Cantor Adolph Katchko belongs to the “golden age” of virtuoso artistic cantorial art in America. He was born in Varta [Warta] in the Kalisz region of Russian Poland, where by the age of six, he was already singing in the choir of Hazzan Yona [Jonah] Shokhet. Later, while a student in a yeshiva in the city of Kalisz, he was a chorister with the shtot hazzan (city cantor), Noakh Zaludkovsky. His first known significant cantorial pulpit was at the Nozhik Synagogue in Warsaw. Following formal musical studies—voice and composition—in Berlin (some family reports indicate Vienna as well), he served for a period as the hazzan sheni (assistant cantor) to Cantor Lazarus at the Tabak Temple in Budapest. He came to the United States in 1921, where his first cantorial post was at the Slonimer Shul on Norfolk Street, on New York’s Lower East Side, where he succeeded the celebrated Cantor Joseph Shlisky. After a year at the State Street Synagogue in Brooklyn he was called to the pulpit of Jewish Communal Center in Flatbush (also in Brooklyn), where he officiated together with Rabbi Harry Halperin, who became one of the leading rabbis of the Conservative movement. When, upon the death of Cantor Marcel Katz, the pulpit at Manhattan’s Anshe Chesed—one of New York’s most vibrant Conservative synagogues of that time—became vacant, Katchko accepted the position and remained there until his debilitating stroke more than twenty years later. During his tenure he came to be considered one of the luminaries of the cantorial world—especially esteemed by colleagues—and this made Anshe Chesed one of the preferred destinations on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for cantorial aficionados. During those decades he also became interested in teaching and was the mentor of many young cantors. In addition to his cantorial-choral compositions, he wrote numerous recitatives that contributed to cantorial education and came to inform the repertoire of many talented students.
Katchko possessed a transparent, flexible, and lyric baritone voice, which he used with great sensitivity in interpreting prayers, thus reflecting the virtuoso European cantorial traditions with refinement and dignity. Many more Conservative synagogues used the organ at that time (a matter left by the movement to individual congregations), even where cantorial tradition otherwise reigned. Katchko actually welcomed the organ at Anshe Chesed, persuaded that it added beauty to the liturgy. “Katchko had that infinite musicianship that could take an organ,” recalled Cantor Morris Okun at a 1962 symposium on Katchko’s impact, “and fit it into the service so skillfully that I felt transported back to the orthodox synagogue where I had heard him years ago.”
The great Mordecai Hershman (1888–1940), one of the most celebrated star (or superstar, by contemporary standards) virtuoso cantors of all time, once described Katchko as a “complete hazzan . . . a beautiful voice and an excellent zoger;” by which Hershman meant that Katchko was equally at home with the intricacies of improvisation according to the accepted modal patterns as he was with renditions of sophisticated artistic compositions.
Katchko shied away from commercial cantorial concerts, in general appearing only at those presented in honor or in memory of colleagues, for charitable purposes, or by cantorial organizations or synagogues. In 1927 he appeared together with Hershman, Yossele Rosenblatt, Berele Chagy, David Roitman, Zeidl Rovner, and other cantorial luminaries at a gala concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in tribute to Rovner. And he appeared as one of the featured cantors in the film The Voice of Israel (1934), produced by Joseph Seiden—which presented hazzanut as a serious liturgical art form.
Among Katchko’s published compositions are his Aḥeinu kol bet yisrael (We Are Brothers, the Entire House of Israel), a cantata; five distinct settings of the evening prayer hashkivenu; settings of Birkat kohanim (The Priestly Blessing) and Tal (the prayer for dew, recited on Passover); and a through-composed Sabbath eve service, Avodat Aharon. His Otzar ha’hazzanut: AThesaurus of Cantorial Liturgy, comprising settings for the entire liturgical cycle, was adopted as part of the basic curriculum at the School of Sacred Music of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and remains much used by other cantorial students as well. Katchko also formed a choral group (no longer existing) known as Hazzanei Yisrael, which included many of his students and was devoted exclusively to Jewish liturgical music. In addition, he was interested in scholarly and analytical deliberations about cantorial art, as reflected, for example, in his erudite paper delivered at the second annual conference-convention of the Cantors Assembly in 1949: “Changing Conceptions of Hazzanut.”
By: Neil W. Levin