Joshua Samuel Weisser was renowned in cantorial circles in America as a cantor, teacher, cantorial critic, and composer of traditional liturgical settings as well as recitatives for student cantors. He was born in Novaya Ushitsa in the Ukraine, and he studied with a number of local cantors in the region. After accepting his first cantorial post in 1909, he became a pupil of Cantor Eliezer Mordecai Gerovitch (1844–1914), one of the most learned and classically oriented cantor-composers in the Russian Empire, whose own music in many ways exemplifies the eastern European modernized khor shul (see David Roitman's biography) in its blend of cantorial tradition and Western musical sophistication.

Weisser immigrated to the United States in 1914, where he proceeded to serve several New York synagogues and to establish a coveted reputation as a teacher of cantorial art—at a time when formal cantorial schools had yet to be established. Among his students were many who went on to become internationally famous cantors, including the young Rueben Ticker, who—though he remained a devoted functioning cantor throughout his life—subsequently became known as Richard Tucker, one of the reigning tenors of the Metropolitan Opera, recognized throughout the world as one of the era’s leading operatic virtuosi. Weisser served as general secretary and, eventually, as president of the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association (Hazzanim Farband)—the principal cantorial association at that time in the greater New York area—and acquired the status of a “dean” of cantors in the region. His home is said to have been a regular meeting place for students, cantorial colleagues, choirmasters, and others who sought his counsel.

Weisser’s published recitatives and choral settings embrace virtually the entire liturgy of the annual cycle. He also notated Hassidic melodies, wrote original songs of Hassidic character, and composed Yiddish quasi-art songs—mostly in the style of elevated folksongs. He contributed articles about hazzanut and other aspects of Jewish music to various journals and periodicals, delivered papers at cantorial meetings, and, in a number of articles in Di khazonim velt [Di shul un di khazonim velt ]—an international cantorial newspaper published monthly in Warsaw from 1933 to 1939 but widely disseminated outside Poland—he reported on the state of cantorial art in America and on related professional matters and issues. 

By: Neil W. Levin


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