Jacob Rappaport, a well-known cantor-composer in the New York area during the 1920s and 1930s, was born in Telenesht, Bessarabia (then part of the Russian Empire). After the age of nine, much of his youth was spent in Tshertkov [Chertkov/ Chortkov], Galicia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now in Ukraine), where his father was a rabbi. There, he became closely acquainted with the Hassidic community, presided over by the Tshertkover Rebbe, from whom—as well as from others in the rebbe’s court—he learned many Hassidic songs not generally known elsewhere, especially outside Hassidic circles. Having learned to read and write musical notation, he notated these songs and later, as a cantor and performer, included many of them in his repertoire. Among the cantorial choirs in which he sang was that of Yitzhak Shkolnik in Stanislav, Ukraine, where Rappaport studied in the local yeshiva. He was also a chorister in the traveling choirs of the celebrated cantor Zeidl Rovner, who served in large part—as he did for many of his choristers—as Rappaport’s de facto teacher.
Rappaport immigrated to the United States in 1910, and one of his first synagogue positions was directing the choir for Cantor Yeshaye Meisels. He later became a cantor in his own right, serving two major pulpits in Brooklyn and another in Hartford, Connecticut, as well as other synagogues in New York. He became deeply involved in the work and operations of the Jewish Ministers Cantors’ Association (Hazzanim Farband) in New York, the largest cantorial association anywhere at that time, and he became its president.
His chief and most enduring contribution to cantorial art was his composition of a substantial corpus of solo cantorial recitatives for Sabbath, Festival, and High Holy Day services. For the most part these represent artistically conceived notations of traditional improvisatory renditions, and many of them might be understood—perhaps paradoxically—as composed or “well worked-out improvisations.” They were intended for both cantorial students and full-fledged cantors, among whom far fewer (even at that time) were able to improvise at the pulpit than in previous generations. Rappaport’s best recitatives incorporate traditional eastern European cantorial idioms and clichés, ornamentations (and provisions for additional extensions and elaborations within their structural contexts), modalities, rhythmic fluidity, and melismatic passages, as well as the stipulated prayer modes (nusaḥ hat’filla) where appropriate or required. They display a sense of musicianship, a knack for inventive modulation, and a sophisticated architectural conception that transcend conventional improvisation. Although they were intended primarily for synagogue services, some have been considered suitable for concert performance, with piano accompaniment either improvised by a knowledgeable pianist or written by other arrangers.
By: Neil W. Levin