Yasser, Joseph

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YASSER, JOSEPH (1893–1981), organist, musicologist, and theorist. Born in Lodz, Poland, he began his musical studies in Moscow at the age of six under the pianist Jacob Weinberg. In 1917, he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied with Alexander Goedicke and Leonid Sabaneyev. There he was appointed director of the Organ Department and concurrently served as organist for the Bolshoi Theater. Following a three-year sojourn in China, where in Shanghai he directed a choral society; he immigrated to the United States in 1923. Settling in New York, he established a reputation as a performing artist, whose organ recitals earned him positions at prestigious Reform synagogues, and ultimately as organist and choirmaster at Temple Rodeph Shalom from 1929 to 1960.

He published an important treatise, A Theory of Evolving Tonality (1932), which postulates the evolution from the primitive pentatonic (5-tone) through the diatonic (7-tone) and chromatic (12-tone) scale to the formation of an ultra-chromatic scale of 19 microtonal intervals of equal size. His second and controversial treatise on Medieval Quartal Harmony (1938) proposed the 4th as a preferred interval over the 5th for accompanying plainchant. Yasser wrote articles on various aspects of Jewish and Russian music, served on the faculty of the Cantors' Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary (1952–60), and was one of the founders of the American Musicological Society (1935); he was actively involved with the Jewish Music Forum (1945–55) and the National Jewish Music Council (1944–60).


mgg2; ng2; A. Weisser, Selected Writings and Lectures of Joseph Yasser: An Annotated Bibliography (1979); H. Berlinski, "Joseph Yasser (1893–1981): A Personal Recollection," in: Musica Judaica, 4 (1981–82), 113–20.

[Israel J. Katz (2nd ed.)]