The following article looks at some of the great Orthodox cantors of yesterday and today. The non-Orthodox movements also have a rich heritage of great cantors, though they are omitted from this piece. Reprinted with permission from Jewish Action, the magazine of the Orthodox Union.
Of all the different types of Jewish music, hazzanut [cantorial music] may be the most difficult to appreciate. In a sense, it is the Jewish equivalent of classical music. Just as classical music is an acquired taste, hazzanut needs to be worked at to be understood. By becoming more familiar with it, one can learn to enjoy it.
At one time, before the advent of recordings and easy access to popular entertainment, a performance by a hazzan [cantor] and his choir was the major form of entertainment for Jewish people. But somehow, the line between entertainment and davening [praying] became blurred. Hazzanim started singing many elaborate pieces in synagogue that were composed for the concert stage but were never really intended to be used during davening.
During the first half of the 20th century, hazzanut enjoyed what has become known as its golden age. While Yossele Rosenblatt was one of the first of Europe’s great hazzanim to move to America, he was not the only hazzan of his time to do so. Scores of highly talented hazzanim davened [prayed] in shuls in New York and other major cities. Recordings and concerts proliferated, and many of the most famous pieces of hazzanut were composed in that era.
Today, even those who tend to avoid shuls where the chazzan gives lengthy performances can often sing or hum some famous cantorial melodies, such as “Sheyibaneh Beit Hamikdash,” “Shehecheyanu,” and “Retzei.”
You might like, therefore, to learn to appreciate hazzanut outside of a shul setting, through recordings and concerts. There is a vast range of recordings by virtually all the great hazzanim of the past century that you may sample to discover your preferences.
Listen to the music a few times before you decide if you really like it. See how it reflects your own understanding of the words of the prayer. Or just enjoy it for the vocal artistry of the performer. Remember that–as in any art form–not every piece is of the same quality, and you have to learn how to be discriminating.