a recording.]

Roitman, David

(1844–1943). Born in Doronzhink, Podolia (Ukraine), Roitman served as a chorister under Zeydl Rovner, going on to hold cantorial positions in Vilna (1909–1912), Saint Petersburg (1912–1917), and Odessa before immigrating to the United States in 1920. He was known for his recordings as well as his compositions, many of which survive in manuscript.[Listen to a recording.]

Rosenblatt, Josef

(Yossele; 1882–1933). Born in Biała Cerkiew (now Bila Tserkva, Ukraine), Rosenblatt held positions in Munkács (Hungary), Pressburg, and Hamburg before immigrating to the United States in 1912. He was a prolific composer of cantorial and choral compositions, including some nonliturgical works. He also recorded widely for both Columbia and Victor Records. [Listen to a recording.]

Segal, Pinchos

(Pinchik; 1895–1971). Born in Zhivotov, Pinchik (as he was called) served as a cantor in the synagogue in Saint Petersburg before immigrating to the United States in 1925. He is well known for his recordings, mainly on the Victor Records label. [Listen to a recording.]

Vigoda, Shmuel

(1894–1990). Born in Dobrzyń, Poland, Vigoda held cantorial positions in Budapest before moving to New York City in 1927. He was famous for his recordings, and also published a collection of lively anecdotes about himself and past and present cantors, entitled Legendary Voices: The Fascinating Lives of the Great Cantors (1981). [Listen to a recording.]

Suggested Reading

Hanoch Avenary, The Ashkenazi Tradition of Biblical Chant between 1500 and 1900: Documentation and Musical Analysis (Tel Aviv, 1978); Abraham Binder, Biblical Chant (New York, 1959); Philip V. Bohlman, The Music of European Nationalism: Cultural Identity and Modern History (Santa Barbara, Calif., 2004); Judit Frigyesi, “Jews and Hungarians in Modern Hungarian Musical Culture,” in Modern Jews and Their Musical Agendas, ed. Ezra Mendelsohn, pp. 40–60 (New York, 1993); Irene Heskes, Passport to Jewish Music (Westport, Conn., 1994); Artur Holde, Jews in Music: From the Age of Enlightenment to the Present (New York, 1959); Abraham Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (1967; rpt., New York, 1992); Sholom Kalib, The Musical Tradition of the Eastern European Synagogue, 2 vols. (Syracuse, N.Y., 2004); Macy Nulman, Concise Encyclopedia of Jewish Music (New York, 1975); Alfred Sendrey, Bibliography of Jewish Music (New York, 1951); Mark Slobin, Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate (Urbana, Ill., 1989); Samuel Vigoda, Legendary Voices: The Fascinating Lives of the Great Cantors (New York, 1981); Eric Werner, A Voice Still Heard: The Sacred Songs of the Ashkenazic Jews (University Park, Pa., 1976).