Pinchas Jassinowsky an acclaimed artistic cantor as well as lieder recitalist, is best remembered for his learned and refined approach to both cantorial and secular Jewish composition and for his academic contributions to the descriptive and analytical literature. He was also a gifted poet.
Jassinowsky was born to a Hassidic family in Romanovka, a small town near Kiev. As a child, he sang in various cantorial choirs and eventually with the renowned scholarly cantor Pinchas [Pinye] Minkowsky (1859–1924) in the khor shul in the city of Kherson, where he was exposed to a highly cultivated brand of synagogue music. At the same time, he developed a serious interest in western classical music, which at first he pursued locally and then, at the age of twenty, went to St. Petersburg for further study. There, he attracted the attention of the Russian composer César Antonovich Cui (1835–1918), one of the so-called Russian Five (along with Borodin, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov). Cui assisted him in gaining entrance to the St. Petersburg conservatory, where he was a pupil of Alexandre Glazunov and Nikolay Sokolov, and during that period he also held the position of assistant choirmaster at the St. Petersburg choral synagogue. After his graduation, in 1915, he toured the Scandinavian countries, where he gave song recitals and lectures on Jewish music, and in 1917 he emigrated to the United States. His first cantorial position was in St. Louis, where he also received high critical praise in the general press for his Jewish lieder lecture-recitals, which at that time provided an exotic experience for even the most knowledgeable concertgoing public. In those presentations, Jassinowsky introduced American audiences to the rich lore of authentic European Jewish folksong, and he demonstrated the process by which that little-mined melos could be transformed into modern art music through sophisticated harmonization, arrangement, motivic development, and orchestration. During the early 20th century, this had been a mission of the Gesellschaft für Jüdische Volksmusik (the Society for Jewish Folk Music) in St. Petersburg—the organizational midwife of the Jewish national art music movement, established in 1908—of whose work Jassinowsky was an enthusiastic proponent during his years in that city.
In 1920, after a period as cantor of the most prominent synagogue in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jassinowsky was appointed to the cantorial post at the Jewish Center synagogue in New York, where he served with distinction for thirty-four years, until his death. He was an active leader of the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association (the Hazzanim Farband, chartered in 1897), the oldest American cantorial organization in contiḥus existence, and at one point he was its vice president.
In his liturgical compositions, Jassinowsky frequently treated traditional cantorial material and modalities with modern western techniques, albeit with astute restraint. His secular choral pieces and his Hebrew and Yiddish art songs—to poems by such leading Jewish literary figures as Morris Winchevsky, Joseph Rolnik, Abraham Liesin, H. Leivick, Mani Lieb, and Sholom Aleichem, in addition to his own poetry—also retain a delicate genuine folk character fused with subtle musical erudition, wit, and imagination. In addition, he wrote a considerable number of classically oriented arrangements of Jewish folksongs. His most unusual work, however, is his curious Symphonische Gesängen (1936), which contains his own Yiddish poetic description of Beethoven symphonies.
By: Neil W. Levin
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