Klezmer music: the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition
Among the most exciting new developments in modern Jewish music was the rediscovery at the end of the 20th century of klezmer, the popular music of European Jews (Ashkenazi), a musical genre that had ‘disappeared’ for several decades. Both Yiddish theatre and klezmer music became popular in the U.S. following the emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. As with Yiddish theatre and other aspects of Ashkenazi culture, the popularity of klezmer faded with the end of the mass migration of Jews from Eastern Europe and the increasing assimilation of Jews in North America.
A mixed Russian-Jewish band, probably from the village of Berehovo, Carpathian Ruthenia, early 20th century, author unknown. Photo source: http://horinca.blogspot.com/2007/04/over-on-ari-davidows-klezmer-shack-site.html
Klezmer music has its roots in the Ashkenazi Jewish tradition as a musical genre played at weddings and other festive events. The musical genre derives from Eastern European music of Jewish tradition and was built on it. The essential elements of the tradition include dance tunes, ritual melodies and virtuosic artistic improvisations performed for the listeners.
This traditional folk music draws inspiration from synagogue music, Roma music, European folk music and even classical music.
In October this year, we had the opportunity to talk to a klezmer musician from Toronto, Canada. Her name is Beth Silver, a professional musician who plays the cello. As part of her career, she has taken traditional klezmer music, especially fiddle style or violin music, and adapted it for the cello. She worked with a klezmer fiddler who lives in New York, playing along with him every day for a month. Everything he played, Beth adapted for cello. Later, she came to Transylvania because of her passion for Transylvanian music played on stringed instruments: ‘…the reason I’m here is because I love Transylvanian string music. I think it is very different, unique and beautiful.’ Following this interview, I had the opportunity to clarify ‘at first hand’ certain issues related to klezmer and the Ashkenazi or Yiddish culture from which this musical genre originated.
Beth Silver playing a Skotchne from Moishe Beregovski’s collection at Muzeon.
Beth Silver at Muzeon, interpreting a Jewish Hora melody.
The Yiddish word ‘klezmer’ derives from two Hebrew roots: ‘klei’ (vessel or instrument) and ‘zemer’ (song). It is also sometimes known by its earlier name of ‘freilach music’ (romanized: freilach = merry, happy). The common, worldwide use of the terms developed around 1980.
Jewish dance from Szászrégen (Reghin). Song interpreted by Muzsikás.
Klezmer is a style of folk music based on Ashkenazi Jewish traditions and Eastern European folk traditions. Ensembles of klezmer musicians are called kapelye, and a group of klezmer musicians is called klezmorim. ‘Klezmer specifically refers to secular instrumental music that is connected to the Yiddish culture’, according to Beth.
The aforementioned term ‘freilach’ is also used to designate a kind of fast-paced circle dance, which Beth mentions, although there are different views on this issue. Although the hora and this ‘circle dance’ are essentially based on the same principles, it is believed that there are differences:
“In modern Israeli music, it’s what people would call hora. The hora in klezmer music is a slower dance felt in a different time…”
Originally, klezmer did not designate the genre of music but rather the musician who plays the music. A klezmer (plural: ‘klezmorim’ in Yiddish or ‘klezmers’ in English) was a professional male instrumental musician, usually Jewish, who played in a band hired for special occasions in Eastern European communities. It was not until the late 20th century that the word ‘klezmer’ became a known term in English. During this time, by metonymy, it came to refer not only to the musician, but also to the genre of music they performed, a meaning it did not have in Yiddish. Early 20th-century recording industry materials and other writings referred to it as Jewish dance music, Jewish or Yiddish, or sometimes using the Yiddish term ‘Freilach music’ (merry music). It incorporated elements from many other musical genres, including Ottoman music, Greek and Romanian music, Baroque music, German and Slavic folk dances, and Jewish religious music.
‘Technically, [klezmer] is a secular instrumental music’ but one very interesting thing Beth mentioned in the interview is that klezmer is the musical embodiment of Jewish culture. Even though it was inspired very much by Jewish liturgy, ‘it feels to me like a culture more than a religion’.
Instruments used in klezmer music. Main characteristics of the musical genre
Klezmer is a Yiddish word, as I mentioned in the beginning, it is a combination of the words ‘klei’ (vessel/instrument) and ‘zemer’ (melody) which referred to musical instruments in ancient times. It became colloquially attached to Jewish folk musicians sometime in the Middle Ages. Today, klezmer music refers to a wide variety of revivals.
For a long time, the term had pejorative connotations because of the bohemian lifestyle of these musicians and the perceived inferior quality of their music. Christian towns regulated all musicians’ activities, specifying acceptable times and places of performance. However, they found a niche in rapidly growing towns, playing for celebrations (most often weddings) as well as community events such as holidays, and in private homes for Jewish or non-Jewish patrons.
In order not to disturb their Christian neighbours, the Jews were required to avoid brass and percussion instruments. The main instruments were those with strings, which were easy to transport: the violin, cello and double bass, as well as wind instruments such as the flute and clarinet. Other instruments used included the tsimbl and accordion.
Although klezmer music was not accepted by traditional religious authorities, it was given new life in the 18th-19th centuries by the religious movement called Hasidism, from which it borrowed its mystical fervour for music and dance.
The klezmer calling was hereditary and male-specific; a boy generally studied with his father, although some boys apprenticed to musicians in other cities.
Under the tree, by Elena Flerova, 1943. Image source: https://iamachild.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/elena-flerova-1943-russian-3/
Early bands consisted of four to eight musicians, sometimes with two or more violins as the main instruments. The accompaniment ensemble or kapelye usually included one or more sekunda violins (playing rhythmic chords), a tsimbl (hammered dulcimer), flute and bass. By the 19th century, the ensemble had expanded to include the brass instruments played by Jewish recruits in Tsarist army troops, but was still led by the first violin. Indeed, the band was often known by the name of its first violinist, and he was paid extra for the privilege. Few of the musicians had received formal musical training, but many were virtuoso performers with well-established reputations.
The band’s repertoire included instrumental versions of popular Yiddish folk songs, theatre songs and hasidic and semi-liturgical music. They were also required to know the music of the local non-Jewish and Gypsy people, traditional folk dances and even some classical pieces to perform for the aristocracy.
Tanz der Marschelik, Spassmacher (Dance of Marshelik, the Buffoon). Illustration by an artist identified only as 'M.D.', 1902. Postcard published by A.F.T. Drawing depicting a badkhn (Marshelik) at a Hasidic wedding. Dated January 1, 1902. Image source: https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Badkhonim
Since its beginnings in Europe, klezmer music has always reflected a unique amalgam of the music of the Jewish community with the music of the surrounding culture. Klezmorim playing at Jewish and non-Jewish holidays alike contributed to a cross-pollination between Jewish and gentile cultures, enriching both.
‘A lot of Jewish music – says Beth – is influenced by Jewish liturgy and chant and cantorial chant. So a lot of those modes you’ll find will be similar to what I guess came from the shul and yeshiva bochers. Also, Jews were prohibited from playing certain instruments because they were too loud in towns. So that affected, you know, what was available to them for how to make their music.’
Klezmer musicians adapted a wide variety of songs to serve their purposes. This exchange continued in America, where Jewish musicians borrowed from the jazz genre and other styles adapting Jewish melodies to the diverse market of North American cultural ideas.
Unlike other sectors of Jewish culture, klezmer bears the imprint of the most diverse influences, from Western and Slavic to Ottoman and Roman. Since the mid-19th century, klezmorim music has spread from the border areas of the former Ottoman Empire, from the former Romanian principalities, to the northern and western areas. Like folk songs, instrumental music moved along Jewish transmission networks, regardless of the changing borders of the period. Thus, for example, the doina, a sometimes rhapsodic instrumental piece adapted from a genre of Romanian shepherd song, travelled far from its roots from southeastern Europe to Lithuania.
Beth tells us that ‘it is likely that Jewish bands operated alongside Roma bands and sometimes probably even mixed a bit…’. So these influences have a simple explanation: the bands that played at party events were universal. ‘These Roma bands were often the band of the whole village. So they learned everyone’s music, for all functions. So the Roma band knew Roma music, they knew Jewish music, maybe they knew Jewish music from the Jewish band, they knew Romanian music, they knew Hungarian music, and they played it for all, all the weddings in the village.’ This was also the situation of the klezmorim bands.
Klezmer music was strongly influenced by Romanian folk music. The klezmer piece ‘Rumania Rumania’, whose melodic line is inspired by a Romanian hora, became part of the cultural heritage of the European Jewish diaspora and was ‘adopted’ even by Jewish musicians without ties to Romania. The song became famous in the performance of Aron Lebedeff, a Jewish musician of Ukrainian origin who emigrated to the USA.
Just as Beth reinforced this view, influences in klezmer music differ in intensity depending on the microzone, the region in which the musicians were located. It is not possible to determine in what proportions, each different culture influenced the genre. It is an amalgam of many cultures and genres but still has such a strong harmony.
An interesting fact is that in 1881, when the first Zionist congress was held in Focșani, Hatikvah (heb. trans. The Hope – Israel’s national anthem) was sung for the first time, its music being based on a Romanian folk tune. Hatikvah was composed by Naphtali Herz Imber, a Jewish poet who was born in 1855 or 1856 in Galicia. Before his death in New York in 1909, he managed to travel through Europe, Palestine, Great Britain and the United States. Wherever he went, he wrote poetry, recited his poems to anyone who would listen, and remained devoted to the nascent cause of Zionism. The verses were first written in Iași, Romania. In 1882, Imber emigrated to Ottoman-ruled Palestine and read his poem to the pioneers of the first Jewish villages – Rishon LeZion, Rehovot, Gedera and Yesud Hama’ala. In 1887, Shmuel Cohen, a very young (17 or 18 years old) musically trained resident of Rishon LeZion, sang the poem using a melody he knew from Romania and turned it into a song, after witnessing the emotional reactions of Jewish farmers who heard the poem. The adaptation of the music for ‘Hatikvah’ was set by Shmuel Cohen in 1888. Cohen himself recalled many years later that he hummed ‘Hatikvah’ to the tune of the song he had heard in Romania, ‘The Ox-driven Cart’ (Carul cu boi).
Although klezmer music emerged from a broader Eastern European Jewish musical culture that included Jewish psaltic music, hasidic nigunim (songs without words, serving Hasidic Jews, a variation of Orthodox Judaism) and, later, Yiddish theatre music, it also borrowed from surrounding Central and Eastern European folk music and cosmopolitan European musical forms. It has therefore evolved into an overall style that has recognisable elements from all these genres.
History and evolution of klezmer music
Klezmer music has become a central cultural feature of the largest transnational Jewish community of modern times, the Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe. Much of the musical and choreographic history of the Ashkenazim is embodied in the klezmer repertoire, which functioned as a kind of non-verbal community memory. The complex of speech, dance and musical gestures is deeply rooted in Jewish expressive culture and has reached its greatest development in Eastern Europe.
Illustration of a medieval Jewish wedding procession (date and author unknown). Image source: Wikipedia.
Since the 16th century, due to functional needs, lyrics have been added to Klezmer music. Thus, social functions, celebrations, events took on a new dimension. The story in song emerged. This step was necessary for the emergence of a new socio-cultural artistic function, that of the Yiddish Theatre. Talking to Beth about it, she said that in contemporary klezmer music they do a kind of adaptation of Yiddish music using instruments. Before that, lyrics weren’t necessary: ‘the violin and clarinet use techniques and ornamentation that mimic the vocal ornaments in a cantorial style; the violin, clarinet or cello, imitates a kind of crying, sobbing sound of the singer.’
By the middle of the 20th century, when the Holocaust took place, the original Eastern European tradition of Ashkenazi folk music had practically come to an end. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, its revival began in the USA and Canada. By the late 1970s, klezmer music had become a widespread genre in North America, popular not only among Jews. It should be noted that this was the period when world music in general became fashionable. Drawing on preserved musical notes and, above all, sound recordings, the post-war generation of klezmer musicians, as part of this wave, strove to reproduce as authentically as possible the original folk style of the 19th century.
I asked Beth for her opinion on why there was a ‘death’ of klezmer music in the first part of the 20th century:
‘…klezmer music went through a kind of dark period between the 1920s and 1930s until the 1970s. And I think it was partly because of immigration, antisemitism, and it was also probably due to just people; it wasn’t in style, it’s kind of like, you don’t really want to dance to what your grandparents are dancing to or your parents dance to… when Jews moved to America, they were being discriminated. In order to not be so easily identified as Jewish, a lot of parents stopped teaching their children Yiddish… to give you some perspective, it’s the 1950s, let’s say in North America… My family came to Toronto at the beginning of the 20th century, they wanted them to assimilate, to reform to fit into North American culture, and also Yiddish music, klezmer music was not cool, it was old-fashioned, so people sort of put it aside, kind of forgot about it.’
Another reason why the musical genre began to die out may be that after Jewish weddings stopped taking place in Eastern European cities as a result of emigration, party bands no longer needed to use Jewish music, so they stopped teaching and playing it.
Old klezmer music was created primarily to accompany dancing. Its subgenres were named after folk dances: freylekhs (freilach), sher, hora, zhok, skochna, Bulgar, etc. Naturally, this also led to the revival of traditional Jewish folk dances, although their authentic reproduction proved to be a rather difficult task; until recently, choreography remained an under-researched subject in Jewish folklore studies.
In this context, a key figure in the revival and preservation of this musical genre in Transylvania should be mentioned. It is about Miksa Eisikovits (Max Eisikovits) who was a Transylvanian Jewish composer, musicologist, teacher, collector and exegete of Yiddish folklore from Romania. He studied music at the Cluj Conservatory (1928-1933). At the same time he attended the Faculty of Law in Cluj, where he obtained his doctorate (1933), but did not practise as a lawyer. Between 1948 and 1949 Max Eisikovits was director of the Hungarian State Opera in Cluj.
Manuscripts containing the scores of Max Eisikovits. Image source: https://collections.ushmm.org/
Eisikovits travelled to Jewish settlements in the Maramureș region of Transylvania to collect songs from the local Hasidic population. Today, his field recordings are a unique documentation of the musical traditions of this culture. Resuming his career after the war, Eisikovits drew inspiration from his collection for a series of art songs and instrumental compositions based on folklore.
Manuscripts containing the scores of Max Eisikovits. Image source: https://collections.ushmm.org/
Eisikovits is a prominent figure in Klezmer music. At a time when the genre was almost extinct, he managed to assemble a collection of Jewish Hasidic folk music from Maramureș, Romania, documented in 1938-1939. The collection consists of four notebooks of handwritten sheet music, annotations and phonetic, liturgical texts in Hebrew and Yiddish. Miksa collected 160 songs during his research in Maramureș, but was unable to capture the lyrics for all of them. The collection was recently published by Judit Elek under the title “És a halottak újra énekelnek…” (And the dead sing again…).
Manuscripts containing the scores of Max Eisikovits. Image source: https://collections.ushmm.org/
In the 1980s, klezmer music became again fashionable in North America, Western Europe and post-Soviet countries. Ethnic music festivals in Western Europe usually included klezmer performances. At the same time, a tradition of Klezfest festivals emerged, dedicated specifically to Jewish folk music. In both North America and Europe, such events attracted Jews and non-Jews alike in the audience as well as performers.
The development of klezmer music in Israel followed a different path. The old musical tradition of this country has not been completely broken, but local klezmer music has mainly dissolved into what is known in Israel as “Hasidic music”, performed at weddings and other crowded religious festivities. As for the differences between the development in different areas of the same genre, after klezmer went out of fashion for a while, in Israel there was a desire to unite Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardim, Mizrahim, Ethiopians, Jews from all over the world. They wanted to have a universal language. Israeli music is its own kind of Jewish music and has many Arab or Middle Eastern influences.
Musa Berlin, born in Tel Aviv in 1938, made a great contribution to popularising klezmer music in Israel. Notably, he was the first to draw attention to the unique musical tradition of Palestinian klezmer, which developed among the descendants of Ashkenazi Jews who settled in the historic Land of Israel in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A characteristic feature of Palestinian klezmer music is a visible Eastern influence, which comes from Arabs and non-Ashkenazi Jews.
Beth Silver playing a Dobriden from Moishe Beregovski’s collection, at Muzeon.
Klezmer music, whether in Europe or America in the early 20th, 21st, or 18th century adapted the music to the larger, surrounding culture. What it has never done, however, is assimilate completely. Rather, klezmer music in particular, and Jewish music as a whole (as well as the Jews who created it), has consciously and subconsciously borrowed generously, but never sacrificed its Jewish sensibility. Jewish values, the internal rhythms of Jewish languages, synagogue musical motifs, all these allowed Jewish music to retain a unique imprint that set it apart from the surrounding community.
If we’ve piqued your curiosity about klezmer music, we’ve got exciting news: we’re preparing a unique temporary exhibition for you!
🎼 At the beginning of December the temporary exhibition ‘Klezmer Music in Transylvania’ will open at Muzeon. 🎵
You will experience:
- An interactive exhibition, where you will be able to listen to Jewish songs from Maramureș, collected by Max Eisikovits, and interpreted by Beth Silver, cellist, and Zoe Aqua, violinist;
- You will be able to see pictures of the scores of the pieces you will hear, handwritten by Max Eisikovits;
- You will see 20th century paintings of Jewish musicians from Transylvania;
- You will learn interesting information about what klezmer music is, its origins and influences;
- You will also have the opportunity to listen to live klezmer music;
- And many other interesting things.
Follow us on social media to find out the exact date.
Walter Zev Feldman 2016, Klezmer: Music, History, Memory, Oxford University Press, 2016.
Yale Strom 2002, The Book of Klezmer: The History, the Music, the Folklore, Chicago Review Press, 2002.