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A cantor or chanter (Gk. ψάλτης - psaltis) is the chief singer (and ofttimes instructor) employed in a church with responsibilities for the ecclesiastical choir; also called the precentor. The cantor's duties and qualifications have varied considerably according to time and place; but generally he must be competent to conduct the vocals for the choir, to start any chant on demand, and to be able to identify and correct the missteps of singers placed under him. He may be held accountable for the immediate rendering of the music, showing the course of the melody by movements of the hand(s), similar to a conductor.
In the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches, the position of chanter (psaltis) is one of the minor clerical orders, though it is not unusual, though irregular, for an unordained singer to fill the role of chanter for an indefinite period. The chief chanter is called the protopsaltis (Gk. προτοψάλτης). The cantor or chanters sing the many hymns called for during the Divine Services. A chanter must be knowledgeable about the ecclesiastical modes as well as the complex structure of the services. A chanter must be Orthodox and properly is ordained to service a parish by the bishop.
In the Greek tradition, a psaltis will often wear the exorason, a black outer cassock with angel-wing sleeves. The Slavic tradition—which tends more commonly to use a choir rather than a cantor—assigns no specific vestment to the chanters, unless an individual has been ordained a Reader, in which case he would wear only the inner cassock (podryasnik) and put on the sticharion when he receives Holy Communion. In the Greek tradition, the psaltae are stationed at a psalterion, a chanting podium positioned to the south and sometimes also to the north side of the sanctuary. In the Slavic tradition, the chanters are similarly positioned, and the area is referred to as the kliros.
Before Vatican II, in the Roman Catholic Church a cantor was the lead singer of the choir, a bona fide clerical role. The chief singer of the Gregorian Schola cantorum was called Prior scholae or Primicerius. In medieval cathedrals, the cantor or precentor directed the music and chant, and was also one of the ranking dignitaries of the chapter. During the 14th century in many churches, the cantor began to delegate his instruction of the singers to a master of music. After the introduction of harmonized music, some duties naturally fell to the conductor or choir-master. Today, the cantor is a role that can be performed by a lay person. In parishes without a choir, the cantor serves to lead the responsorial singing with the congregation.
The cantor's locality in the church is most generally to the right of the choir, and directly to his left is his assistant, formerly called the "Succentor". A common custom for cantors was the bearing of the staff, which was the mark of his dignity and a visual representative of his sacred role inside the church. This custom still survives in some places.
In Protestant Churches the role of the cantor can be lay or pastoral. In Northern European cities, especially in Germany, the title of Cantor or Kantor survived the Reformation, and referred to a musician who supervised the music in several principal churches, taught in the boys' secondary school, and provided music for civic functions. Johann Sebastian Bach (Leipzig) and Georg Philipp Telemann (Hamburg) were among the famous musicians employed under this system.
This article incorporates text from the public-domain Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913.