The Jewish Music Conservatory in Riga

I have come to a strange place in life where I would choose to read a 90-year-old book written by eccentric old men in a language I barely understand instead of almost any other literary material, even forsaking the pleasant escape of a well-written novel. The book I have before me is Di geshikhite fun khazunes (The Story of Cantorial Music), a volume published by the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association of America and Canada (der khazonim farbund)  in 1924 in celebration of their 30th anniversary. Reading it late at night recently, I suddenly heard my grandfather’s voice singing loudly in my ears, as if someone had snuck up on me and put a pair of ghost headphones over my ears.

Di geshikhte fun khazunes is a messy potpourri of quasi-scholarly articles, biographical sketches of members of the association and a long section of full page notices of congratulations that includes some wonderfully kitschy Yiddish advertisements (Maxwell House—gut bizn letzten trupen). The essays about Cantorial music include a lengthy exposition about the history of Cantorial music that consists primarily of speculative writing about the music of the Biblical Israelites. Only in its last paragraphs does the essay begin to address the Cantorial music revolution of the 19th century, when the modern tradition began. The biographical section features over 120 sketches of the current roster of American Cantors, ranging from well-known artists like Yossele Rosenblatt and Hershmann, to obscure provincial Cantors. Regardless of their degree of renown, the Cantors have a strong similarity in their life stories: born in small cities in the Pale of Settlement or the eastern provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they were often the sons of Cantors or baal tefilos (amateur prayer leaders) who began their musical careers very young as star choir members or prodigy “boy Cantors.” The Cantors were heavily steeped in the musical sub-culture from childhood and were well prepared by early life experience to excel in the craft.

One of the essays included in Di geshikhte stood out and I took the time to translate it in its entirety. The essay is entitled “The Jewish Conservatory in Riga—its Significance for Synagogue Music Culture” and was written by one Professor Bernard Kvartin (a relation of the famous Cantor Zawel Kwartin? Unknown.).  The essay goes into some detail about the existence of a Jewish music conservatory and research institution that briefly graced the small and impoverished Jewish community of Riga, and foregrounds its significance as the first ever conservatory where Cantors were trained in a formalized setting. The Jewish Conservatory was in existence from 1920-23, almost 30 years before the American Seminary-based Cantorial training institutes were established. In the essay, Kvartin focuses on the status of Jewish music in relationship with European classical music. He sees the training of Cantors in music theory and historical analysis as being an essential development in conferring legitimacy on the field of Jewish music.

The school’s curriculum featured Jewish composers of the Russian Jewish Folk Music Society, such as Yoel Engel, the musician and ethnographer whose expeditions to Jewish small towns in the Pale of Settlement led to the collection of an incredible treasure of Jewish folk music. In the Jewish Music Conservatory, contemporary composers whose works syncretize motifs from “folk” sources and were held up as exemplars of Jewish music. The founder of the school, Solomon Rosowski, was a student of the famed Russian composer Rimsky Korsakov. Rosowski’s curriculum for his school showed the influence of the Russian Nationalist composers and their ideological use of “folklore” as an instrument of national identity building. Rosowski was himself the son of a Cantor and in later years became a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantorial school. His appeal to European “high art” to legitimize the project of creating a Jewish music worthy of formal study parallels the debate within the Cantorial community about what constitutes dignity and aesthetic value in the art of liturgical music.

Interestingly, the art of improvisation (zogen) was also one of the skills required of the Cantor-students. Professor Kvartin makes the amusing claim that the school taught a “definitive system” for instilling in aspiring artists the skill of improvisation. The assertion that improvisatory skill in a folk idiom can be taught in a formalized environment is provocative and fascinating. This idea runs in the face of the narrative gleaned from the Cantors’ biographies that detail years of oral training and unconscious cultural learning that imparted the skill of improvisation. This discussion of “learning improvisation” brings to mind Richard Hadlock’s meditation on Louis Armstrong in his history Jazz Masters of the Twenties (1956). Hadlock conceives of Armstrong’s gifts as an improviser as stemming from the intersection of countless hours of practice with a powerful facility for emotional memory that allowed the trumpeter to imbue his musical fancies with an affective core that would be legible to a jazz listener. It is not clear to me what kinds of formal educational experiences could replicate the lived experiences of a musical subculture. However, it is notable that the curriculum of the Jewish Conservatory recognized the importance of improvisational skills and sought to include them in the course of study rather than replacing older Cantorial practices with skill sets from out of the Euroclassical tradition.

We can’t glean much from this little essay about what curricula were in place in the short lived Jewish Conservatory that aimed to impart knowledge about the art of improvisation. However, it is fascinating to see how persistent the tension between formalized, conservatory-based education and oral learning has been in the training of cantors.

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