Klezmer is Jewish folk music. It is the music that the Jewish people sang, played and danced to throughout the hundreds of years that they lived in Eastern Europe: in the countries of Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Bulgaria and Rumania. It is also the music that the Jewish people brought with them when they emigrated to America, mostly beginning in the 1880's. Almost all of America's Jewish families emigrated from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1950.
Klezmer is the Yiddish language term for musician and is composed of two Hebrew words: "Kley" and "Zemer" which mean "instrument of song."
The soulful melodies and spirited rhythms of Klezmer music transcend its Jewish folk roots. Today, Klezmer music is performed and enjoyed by people of all cultures.
I. Where does Klezmer music come from?
First, Jewish musicians absorbed the sounds of the folk musics of the countries where they lived. Eastern European Jewish music is heavily influenced by the scales and rhythms of the Eastern European folk styles. Occasionally, complete folk melodies found their way into the Klezmer repertoire as did the dances. Listen for similarities between Klezmer music and other Eastern European folk music that you might know, for example, Rom (Gypsy) or Bulgarian folk music. Many people also hear similarities to Middle Eastern and Arabic music. This is a result of the long reach of the Ottoman Empire into Southeastern Europe which created a bridge between the folk musics of Europe and the Middle East.
Second, up until the twentieth century, almost all Jews frequently heard and sang liturgical--church-- music, from the elaborate sacred music of the professional cantor ("hazan") in the great Synagogues ("shuls") of the large cities to the daily prayers chanted in the tiny village ("shtetl") Synagogues. And then there were the Hasidim. Hasidim were pious Jews who believed that joyous singing was just as important as prayer. Their daily lives were filled with melodies ("niggunim"). Klezmer musicians were deeply influenced by the sounds of these Synagogue melodies and Hasidic songs. Listen for the haunting sounds of prayer as well as joyous spirituality in the music.
Third, the life of an Eastern European Jew was a difficult one. Jewish people in Eastern Europe were subjected to frequent persecution and were always considered to be second-class citizens. For example, Jews were prohibited from owning property, engaging in many businesses and professions, and attending schools and universities. Most dreaded of all was the "pogrom," when anti-Semitic mobs would rampage through the Jewish communities killing and burning everyone and everything in their path. In fact, it was a series of very serious and deadly pogroms in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century that persuaded many of the surviving Jews to emigrate to America. (America, for its part was in the midst of the "Industrial Revolution" and encouraged this and other immigration in order to fill the labor requirements of America's new factories). Listen for the sounds of the hardships of Eastern European Jewish life, even in the happier dance music.
II. When was Klezmer music played?
A Klezmer musician's best "gig" was the traditional, Eastern European Jewish wedding. The Klezmer musician would be waiting at the local train station to welcome the bride and her family and to escort them to their lodgings. At the beginning of the wedding itself, it was the custom for the Klezmer musicians to play a soulful improvisation as the bride was seated in the wedding hall. After the wedding ceremony when it was time to dance, the Klezmer would play all manner of dance tunes until late into the night. As the evening wore down, there would be quieter songs and maybe even a song hinting it was time to go home. The families would then be escorted through the streets to their homes to more music.
Klezmer music was also played during Jewish holidays such as Chanukah and Purim. When there were no weddings or holidays, Klezmer musicians would travel from village to village playing in the village squares, especially on market day. In the larger cities, people would toss coins wrapped in paper out of their windows to reward the Klezmer for their music. This custom persisted even in America, especially in New York's Lower East Side where great concentrations of Jewish immigrants lived at the beginning of the century.
III. Types of Klezmer Music
Klezmer musicians did not so much differentiate the music they played by song but rather by type or style.
1. Doyne: a contemplative, emotional improvisation showcasing the musician's mastery and feeling. The Doyne is based on the Romanian shepherd song (the word "Doyne" is Romanian for "lamentation"). It is usually followed by a dance piece such as a "Khusid'l" or "Freylekhs." The Doyne was often played at the beginning of an event to announce the arrival of the important guests.
2. Khusidl or chosid: this is a slower kind of dance or table melody reminiscent of Hasidic style dancing. The Khusid'l is characterized by a very heavy downbeat which matches the stomp of the Hasidim as they dance. The tune "Ot Azoi" is another example of a Khusid'l.
3. Freylekhs (which comes from the Yiddish word for joyous) is an up tempo dance in two or three parts. The rhythm is often syncopated by accenting the first, third, and seventh beats. This gives the music-Ðand the dancers-- a sense of forward motion. Both Khusid'ls and Freylekhs make up an important part of the Klezmer dance repertoire.
4. Hora or zhok. This type of melody is based on a uniquely Romanian rhythm which places the accents on the first and last beats of a three-beat measure.
It was often the style of melody that was used to escort the wedding party through the streets of the village.
IV. Klezmer Instrumentation
Early Klezmer ensembles were string-dominated (e.g. fiddles, cellos and basses). In some areas, this was because Jews were not permitted to play the louder instruments. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Russian army began drafting Jews. This represented a terrible time for the Jews, as children--often younger than ten-years old--were snatched from their parents' homes to serve in the Russian army. The term of service lasted for twenty-five years! The Russians had hoped to de-Judaize these children by taking them away from their homes. Some of these children ended up in military bands and brought their instruments home with them when they were eventually discharged. The traditional "Fidl Kapelye" (string band) was now joined by military band instruments: clarinets, flutes, trumpets, trombones, brass bass and marching drums and cymbals.
The violin and the clarinet are the instruments most closely associated with Klezmer music. This is because Klezmer music strives most of all to imitate the sounds of the human voice. It is the violin and the clarinet that can cry and sigh and even laugh. It is those cries and sighs that give Klezmer music its unique sound. Listen for the crying and sighing sounds of the violin and clarinet.
The violin has another role in Klezmer music. It can also be a rhythm instrument. This style of fiddle playing was called "secund" by the Yiddish speaking Klezmer musicians. The fiddler plays two or three note chords in a rhythmic pattern while another instrument plays the melody. Notice when the violin is playing melody and when it is used for rhythm.
The accordion reached Eastern Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century. Its ability to pump out strong rhythmic accompaniments made it very desirable as a Klezmer instrument.
V. The Yiddish Language
Yiddish was a language spoken by every Eastern European Jew. Of course, the Jews also spoke the languages of the countries that they lived in but their first and beloved language was Yiddish. This gave the Eastern European Jews a sense of community even when they lived in widely separated and even warring countries. Traveling Klezmer musicians were thus able to bring the sounds of the Polish polka, for example, to far-away Bulgaria while at the same time transmitting the hot Bulgarian dances to Poland. When the Eastern European Jews emigrated to America, they brought the Yiddish language with them. By the early decades of the twentieth century, there were many Yiddish language newspapers and a thriving Yiddish theater. Today, the Yiddish language is hardly used as an everyday language yet it has left its impact on the speech of American Jews in particular and some of its words have even become part of the language of Americans in general. Notice Yiddish words that have become part of the American mainstream (e.g. bagel, chutzpa, schlep).