Klezmer: A Story of a People, Their Music, and Perseverance

Safia Singer-Pomerantz
April 30, 2016

Music is one of the most important things in my life. Through it I express my feelings, carry a soundtrack for my days, and understand stories being told. The distinctive wailing of a clarinet or the notes of a violin as it sings, are particular sounds that have come to symbolize much more than just the notes of a celebration. In the context of daily life they are beautiful, yet in the setting of a Jewish wedding or Bat Mitzvah, they take on enhanced meaning. These are the sounds that have gotten under my skin and have called me to come closer and take in the sights, soul, and culture of not only the music, but also of our people who have played and evolved with the notes and their cadences. As I researched the topic of klezmer music for my major project, a few questions kept coming to the forefront which I hope to answer: What is klezmer both culturally and musically, how was it almost lost, how was it revived, and how is the story of klezmer a metaphor for Jewish survival?

The term klezmer comes from the Hebrew words klei meaning “vessel” and zemer meaning “song” – literally meaning “vessel of song.” This was the Yiddish word by which the musical instruments and later musicians themselves were known in Eastern Europe among Askenazi Jews. The term “klezmer music” was first used in the 1970s to describe the traditional instrumental music of the Yiddish-speaking people of this area. Today, klezmer has a unique and recognizable sound and is heard and enjoyed around the world. It conjures a wide range of emotions from joy to despair, and from meditation to celebration. Here is a blended example of two pieces that represent these emotions. (MUSIC: 1) However, klezmer began on a much smaller scale, as part of an insular culture in Eastern Europe, and it nearly died out after World War II. The story of its survival and its renewal during the 1970s in the United States and Europe, serve as metaphors for the endurance of the Jewish spirit and the adaptability of a people who, like many others, have migrated across continents to rediscover their identities.

Jewish culture has always retained a special place for music, both in religious and nonreligious settings. After the destruction of the second temple the Jews were plunged into mourning and rabbis discouraged the use of musical instruments except for the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. This changed starting in the 13th century when early oral descriptions of klezmer music and musicians are found. During this time, Jewish weddings were enlivened by a master of ceremonies, a badkhn, who would function as a jester, satirist, and singer. The badkhn would work with the band to create an enjoyable party, much like an MC at a Bat Mitzvah or wedding today. The first official written record of klezmer music is from the 15th century, with the music emerging from the shtetls and ghettos of Eastern Europe. Here, traveling Jewish musicians, known as klezmorim, performed at celebrations like Bar Mitzvahs and weddings, which often lasted for days.

Interestingly, the music was inspired by secular melodies, as well as by the nigunim, which are the simple melodies created by the Hasidim as a way to approach God through an ecstatic state. (MUSIC: 2 Nigun). In the early days, klezmorim were often poor and known for preferring alcohol and women to studying Torah. They were barely higher on the social scale than beggars but eventually, with dedicated musical training, they were in great demand for all joyous occasions such as birthdays, the appointment of a new rabbi, the arrival of a new Torah scroll, the founding of a synagogue, and especially for weddings.

Although, by the early 1800s some klezmer musicians had become famous throughout Europe, few of their works survived in printed form. In large part, this was due to the political and social climate of the early 19th century, when more than five million Eastern European Jews were confined to a small piece of land a few hundred miles around Kiev. During this time Jews were not allowed to move freely from town to town and most musicians had to learn to play by ear, with the profession being passed down from father to son. The Hasidim continued to value klezmer music, using songs and dances as ways of expressing their love for life and God. By the late 19th century, in spite of the large numbers of pogroms throughout Eastern Europe, or perhaps in part as a reaction to them, Yiddish culture and music were flourishing. During this period klezmer musicians were also able to trade popular tunes with musicians from surrounding cultures outside of the Eastern European region, including Greece, and Turkey, and klezmer took on new dimensions and blends.

Because of the religious and political persecution that Jews faced during the pogroms, many eventually left Eastern Europe in the late 19th century, looking for a better life. This pattern of migration from Eastern Europe also continued during the times of the Nazi’s and Stalin. As the Jewish diaspora, or dispersing, expanded over larger areas, the klezmorim who survived, both in Eastern Europe and in new worlds, planted the seeds for a future revival and the growth of klezmer music. This set the stage, in the early 20th century, for the making of the first klezmer recordings beyond the borders of Europe, and for new ethnic trends in the music. The evolution of klezmer was in full swing.

Yet this cultural evolution was not the only evolution within klezmer music. Its instrumentation also changed over time. For most of the initial history of klezmer, the violin was the most useful instrument for expressive variations and ornamentation. (MUSIC: 3 Gulerman’s Doyne). Ornamentation gives each note a symbolic meaning: cheerful, moaning, or sighing, which supplies an added dimension to the music. As Max Slobin, a well-known modern klezmer historian, said about ornamentation, it must be done in a balanced way since “ornaments are like spices which can ruin the best dish.” Interestingly, during the 16th century the violin was at the lowest place in the hierarchy of musical instruments, but it was easier to flee a pogrom with a fiddle than with a piano and, thus, the fiddle ruled. In the 17th century the flute (or fleyt) was also featured, and piccolos were common because they were cheap and easy to make. Another instrument, the tismbl, or hammered dulcimer as it is known today, was already popular in the 16th century in Poland and Belarus. It was initially incorporated into klezmer tunes, but with a hundred strings it was hard to tune and fell out of favor.

In Ukraine, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Jews were only allowed to play on “quiet” instruments such as the fiddle, flute or tsimbl. Louder instruments such as brass and drums were forbidden. Later, in the second half of the 19th century, Jewish musicians introduced the clarinet, a slightly bolder instrument from Germany and Russia. Clarinet became one of the leading voices of the genre, with its expressive moaning sounds, especially useful for invoking emotion and passion. With this musical power, clarinetists soon overtook fiddlers in terms of their social status. (WILL) Another bolder instrument of this time, that would eventually become one of the most common elements in klezmer, was the accordion. It was rare and expensive by 19th century standards, but was useful in providing melody, strong accompaniment, and rhythm. The cello also contributed a greater volume than the violin for noisy gatherings, and was light enough to be hung from the shoulder during processionals.

Like the eventual boldness of its instruments, klezmer is not a subtle or tidy music, like classical music. The friction of melody against harmony in klezmer, creates a dissonance that adds to its musical tension. The music often has the chaotic sound of a synagogue congregation singing and speaking together, with the lead instrumental voices in a klezmer band recalling the sound of the Cantor’s voice. Although it can sound like pandemonium at times, the emotion generated by klezmer music is one of its most crucial aspects. (MUSIC: NY Psycho Freylekhs).

As with Jewish prayers, klezmer is characterized by various interpretations. Many instruments may play the same melody in differing ways, and often in different tempos. The tempo of klezmer is free, and fluctuations are played depending upon the need of the moment, the atmosphere in the ceremony, or the desire of the listeners. It may be faster as the musicians sense a crowd’s growing excitement on the dance floor, or slower when a grandmother enters into the dance. Like the Roma and jazz musicians, the klezmorim were able to play the melodies in front of or behind the beat, giving a feeling of instability. This also reflected the political and historical climate of Jews, and allowed for personal expression.

In “the old country” klezmer was able to survive local instabilities and political upheavals by being passed on as an oral tradition. In this tradition tunes were played without credit being given to a composer, and usually without even a proper title. Before the era of recordings, musicians often titled their songs simply by the name of the rhythm such as bulga, sher, hora, or freylekhs (meaning happy). The titles of songs often also referred simply to what was on the minds of the musicians when they wrote the songs. A good bottle of alcohol, and those who may have had a bit too much of it, may have inspired tunes such as Nokh a Glezl Vayn or “One More Glass of Wine”. (MUSIC: Nokh a Glezl Vayn). Song titles and the acknowledgement of composers became necessary only when recordings of the music began. Also, before the era of recordings, songs were adapted to the circumstances. If the guests were dancing the musicians were expected to play up to ten songs without a pause. However, with the arrival of the 78-rpm record, musicians were limited to just three minutes of music, which became the standard length of klezmer in the 20th century.

Just as the 78-rpm record represented an adaptation of klezmer music on a technical level, there were also creative revisions to the music over time that made it more accessible to listeners. This was manifested in the use of improvisation and embellishment. At first, improvisation meant simply varying the phrasing of a melody to meet the needs of the audience. As it evolved, however, and took on the influences of jazz, different musicians would add their own simultaneous variations to parts within the song. Songs would finish much like the way that Jews pray together, with everyone meeting up by the end of the tune or prayer. Embellishment, or “bending” of the notes, also became popular, and musicians used glissandi, or sliding from one note to another, to enhance the sound. Over time the slides and sobs of the klezmer musician gave klezmer its signature sound. This shaping of notes made the melody much like the human voice.

The unique voice, music, and culture of klezmer have a long history of survival. Klezmer was able to endure pogroms and other political unrest, but it faced a precipitous decline and was nearly lost after World War II. Multiple factors led to the near disappearance of klezmer after the war, with the most significant one being the loss of many Jewish musicians in Europe due to the Holocaust. In addition there was the strong desire among Jews to assimilate within the cultures they had newly adopted. This was done out of a need for survival as well as the desire to forget painful parts of a past identity.

After nearly twenty years in which little was created and cultivated in the world of klezmer, the beginning of klezmer’s rediscovery started to unfold in the 1970s in the United States and Europe, as musicians began to explore their roots. Old recordings were dug up and the surviving musicians of klezmer were consulted. Since few recordings were known to have survived from Eastern Europe, the sound of klezmer prior to its American introduction was still not well understood. It has been only in the past few years that European records from the EMI archives in England were uncovered, and the cultural evolution of klezmer music, from the old world to the new, was more fully appreciated. These archived copies of original recordings of performances date from the pre-World War I period, 1899-1914, a time when over 12,000 professional, commercial recordings of klezmer music were made in Europe. Most of the original records disappeared or were melted down to help the war efforts during World War II, and for nearly one hundred years it was unknown that these archives existed until a few experts in Jewish recordings began searching for specific song titles. After years of digitalizing the records from the archives, the amazing result was “Chekhov’s Band,” a CD released in 2015 that showcased 24 of these klezmer songs. (MUSIC: Dance in a Circle)

Klezmer’s revival led to its new international popularity and, musicians of this new revival generation saw the music in a more cultural and less traditional way. They recognized that klezmer was an expression of Jewish secular life, more than just a religious ritual to be played at ceremonies. This new approach to the music paralleled the way that many other aspects of Jewish life were adapting during this time. Changes also occurred in the relationship between the audience and the music, as it left its grassroots origins behind and began to move into concert halls and clubs. Here the audience was expected to listen in the same way they would when attending a classical music or jazz performance.

The 1980s saw a second wave of revival, as interest grew again in more traditional klezmer performances with string instruments. Players of this time included the violinist Yale Strom, whom I have heard perform and whose friends played at my parents’ wedding. A fusion between traditional songs and Roma music also began, as bands such as The Klezmatics came about, and later New Orleans funk, jazz, and klezmer styles all began to merge together. (MUSIC: Aging Raver’s Personal Hell).

Just like its people, klezmer music was able to survive in the diaspora. It adjusted and melded into new societies much as the immigrants from Eastern Europe had. Its thread of rebirth closely reflected the comfort level that Jews eventually found in their new adopted lands. While traditional performances may have declined for a while as many Jews struggled to assimilate, klezmer was never completely abandoned. Even before klezmer’s true revival, Jewish composers such as Gershwin were inspired by Yiddish sounds they had heard as children, and the opening of his “Rhapsody in Blue” from 1924 showed the strong influence of the klezmer clarinet. Klezmer today is a metaphor for the perseverance and adaptation of the Jews. Layers of ecstasy and anguish, hopelessness and renewal are the refrains of klezmer music. Laughing with tears is part of the essence of being Jewish, and klezmer is able to invoke joy and despair through its singular sound.

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