Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Yossele Rosenblatt - An All Time Chazan (Guest Post)

Yossele Rosenblatt died in 1933, but his style of hazzanut continues to inspire and guide cantors from all streams of Judaism until today. No other hazzan has ever attained the popularity and fame that Rosenblatt achieved. He retained his strong commitment to observant Judaism and was uncompromising about his beliefs -- he always appeared wearing his large black yarmulke and the frock coat that distinguished him as a religious Jew -- yet he created a legacy that continues to enthrall Jews from all streams of the Jewish world. 

Yossele was born in 1882 in the Ukraine. His father was a hazzan who often performed in the court of the Sadagora Rebbe. While Yossele was still quite young he would travel to the Rebbe's court and sing with his father. As Yossele grew older more and more people came to hear the young prodigy. 

At age 18 Rosenblatt was given the position of hazzan in Munkacs, Hungary and from there he moved to Pressburg where his creativity as a composer began to develop. His fame grew and people traveled for great distances to hear him perform. His style was influenced by his Hassidic background but he wasn't averse to stretching his magnificent tenor to new ranges and heights. The trademark Yossele "kretch" -- sob -- which would later become his trademark was already evident in these early pieces. The first recording of his singing was made in 1905 and he continued to develop, both as a composer and as a singer. Rosenblatt moved to Hamburg where he lived for five years and, in 1911 he immigrated to America with his family where a job as hazzan of the Ohab Zedek synagogue in New York was waiting for him. 

Once Rosenblatt had situated himself at Ohav Zedek his fame increased. In addition to his position at the synagogues, the New York Jewish community requested his presence at memorial and philanthropic events. The New York Times featured him in an article, writing that "The cantor is a singer of natural powers and moving eloquence" and his prayers and chants moved the largely non-religious audience which "listened with uncovered heads." 

After World War I Rosenblatt performed throughout the United States for relief efforts that were aimed at helping European Jews who had been left homeless. When he sang in Chicago Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Opera, came to hear him. Campanini was captivated by Rosenblatt and offered him $1,000 per performance if he would sing the role of Eleazar in the La Juive opera. Campanini promised Rosenblatt that there would be no need for him to compromise any of his religious beliefs. No Shabbat performances would be scheduled, the company would obtain kosher food for him, Rosenblatt wouldn't be asked to shave his beard or alter his appearance in any way and he wouldn't be asked to sing with women. 

There's no doubt that Rosenblatt was tempted by the offer but in the end, he demurred, feeling that by moving to the non-Jewish stage he might compromise his principles. He later explained that "The cantor of the past and the opera star of the future waged a fierce struggle within me." He felt that his voice was a gift from God and he wanted to use his voice only in God's service. 

Rosenblatt is best remembered as a hazzan who chanted in a structured, metered style. This is the style which continues to influence the hazzanut of all streams of Judaism till today. Rosenblatt fused a dramatic style with soothing emotive expressions which included high notes that were hit at unusually high speeds. He used cantillations which caused his voice to break in the middle of arrangements and transformed his voice into a falsetto which created the famous Rosenblatt sobs to convey deep emotions. 

Rosenblatt was particularly famous for his High Holiday hazzanut. He incorporated sections of operatic-like recitatives, snippets of folk melodies and large sections of improvised chanting into his high holiday repotoire. This drew overflow crowds to his Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. Rosenblatt wanted to create musical dramas that would allow listeners to experience the liturgy as true Days of Awe supplications. A number of his recordings have been preserved and some are available on the Lowell Milken Music Archive.

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