Emotion, Beauty and Meaning in East-Ashkenazi Cantorial Improvisation, 1600-1900
Dr. Michael Lukin
The means of expression of Eastern European cantorial improvisation crystallized in all probability during the first half of the seventeenth century, and from then until the twentieth century this art existed mainly in oral traditions. Despite the lack of musical documentation from the early modern period and the scarcity of literary testimonies, analysis of later recordings can decipher the historical contexts of its emergence and its aesthetic foundations. East-Ashkenazi improvisation was the product of encounters between different musical worlds; first and foremost – between the focus on the individual listener, inspired by Polish baroque, and the aesthetic ideal of overcoming time limits, expressed in various genres of Eastern European and Ottoman musical traditions. The cantor, along with the klezmer, is perceived in Eastern Ashkenazi society as an artist whose work is significant because it evokes an awareness of emotion, and hence, of the inner world and of eternal time.
Cantor Sholom Katz (1915, Oradea, Transylvania – 1982, Washington), “Av horachmim,” Lest We Forget, Vinyl LP, Jewish Music Documentary Society, Westminster – XWN 18646, 1955
A cantor from the age of bar mitzvah, Sholom Katz was ordained as a rabbi in Budapest in 1933, and at the age of 20 he was appointed chief cantor in the Great Synagogue in Chisinau (a community of about 50,000 people). A Nazi officer who heard his voice let him escape (apparently from the ghetto), and so Katz survived. After the Holocaust he served as cantor in Bucharest and Budapest. At the last Zionist Congress (1946) he sang the prayer “El Male Rachamim” in an extended version that he composed, and for this recording he won the prestigious Le Chant Du Monde award (1950). This version of the prayer is used to this day in Holocaust Day ceremonies in Israel. Katz emigrated to the United States (1947) and served as a cantor at Beit Shalom and Tiferet Yisrael in Washington.