Gershon Sirota

Picture of Gershon Sirota
He was born in 1873 or 1874, that's not sure, in Hajsyn in the Ukraine (Podolia region). His father was a well known cantor in a rural synagogue. He received his first vocal lessons from his father. In 1891, Gershon Sirota moved to Odessa and started to sing at the Odessa synagogue.

His strong voice attracted the attention of the director of the Odessa conservatory, Baron Kolbuss, and he received vocal training at the conservatory. In 1892, Gershon Sirota made his debut at the Odessa opera. He sang in Die Schöpfung by Haydn together with the well known bass Lev Sibirjakov.

Gershon Sirota took vocal lessons at the Vienna conservatory. In Vienna, Sirota became a protégé of Baron Anselm Rothschild, and was torn between an operatic and a cantorial career. The result was not his own decision: his father died, and he had to return to Odessa before his Vienna studies were finished; back in his orthodox Jewish social environment, an operatic career was now out of reach, though he left Odessa soon again to take the post at the Vilnius synagogue from 1896 to 1908. From 1905, Gershon Sirota simultaneously sang in Warsaw.

In 1908, he sang in St. Petersburg, where his singing was highly appreciated by Tsar Nikolaj II. In St. Petersburg, he didn't only sing for the tsar, but above all for the tsar's mother, Maria Fjodorovna – more precisely, he was asked to sing a benefit concert for a charity foundation of hers, and she presented him with a golden watch with a personal inscription, which was an almost incredible honour for a Jewish cantor, given the virulent Russian antisemitism. It created such a sensation that the Jewish communities in the Russian Empire had serious hopes that, following Sirota's appreciation, their general position might improve somehow (vain hopes, of course).

In 1912, Gershon Sirota made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall. He was compared to Tamagno and Caruso, and was nicknamed the Jewish Caruso. During World War I, Gershon Sirota was ober-cantor in Warsaw. His Warsaw congregation (at the Tłomackie Street synagogue) was not as enthusiastic about his (three) pre-war US concert tours as his American audience, who were absolutely frenetic, including Enrico Caruso, who is said to have been a great admirer of Sirota's art. His Warsaw choirmaster, Leo Lwow, served as his manager and arranged those tours for him.

Sirota was also the first cantor who became a star of the recording industry, his records having spread his fame in the USA already before he arrived there in person.

After WWI, he resumed his concerts in the US, and went on extended tours to Montreal and Buenos Aires. In 1921, Gershon Sirota made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in a concert. The conflict with the Tłomackie Synagogue officials about his absences went on, which led eventually to his dismissal in 1924; but the affection of the Warsaw congregation forced the synagogue directors to hire Sirota back in 1926. However, he wasn't greeted with the usual enthusiasm – in America, he had changed his style towards "more operatic", and after a further leave for New York in 1927, he was definitely dismissed from the Tłomackie Synagogue as soon as he came back home (Moshe Koussevitzky being his successor).

For the rest of his career, he continued travelling both North and South America and Palestine, though from 1930 till 1935, he had at the same time a new permanent engagement in Warsaw, not at the Tłomackie but at a lesser synagogue (the Nożyk). (Though it is not true that he had an engagement in Tel Aviv. His performance at the Allenby Avenue Great Synagogue there in 1928 was just as a guest, to inaugurate the new synagogue.) His last US appearance took place in Milwaukee in 1938.

He then returned to Warsaw partly because his vocal power started dwindling, but primarily because his wife fell seriously ill, and that's also the reason why he didn't immediately leave when the Nazis overran Poland. When he finally tried to, it was too late, and though he tried to get out of the country with the help of his American friends and agents, all attempts failed. He and his whole family were killed by the Nazis during the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943.

Gershon Sirota singsLes huguenots: Bianca al par di neve alpina
In RA format

Gershon Sirota sings Ki-khol peh
In RA format

Gershon Sirota sings Mimkoimo hu jifen
In RA format
What Sirota achieved in this kind of music is certainly among the very greatest tenor singing ever. The composers of the two pieces are unknown. The problem with cantorial music is that composers are not equally valued as in classical music. Much of the material is traditional, but just literally material, almost never whole prayers or songs – just parts of them, single phrases, while the connection between those "crucial phrases" is existing in several or even many different versions by different composers, whose names are normally not quoted. Often, it's the cantor himself who is also a composer and singing his own version; but not every cantor was also composing (Koussevitzky and Sirota, as far as I know, were not). And of course, particularly the famous composers such as Rosenblatt sometimes wrote entirely new pieces to the old texts, without using the traditional musical material. The problem is worsened by the obvious fact that the texts are always the same – the prayers of Jewish liturgy; and worsened further by the highly different transliterations of Hebrew. So a song's title, even if you happen to identify it (cf. Ovinu malkenu, Avinu malkenu, Oivinu molkeinu... always the same prayer), says nothing at all about the composition; the important prayers have been set to different music a dozen of times and more. The most important (though not infallible) source as to the composers of single recordings is the Freedman catalogue, available online.
Gershon Sirota singsIl trovatore: Di quella pira
In RA format

Gershon Sirota singsEl mole rachmim

Gershon Sirota singsKawokores rohe adre

Gershon Sirota singsRezei
Many thanks to Anton Bieber for the desirable early recordings (plus label scans) of El mole rachmim, Kawokores rohe adre and Rezei.
I wish to thank Vladimir Efimenko for the picture, biographical notes and recording (Huguenots).

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