Friday, August 09, 2013

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Yossele Rosenblatt - a Leader in Chazanus

rosenblatThe name "Yossele Rosenblatt" defines the Golden Age of Jewish cantorial music. Hazzanut was a major element of the Jewish experience of the late 19th and early 20th centuries for all Jews, regardless of their philosophical bent or religious affiliation, and Jewish institutions, from Hassidic courts to Reform congregations, vied to incorporate the highest possible level of cantorial expression in their services.

Yossele Rosenblatt, or "Yossele" as he was known to his audiences and admirers, was recognized as the greatest hazzan of his era. He was a prolific and expressive performer who inspired his listeners through his love of Jewish liturgy  and ability to express that devotion.

Yossele was born in a small shetel in the Ukraine in 1882. He his family included many generations of hazzanim and Yossele's talent was evident from an early age. Yossele's father was a Ruzhiner Hassid who followed the Sadagora Rebbe. Yossele's father began to tour with his son while the boy was still quite young -- Yossele's father, also a hazzan, chanted the services but it was Yossele's singing which attracted the scores of admirers who thrilled to the unique talent that infused the services with strength and power. As part of their tours Yossele and his father sang for some of the greatest Hassidic Rebbes of the era.

By age 18 Yossele was recognized as a prodigy and was given the position as premier hazzan in Munckz, Hungary. From Munckz he moved to Pressburg Austria and in 1912 he immigrated to America where he accepted a position as the hazzan at the Ohab Zedek synagogue.

rosenIn America Rosenblatt's skills expanded. His incredible sense of melody combined with his strong tenor to infuse the ancient prayers with spiritual heights that the Jews, many of whom were new and struggling immigrants, cherished. His voice transitioned to a falsetto at the drop of a pin and his structured, meter style has influenced cantors of all streams of Judaism ever since. Rosenblatt's familiar Askanazi singing combined with soothing emotive expressions and a dramatic style that satisfied his audiences' nostalgia for the traditions of their homelands.

Yossele was best known for his ability to hit high notes at a high speed as well as for his cantillations which could cause his voice to break in the middle of an arrangement. In combination with "kretches" -- sobs -- he was able to convey passions and emotions in a way that other hazzans  -- indeed, all other singers -- could only dream about, and he brought the ancient tradition of hazzanut to new heights.

Rosenblatt was best known for his High Holy Days hazzanut which included compelling sections of operatic recitatives. In conjunction with the traditional liturgy Yossele's High Holiday hazzanut included snippets of folk melodies and large sections of improvised chanting. He created dramas that the congregation could feel as true supplications, enabling listeners to experience the spirituality of the Days of Awe in new and meaningful ways.
On many occasions Rosenblatt expressed the opinion that his voice was a gift from God and he would use it only in His service. The general director of the Chicago Opera, Cleofonte Campanini, was so struck by Rosenblatt's singing that he offered Yossele $1,000 per performance to sing the role of Eleazar in Halevy's La Juive opera. Campanili assured Rosenblatt that his religious sensibilities would be honored during the performances -- no Shabbat performances would be scheduled and the stage crew would adhere to all necessary religious strictures. Rosenblatt considered the offer but in the end, he demurred.  He did, however, feature in Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer, a 1929 film about the son of a cantor who turns to secular music.

More than one hundred and eighty pieces of Rosenblatt's work have been preserved. Among the best-known are Hasheim Malakh, Mi Shebeirakh, V'af Hu Hoyo Miskaven, Tal and U'vnucho Yomar. A number of leading Jewish music organizations including the Lowell Milken Archive have included Rosenblatt's music as part of their collections. Rosenblatt's rendition of Tehillim -- Psalms -- 126 was so popular that in 1948 the State of Israel considered it as a possible national anthem, though in the end HaTikva was chosen.


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