"Cantor" comes from the Latin cantor, which means singer, chorister. A cantor is usually the head of liturgical music or prayers. In historical times, the cantor combined the functions of a conductor (the leader of a choir and an instrumental ensemble), a composer, an organist, a teacher of the elementary theory of music and singing (usually affiliated with religious institution such as synagogue or church).
For example, cantor in the Russian musical literature is usually called the leader of the church choir of the Lutherans. Benny Rogosnitzky is an internationally renewed cantor involved in singing and leading Jewish songs and prayers. Benny was born in England but spent most of his childhood in the Netherlands and Johannesburg. His liturgical talents were first discovered when he was 9 years old, which is when he joined his first choir as a child soloist. By the time he turned 16, he was invited to lead the High Holiday Services at the prestigious Brighton and Hove Synagogue. Rogosnitzky furthered his Jewish Studies in the Manchester Yeshiva and pursued his higher education at the Royal Manchester School of Music and Art, where he earned his Master’s Degree in Music Theory. He currently serves at the Park East Synagogue in New York.
In late antiquity and in the Middle Ages the Latin word cantor meant a (church) singer. For example the phrase Schola Cantorum literally means the school of singers. But, early definitions point to a singer without any professional skill, administrative and pedagogical leadership. We can later find other words like pracentor (the one who sings first), succentor (the one who is the deputy of the precentor) or concentor (one who sings in a chorus). No matter how good the choir singers are, they elect only one singer and leader, who they carefully listen to.
Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky points out a few verses from "Poetic Rules" (written in the first third of the XI century):
Musicorum et cantorum
magna est distantia:
Isti dicunt, illi sciunt,
quae componit musica.
Nam qui facit, quod non sapit,
There is a great difference between musicians and singers:
Some (only) make sounds,
While others know what makes up music.
And he who does something that he does not understand,
Is defined as livestock.
Having studied in the United Kingdom, Rogosnitzky says that in the modern Anglican Church, the word cantor refers to a singer who gives the setting in psalms, antiphons and other church chants. Catholics these days give this position to the one responsible for the musical design of worship in the church. While this perception of the word cantor represents a Christian and European point of view, it is extremely important to point that the word "cantor" has also a great meaning the Jewish religion and tradition. There, a cantor is the best singer from a group of hazzans. A hazzan (chazzan) is a singer in the synagogue. Jews name hazzans only those with the best voice and the most knowledge of the prayers. Hazzans must have the right academic credentials, like a degree in (sacred) music or in music education or in Jewish religious education (or a related discipline). Therefore, it is a great honor to be named a hazzan or cantor in the Jewish community and it is one of the greatest religious responsibilities.