Katchko: 3 Generations of Cantorial Art, compiled by Deborah Katchko Gray
Edited and Produced by Velvel Pasternak
Tara Publications 2009, Companion CD included
Review by Robert S. Scherr
What if you were able to sit at the side of a master hazzan, Adolph Katchko, one of the g’dolim of the twentieth century’s Golden Age of hazzanut? While we cannot have that opportunity literally in the twenty-first century, his granddaughter, Hazzan Deborah Katchko Gray, brings us both the notes and the ta’am of this great hazzan and teacher through the composite work under review. Hazzan Gray has carefully transcribed original compositions by Adolph Katchko, and interpretations thereof by his son— her father, Theodore Katchko — so that generations oiohavei hazzanut can experience their artistry. Adolph Katchko was a master ba’al nusah, a natural improviser within the traditional prayer modes. Yet this book-and-CD should be valued not just for its transcriptions-and-recordings of the musical notes; it offers a family reunion as well as an important treasure of hazzanut.
The book’s opening pages contain Hazzan Gray’s personal reflections on her father’s and grandfather’s hazzanut. She transports us back half a century through Katchko’s original writing along with many pages of accolades from appreciative colleagues, through which we come to know both the heart and mind of this revered hazzan and teacher. This section includes family pictures, plus articles her grandfather wrote. There’s even a priceless undated photo of Adolph being mock-coached by Hazzan Zavel Kwartin atop a mountain in White Sulphur Springs, New York.
Other remembrances give contemporary readers loving insights into the meaning and impact of Adolph Katchko’s art. In an introductory Appreciation, Hazzan Jack Mendelson recalls making a hospital visitation to someone in quite frail condition who, when told “the cantor is here to see you,” looked up and said one word: “Katchko.”
Adolph Katchko was a child prodigy as both a singer and conductor. He studied in Berlin under Alexander Heinemann, and later in Vienna under Adolph Robinson and Arthur Frank. He served as Chief Cantor at the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw, and later— in the same capacity— for the Jewish community of Stenamangor, Hungary. He emigrated to New York City in 1921, occupying various pulpits until he was called to the Conservative Ansche Chesed Congregation in Manhattan, where he served for 24 years until his retirement.
One of the articles in this volume, “Changing Conceptions of Hazzanut,” originated as an address delivered before the Second Annual Convention of the Cantors Assembly in 1949. It analyzes the evolution of hazzanut from the old-fashioned zogakhts (meticulous treatment of each word as a separate musico-rhetorical entity) to a more modern style that features “the long singing phrase” Yet he cautions that as one sings longer and more musically complex phrases, one must carefully guard the grammatical syntax of the prayer texts, lest a prayers’ meaning be lost in the quest for musical purpose alone:
Modern Conservative and Reform effort to utilize the correct nusah [particularly] in those synagogues where the service is largely a silent one, where praying is done b’lahash. In such places of worship, where a vociferous, ecstatic religious spirit is missing, it becomes the duty of the hazzan to bring our nus’haot to light, otherwise there is the risk that many of our most traditional melodies may be forgotten because of disuse. Back in the mid-20th century, Adolph Katchko was thinking about the same issues that concern hazzanim today. The book has included all of the musical examples that he used to illustrate this lecture.
A voice as fully resonant as Katchko’s would normally not lend itself to intricate coloratura. Its extraordinary flexibility, however, enabled him to negotiate such passages flawlessly and tastefully. Katchko’s virtuosity made him comfortable in either the Orthodox or Reform style of service, and his hazzanut was highly regarded in all the main branches of American Judaism. His New York synagogue was among the ten percent of Conservative congregations that employed an organ during regular worship and not just at wedding services. With or without instrumental accompaniment, Adolph Katchko was beloved by his students at Hebrew Union College’s School for Sacred Music, where he served as a founding faculty member. His congregants revered him, as did countless visitors from afar who came to participate in his dignified davening.
Deborah Katchko Gray has wisely set her grandfather’s compositions in lower keys, to make them more accessible for medium-range voices. Male as well as female cantors will find this helpful, especially since the settings include simple guitar chords. The author writes that she has found this kind of accompaniment an effective way to demonstrate the modernity and accessibility of her grandfather’s music for contemporary synagogue goers.
Some of the compositions transcribed in this book have never before been published, among them: Psalm 23, Y’hi ratson for Rosh Hodesh, Kiddush for Rosh Hashanah, and V’shamru for Shabbat. These prayer settings were transmitted to Deborah through her father, Theodore Katchko, whose singing, along with the author’s, is also represented on the CD. That is what makes this collection a representation of three generations of Katchko hazzanut, for it includes the singing of Hazzanim Adolph Katchko from the 1940s, Theodore Katchko — a bass-baritone like his father — during the 1980s-and-90s, and mezzo-soprano Deborah Katchko Gray in the present day. Spanning seven decades, the recordings will enable serious students and lovers of hazzanut to discern echoes of the chant style that was imported from Eastern Europe, along with adaptations to American congregations’ preferences after WWII, and amalgamation with the more rhythmic folk-ballad approach of today’s liturgical music.
Adolph Katchko had masterfully crafted a cantorial line that blended the introspective zogakhts style with an outgoing long singing line, always in service of the text. Take, for instance, the signature Psalm of Friday night, Adonai Malakh (“God Reigns”).
The Psalm’s opening (lines 1-2) consists of three short phrases containing three words each. A subsequent single longer phrase of five words (line 2) counterbalances the three initial shorter ones with a jubilant trumpet call leading to the climactic word atah (“You”; referring to the Eternal One). Lines 3-4 re-use the pattern: three short phrases of three words each. This time they center around chromatically lowered 7th and 6th degrees (C, Bb), before resolving in an extended cadence on the tonic (D). This opening section can be seen as a modernization of the zogakhts approach; tone-painting short phrases— rather than individual words— in sequence, while maintaining an overarching form of antecedent-and-consequent half- verses.
Line 5 brings into play a long singing phrase. It visits the 4th degree (G). Its six words are answered by a shorter phrase (line 6) whose three words bloom melismatically to depict the awesome might of God on high (adir bamarom adonai). Line 8 returns to the original tonality (D) via a leap to the octave (D) — Katchko’s heroic upper-middle register — on the final word. The composition ends in the welcoming calm of Kabbalat Shabbat nusah with two so-called “Mi-Sinai Tunes.” These pertain to sacred melodic fragments so old that Ashkenazic synagogue tradition venerates them as if they were given to Moses at Sinai, along with the other Commandments. The two cited here appear on the words I’orekh yamim (“God is eternal”). They are the High Holiday “Aleinu” motif, and the t’lishah g’dolah motif for cantillating Torah. An Ossia option for higher voices also cites the latter motif at the octave.
Adolph Katchko’s three-volume Thesaurus of Cantor ial Liturgy— Otsar ha-hazzanut, published by the Sacred Music Press, continues to be available from Hebrew Union College. It remains a much-sought-after source of material for younger hazzanim, essential to the effective fulfillment of their sacred calling. Similarly indispensable should be this loving documentation of the Master’s tradition, brought to us by Deborah, the third generation of Katchko hazzanim. Her name takes its root, d-b-r, from the verb “speak.” Like her namesake, the biblical prophetess who “arose to speak in song,” she has gifted her generation not only with a lasting model of sacred song, but also with the manner in which two preceding generations— her father and grandfather — sang it before God and Israel in prayer.
Robert S. Scherr is Hazzan Emeritus of Temple Israel in Natick, Massachusetts. He currently serves as the Jewish Chaplain for Williams College in Williamstown, MA, and as Chair of Placement and Human Resources for the Cantors Assembly.