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The Four Koussevitzky Boys Part 1
Cantor Elihu Feldman
This article is dedicated to the blessed memory of a family of great cantors, two of whom, as a child, I had the privilege to hear conduct Shabbat services monthly. I want to acknowledge assistance for this article to Cantor Ivan Oppenheim of Holland and to Rabbi Geoffery Shisler, from Great Britain for biographical information on Cantors Moshe, David and Jacob Koussevitzky. I also want to thank Fay Singer from Capetown, South Africa for biographical material on Cantor Simcha Koussevitsky.
For those of you who may not know it, Cantors Moshe and David Koussevitsky had a profound effect on me as a youngster and as a young man growing up. For, very few times in life have I been inspired with so much awe and reverence for G-d; that I was motivated to pray with all my heart and soul. These times, though, were very special and occurred when I prayed while these cantors were leading services.
Before I tell you about the Koussevitsky boys, I would like to share with you how I know both of them. My uncle Nathan, of blessed memory, regarded himself as the great Cantorial Afficianado of the Grand Course Jewish Center, located in Bronx, New York. It was he who wanted me to sing with Ben Friedman’s and Samuel Sterner’s choirs which accompanied both of these world class Chazzanim. His ultimate goal, along with my father of blessed memory, was to groom me to become a cantor. This master plot was hatched without my knowledge.
One humorous event that involved Cantor Kouusevitsky and me occurred on a Shabbat in August. Moshe was doing his annual Rosh Chodesh Ellul Concert Shabbat in Temple Beth El in Long Beach, Long Island. My Uncle Nat decided that he wanted me to sing for Moishe, and as a favor he asked Ben Friedman’s choir to back me up. I was petrified, because he arranged all this without telling me. This great audition occurred during the Cantor’s break between Torah Reading and Musaf. So here I was, a young lad of 12 or so, singing Heeneni Heeoni before one of the greatest cantors in the world. I started to sing and it was beautiful. After all, I had Moshe Koussevitzky’s symphonic choir accompanying me. All of a sudden Cantor Moshe Koussevitsky started to gesture vigorously with his hands to the choir and me and stopped us after the first two lines. My Uncle seeking approbation from the Cantor said to him, “Why did you move him back?” “Was his voice that strong?” The Cantor told him, “No, your nephew was spitting in my coffee.”
Although there are many who would argue with me, Moshe is generally regarded as the Chazan's Chazan. He possessed an outstanding, well-trained, tenor voice of extraordinary range and flexibility and an innate understanding of the art of Chazanut. Frequently, when I heard him daven Musaf in Long Beach the 12:00 noon miday siren would go off. This was usually during Musaf Kedushah. He easily could drown it out.
Moshe Koussevitzky was born on June 9th 1899 at Smargon in Vilna, Lithuania and came from a background of Cantors. He was the oldest of four brothers, Jacob, Simcha and David; each of whom went on to become famous Chazanim in their own right. Moshe began his singing career at the age of eight as an alto in the choir of Chazan Shlepak. Like many artistic people, he could not only sing, but he was also gifted with his hands. As he grew up he toyed with the idea of becoming an artist or a sculptor. Fortunately, however, he accepted a position as Chazan at the Vilna 'Savel's Shul' and in 1927 he auditioned for the plum position in Poland at the 'Tlomazke Shul' in Warsaw where, against the finest opposition, he was awarded the post. He took the opportunity to study voice and music, and throughout his life he always learned Torah.
Being in such an illustrious Cantorial postion, his fame spread around Europe very rapidly and soon Moshe traveled to Brussels, Antwerp, Vienna and London to give concerts. During World War II, Moshe took his family to Russia and adopted the name Mikhail Koussevitzky. While he was there he sang in the operas Boris Goudinov, Tosca and Rigoletto. When he returned to Poland he gave a concert at which the ambassadors of the United Kingdom and the United States were in the audience. As a result of this concert he obtained visas for both countries and came to England until 1947, when he traveled to settle in America.
Moshe continued to travel and concertise all over the world. Fortunately he also made numerous recordings and, even though many of them were produced on comparatively primitive equipment, it is still possible to appreciate the exceptional quality of his voice. The last Cantorial position he held was at Temple Beth El in Boro Park, Brooklyn. He died on August 23rd 1966 and is buried in Jerusalem.
I will always remember singing the boy alto solo Uvyom Hasshabat with him and hearing him sing Sheyiboneh Beit Hamikdash after services.
Cantor David Koussevitsky
While Moishe was admired for the strength, power and range of his voice it was David Koussevitsky who had the sweeter voice. In Hebrew this quality is called Metikut literally sweetness. David certainly had a most unusual voice, and was able to maintain long phrases on very high notes. Others have tried to copy him, but few have succeeded in coming anywhere near the excitement that he could generate by his extraordinary singing.
As a child David Koussevitzky sang in the choir in the Vilna Great Synagogue. He was intent on following a musical career from the start. He studied at the Vilna Academy of Music and became a choir master at the age of eighteen. After serving in the Polish army, he continued his voice studies in Warsaw, officiating at various Synagogues before becoming the Chief Chazan in Rovna.
In his middle twenties, he accepted a call to the Hendon Synagogue, London, where he stayed for twelve years. Koussevitzky was not enthused with the life of a Chazan in the United Synagogue in London. In his book, 'Chosen Voices,' Mark Slobin quotes from a verbatim interview with David in which David says: "[Working for the United Synagogue] was like a government. Each shul sends their representative, like to the House of Commons... it's like the Church of England... They all had their traditional music. They had a Blue Book that they give you, and they tell you, "use it as much as possible..." You had to be there every shabbes... and [I] taught in Jews' College. I used to share the weekday services with the rabbi. I did Sunday morning. No layman was allowed to officiate..." He relates how he did not want to leyn (read the Torah), and eventually got an agreement with the 'chief warden' that he wouldn't be expected to do so.
A business man, who used to travel frequently between England and the USA, persuaded David to set his sights higher and in 1948, after the businessman helped him to obtain a visa, he went to America and was appointed to the highly prized position at Temple Emanu-El in Boro Park, Brooklyn.
Throughout his long career, David Koussevitzky traveled the world, singing in the most prestigious venues. He was an outstanding showman who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand. His top notes could rattle the chandeliers and make your hair stand on end, and his soft notes - his piano, could bring tears to your eyes.
After Moishe’s death, David inherited the Koussevitsky mantle here in the United States. He continued Moishe’s tradition of a special concert Shabbat in Temple Beth El in Long Beach on Rosh Chodesh Ellul and singing Sheyiboneh at the end of services. While Moishe’s and Doveed’s fame grew in the United States, Jacob and Simcha’s own unique style of Chazanut developed a following of their own in Europe and South Africa.
Next month we will continue to enjoy reminiscing and paying our respects to Cantors Simcha and Jacob Koussevitsky, whose voices, along with Moishe and David are now part of the Heavenly choir surrounding Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
The Four Koussevitzky Boys Part 2
This is the second part of an article dedicated to the blessed memory of a family of great cantors; two of whom I had the privilege to hear conduct Shabbat services monthly, during the summer. I want to acknowledge assistance for this article to Cantor Ivan Oppenheim of Holland and to Rabbi Geoffery Shisler from Great Britain for biographical information on Cantors Moshe, David and Jacob Koussevitzky. I also want to thank Fay Singer from Capetown, South Africa for biographical material on Cantor Simcha Koussevitsky. Last month we looked at the lives of Cantors Moshe and David Koussevitsky. This month we will look at the lives of Cantors Jacob and Simcha Koussevitzky.
CANTOR Jacob Kussevitsky
Of the four Koussevitzky brothers, it was said that Jacob was the best 'Ba'al Tefillah.' It's very difficult to explain exactly what this means, but the implication is that he made a greater impact with the way he interpreted the words, and his usage of the traditional melodic lines (Nusach) than he did with his voice. This doesn't mean that he didn't have a fine voice - he certainly did, (he was actually a lyric tenor), but Jacob had a way of penetrating to the heart of a prayer that makes a far greater impression on the listener, than a voice does on its own.
Jacob was the second of the Koussevitzky boys and was born to Alta and Avigdor Koussevitzky in Smorgon, in Russian Poland. At a very early age he took lessons in singing and Chazanut and studied with various tutors, including the famous Chazan Ravitch in Kharkov. As a youngster he sang in Vilna in the choirs of Chazanim Avraham Moshe Bernstein and Bernstein's successor Eliyahu Zaludkowsky, who were both famous cantors in their time.
When his brother Moshe was Chazan in the Vilna State Synagogue, shortly after the end of the First World War, Jacob was the tenor soloist in his choir. It wasn't long after that, that, he was appointed Chazan himself in Kremenetze, where his younger brother David served as his choirmaster. Some years later they went to Lemberg, where they continued to work together.
In 1936 Jacob came to London, where he was appointed to one of the leading Synagogues at that time, the Dalston Synagogue on Poet's Road. It's been reported that on his first appearance there, he sang Kaddish to the tune of 'John Brown's Body!' This apparently took the formal Anglo-Jews of Dalston completely by surprise. But their reaction took Jacob by surprise too. It would seem that Jacob had never heard of 'John Brown's Body.' This was a melody that he had heard and used for Kaddish in Lemberg, and as far as he was concerned, this was where it came from!
From Poet's Road, Jacob went to the Western Synagogue and in 1951 he decided to go to Canada. For two years he was Chazan of the Congregation Rosh Pinah in Winnipeg, Canada and in 1953 he became Chazan at the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills in New York. Sadly he was only there for six years before he died.
That Jacob did not become as famous as Moshe and David is probably due to the fact that, although he did give concerts, his true milieu was on the Bimah. He was more of a 'davener' than he was a performer and this comes through very clearly in the lovely recordings he has left us.
CANTOR Simcha Kussevitsky
Simcha was born in Smorgon, near Vilna in (then) Poland, the third of four sons. The early years encompassing World War 1 and the Russian Revolution had the Koussevitsky family chasing back and forth – as refugees escaping hardship in Poland, eastward to Russia, and then back westward again. When all seemed hopeless, a top official of the Bolshevik Cheka (Secret Police) – who had once worked for Viktor (Avigdor) Koussevitsky (the father), gave them documents to travel back, where they settled in Vilna.
At this point, Simcha was a teenager, and life henceforth assumed normality. They returned to regular education, with Jacob, Simcha & David pursuing the family tradition of music, singing in shul choirs and learning from their maternal grandfather, Rabbi Shlomo Shulman. It was from him that the brothers learned the perfect Hebrew pronunciation for which they were noted. Moshe was already married and serving as a ‘shtot’ hazzan.
Simcha served a short stint in the Polish army. But Jewish music, Jewish religious music, was to be the life’s career of each of the four brothers. As Simcha described it, the Polish Jews were discerning. They understood ‘good’ cantorial singing. When Simcha was about 23 and already married, he was invited to fill a vacancy at Rovno, after the death of the famous hazzan Zeidel. He stayed there about three years, when, his fame having reached Britain, he was invited to a Cantorial position in Glasgow.
In 1935, Simcha made another and very significant move – to the Great Synagogue (Duke’s Place), London, which was regarded almost as a Jewish “cathedral” of the British Empire, with Chief Rabbi Hertz in attendance and a Rothschild as “gabbai”. At this time, back in Poland, Moshe Koussevitsky, generally considered the one of the finest hazzanim the world has known, had succeeded Gershon Sirota at the Tlomackie Street Synagogue in Warsaw.
Simcha’s recollections of the war years WW11 (1939-1945) in London and the terrible period of the blitz were painfully vivid to him. Simcha sent his wife and children to relative safety in the country areas. The family apartment was attached to the shul, which suffered direct hits and bombs. Simcha, as a member of the Civil Defense Unit, was in charge of identifying Jewish bodies at the mortuary; he officiated at funerals. “The bombing was indescribable”, he said. He sometimes sang in the bomb shelters to help keep up the spirits of people taking refuge there.
After the war, in 1947, Simcha accepted a position at a synagogue in Greenside, Johannesburg, South Africa. At this time, his brother David took up a position at Boro Park in Brooklyn, New York. David was to stay there for over thirty years, until he died. In 1952, Simcha moved to Cape Town, where he became the beloved cantor of the newly built Tifereth Israel Synagogue, Schoonder Street – the ‘Round Shul’.
There were many highlights to Simcha’s musical career. One of these was a concert at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra in February 1946, where Simcha sang on a program that included violinist Alfredo Campoli, leading operatic soprano Eva Turner, and tenor Frank Titterton. It was a proud moment for Simcha’s mother, Alta, and brother David and Jacob, seated in the audience.
By 1953, the brothers were all based in different parts of the globe. Moshe had left Poland for the USA in 1947. David was in New York, Jacob in London and Simcha in Cape Town. On the 26th of December 1947 a glorious concert entitled ‘The Four Koussevitsky Brothers’ was staged at Carnegie Hall, New York. The brothers presented a program mainly of their own work. Alta was ‘spotlighted’ sitting proudly in the front row. Their particular rendition of Sheyiboneh beis ha-mikdosh – the Koussevitsky ‘theme’ melody – was always featured in their program, and in the cantorial concerts which were held in later years. For Simcha, the most notable such concert was held at the Mann Auditorium in Tel Aviv in 1985, where he was honored as the last surviving brother. This was a grand affair, with Simcha receiving a standing ovation before the concert began. Moshe’s wife was present, and cantors Benzion Miller, Alberto Mizrachi, and David Bagley, performed. Two years later, in Israel, there was another concert based on the arrangements and music of the Koussevitsky brothers, with Moshe Shulhof, David Bagley, Benzion Miller and Jacob Motzen. Simcha retired in 1983, and remained in Cape Town until 1985, when his wife Sonia passed away. He moved to Johannesburg for a few years, and then back to Cape Town to live with his son Jeff.
In 1997, Prof. Neil Levin of the Milken Foundation commissioned Fay Singer to
interview Simcha Koussevitsky, the last surviving brother of the famous Koussevitsky brothers. For many years, Cantor Simcha Koussevitsky officiated in one of the main synagogues of Cape Town, South Africa. This was done 'on camera' as part of Prof. Levin's project of chazanim who came to America. The interview videotape is in the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.Cantor Simcha Koussevitsky passed away in Cape Town at a retirement home, June1998.
It is said that a truly righteous person never passes away, for he or she lives on in their good deeds and work that inspires all of us. Cantor Simcha Koussevitsky and his brothers are still emulated by some of the finest cantors of our day. In fact a Memorial Concert is being planned for this March in Lincoln Center
May their memory be a blessing for all of us.
Cantor Elihu Feldman
The Four Koussevitzky Boys Part 1
The Four Koussevitzky Boys Part 2