A Song and a Prayer

Cantorial Music in Maine

What is a Cantor?

A cantor – a hazzan in Hebrew – is a trained vocalist who plays an often complex spiritual leadership role within the synagogue. The cantor leads the congregation in song and prayer and prepares 13-year-olds for their coming-of-age ceremony (their bar or bat mitzvah). In some congregations, the cantor helps educate members and new converts to Judaism, supports congregants preparing for major life events, and officiates at those events.  

The earliest historical reference to a cantor as a musical prayer leader dates as far back as the seventh century, but the cantorate in its current form did not emerge until the eighteenth century in Europe, when efforts to craft a more modern synagogue service began to reflect many features of Christian worship, including the development of a canon of liturgical melodies grounded in Western musical theory. Even the word “cantor” was borrowed from the term used to describe the person who led music in the Christian church. In recent decades, as their roles became more defined and professionalized, cantors began to attend formal training institutes culminating in their ordination.

While cantorial music reflects musical styles unique to places as far away as the Middle East and North Africa, there have been two distinct cantorial styles that continued to flourish well into the 20th century: The more formal Western European style – typically rhythmically and musically rigid, devoid of embellishments, and reflective of the sound of Western classical music – and the Eastern European style, which was more emotional, extensively embellished with cantorial improvisation, and reflective of the folk styles of the region.

Modern Ties

to Cantorial Music

You might think you haven’t heard cantorial singing before, perhaps because you haven’t been in a synagogue with song filling the sanctuary. Then you might be surprised to learn that you have encountered cantorial music through modern musicians who have crossed genre lines, bringing liturgical music to a broader audience. Here are a few examples:

(Click on an item for more information)

Maine Cantorial Music

Jewish communities have come together all around Maine since the mid 19th century. Two centuries ago, a place for communal prayer didn’t require large buildings; it simply required a gathering of ten men and someone to lead the prayers.

In 1849, Bangor became home to Maine’s first congregation. The members of Ahawas Achim purchased a burial ground and a Torah scroll, and they hired a cantor, Samuel Heinemann, to carry out a range of activities for the congregation. Although he was not formally trained, Heinemann slaughtered poultry and meat, and was available to provide religious guidance or services upon the request of any member.

As time passed, larger and more affluent congregations were able to hire both types of clergy, but smaller ones often made do without a cantor. Maine’s rabbis often chose the state as a training ground before heading to larger cities with larger synagogues, but cantors were not commonplace. Therefore, in most synagogues, the rabbi was also the cantor.

With this exhibit, we invite you to listen to a broad array of cantors and cantorial music. Some practitioners were formally trained and formally hired by congregations to serve as cantors. Others served as lay leaders in their synagogue and also had the skills to chant. In addition, you’ll hear music sung by people who grew up in Maine but served as cantors elsewhere; music sung by those who served as cantors elsewhere but came to Maine to serve; the voices of rabbis who also serve as cantors; choirs that sing cantorial music; and cantorial music written by people who aren’t cantors! Finally, you’ll hear music sung by women who have served as cantors for a relatively short period of time – because, until recently, cantors have traditionally been male.

Rabbi Steven Schwartzman, who served Bangor’s Congregation Beth Israel from 2008-2011, summed up the role of a cantor as “someone who is worthy of the job. Before prayer books were printed, the congregation depended on the cantor to lead the congregation in the prayers. Now, those who don’t know Hebrew depend on him for the same reason. He also must be of high moral character and know the Torah.”

A Song and a Prayer

Cantorial Music in Maine​