Sunday, August 04, 2013

Yossele Rosenblatt: A Legend in Jewish Music

Guest Post By Chaim V.

The Golden Age of cantorial music is almost synonymous with the name "Yossele Rosenblatt."  Yossele Rosenblatt, or "Yossele" as he was popularly known, was one of the greatest, most prolific and best known chazans of the early 20th century. His passionate renditions of Jewish liturgy inspired audiences throughout the world. Although he was one of the foremost tenors of his day he chose to express himself within traditional Jewish worship and spurned lucrative offers that would have brought him to perform in secular venues. Rosenblatt's compositions and style of chazanus dominated synagogue prayer of his era. Almost every study of the American Jewish experience including the Lowell Milken Archive contains an in-depth look at Rosenblatt's work.

Yossele Rosenblatt was born in 1882 in Tservka, a small shtetel in the Ukraine. He was the scion of a long line of Chassidic chazzanim and his talent was evident from an early age. Rosenblatt performed in front of many of the great Chassidic Rebbes of the 19th century, including the Sadagora Rebbe, where his incredible sense of melody and strong tenor combined to infuse Jewish liturgy with a tremendous sense of strength and power.

Rosenblatt was the premier chazan of Munckz, Hungary at age 18 but needed a larger venue for his talents. He became chief cantor of Pressburg, Austria but left in 1912 to immigrate to America. Yossele accepted the position as cantor at the Ohab Zedek synagogue where his skills brought him great fame. He had a unique ability to transition from a normal voice to a falsetto and he developed a structured, metered style that continues to be the standard of cantors in all streams of Judaism today. Jews of all religious classes, affiliations and backgrounds lauded his singing and the new Eastern European Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries satisfied their nostalgia for the traditions of their homelands through Rosenblatt's familiar Ashkanazic style,soothing emotive expressions, and dramatic delivery.

Rosenblatt could hit high notes at a remarkably high speed. His cantillations and would often cause his voice to break in the middle of an arrangement in a "kretch" -- a sob -- which allowed him to convey the passion of the moment. Yossele had numerous admirers, including some of the greatest operatic stars of his day, who admired the rhythm and pitch of his pieces. Many operatic stars copied Rosenblatt's soprano falsetto which eased the strain on a singer's overworked voice.

Rosenblatt was especially renowned for his High Holy Days chazzanut.  Listeners found these pieces to be compelling sections of operatic recitatives. Yossele's High Holiday performances also included  snippets of folk melodies and large sections of improvised chazzanut that allowed listeners to hear and feel the spirit of the Days of Awe in new and meaningful ways, creating dramas that the congregation could experience as true supplications.

Rosenblatt said, on many occasions, that his voice was a gift from G-d and he would use it only in His service. Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Opera, was so struck by Rosenblatt's artistic ability that he offered Yossele $1,000 per performance to sing the role of Eleazar in Halevy's opera La Juive. Campanili offered to ensure that none of Rosenblatt's religious sensibilities would be compromised during the performances -- there would be no Shabbat performances and the staff and other performers would adhere to all necessary religious strictures. Rosenblatt considered the offer but in the end, he demurred, repeating his long-held belief that his voice was a gift from G-d and he would use it only in His service.

More than one hundred and eighty pieces of Rosenblatt's work have been preserved. Among the best-known are Mi Shebeirakh, Hasheim Malakh, V'af Hu Hoyo Miskaven, Tal and U'vnucho Yomar. Rosenblatt's rendition of Tehillim 126 was so popular that in 1948 the State of Israel considered it as a possible national anthem for the new State, though in the end HaTikva was chosen. 


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