An Introduction To
Etymologically the Yiddish word "klezmer" is the contraction of the
Hebrew words 'kle' and 'zemer' which mean vessel or instrument and music or song, it is the instrument of the
voice, the channel of the soul. Klezmer refers also to the musicians (klezmorim) who are playing Klezmer and
observe the traditional Jewish dance music.
At the late middle age, there was a dramatic change in the situation
of the Jewish communities in Western Europe. Like the rest of the population, numerous Jewish people perished of
epidemics and diseases (the black death). But they also suffered from persecutions and were expelled
definitively from countries like France, Germany or Spain where they had been living for centuries. Those moving
populations migrated massively to Central and Eastern Europe.
At the end of the Middle-Age, in spite of the banning of the
instrumental music by rabbinical orders, musical instruments were played again at secular events and buoyant
religious celebrations like Purim or Hanukkah (recorders, viols, harps). The migration from the West to the
East influenced without a doubt the Jewish culture and tradition.
The music, that will evolve into klezmer as we know it today, is a
part of this cultural evolution. The itinerant Jewish musicians were active players of the folk music in France and
other countries ('the troubadours'), accompanied by jesters, jugglers and acrobats. Music was one of the few
professions allowed to Jews by the Medieval authorities along with money lending and commerce.
Professional guilds emerged, like in Prague (1558) or Lublin (1654).
Draconian laws were imposed both by the rabbinical and gentile authorities, like the number of musicians, the kind
of instruments (loud instruments were not allowed), the schedules, days or hours of performance...
In the latter half of the 1700s emerged three Jewish
(1729-1786, the composer Felix Mendelssohn's grandfather), was the initiator of the 'Jewish Enlightenment
movement' - 'The Haskhala' that inspirited the assimilation, the study of secular matters and the adoption of
the ways and customs of the Western European society.
In Northern Europe (Lithuania) Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, the
Ga'on of Vilna (1720-1797), advocated
the traditional Jewish approach which included the study of the Talmud and the codes of the Jewish religious
In Eastern Europe appeared
the Hasidic movement. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, a scholar and a
mystic, was the founder of the Hasidism. Without digressing from a commitment to the Torah, the Hasidim
disciples emphasized the ability of all Jews to get closer to God via a new way of Jewish life. Everything we
do, say, think can be a path to approach God, the emphasis was on spirituality and joy.
Thus, this movement made religion more approachable to the common
people by highlighting spirituality, dancing and singing. They sang secular melodies, popular dances, Hazanut
(which is Jewish liturgy) as well as "nigunim", the wordless melodies. Nigun is the Hebrew word which means
melody, air. Hasidim sang these melodies, hoping to "elevate" to higher kingdoms and approach God in a kind of
ecstatic communion through the music.
The musicians (klezmorim) were traveling from Shtetl to Shtetl
(villages) and were invited to animate joyful occasions like weddings, bar- mitzvah, Purim celebration, Hanukah
and synagogue dedication.
The Klezmer band was composed of autodidact musicians who played
traditional yiddish melodies, folk songs and dances, solemn hymns before prayer or blessing of a new Torah
scroll in the synagogue. Klezmer music was an aural dynastic tradition transmitted from fathers to sons,
from generation to generation.
The Klezmer musicians were so talented that they were often invited
by non- Jewish people to play at their parties and gatherings. The hosts requested them to play contemporary
folk music. Their wages were proportional to their virtuosity and skills but mainly to their faculty to play a
large repertoire adapted to a particular audience. These contacts with the different cultures and musics around
Eastern Europe, Poland, Ukrainia, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Gypsy....create a mixture made of popular
songs, profane dance music and hazanut.
The melody is the core of the Jewish music, the nigun plays the main
role, the function of the accompaniment is not only harmonic but also to provide rhythm, volume and melody
support. The characteristic sound of the klezmer band is maybe due to the tension, the dissonance between the
melody line and the underlying harmony. Different instruments play the tune but not in unison. This
'heterophony' remind us of the cacophony of the synagogue when all the attendants are praying loudly together.
The fervor of the music is similar to the devoutness of the worship.
Klezmer is a unique and easily recognizable music that is now
appreciated all around the world.
It is difficult to define Klezmer, it is emotion, laughing and
crying, joy and sorrow, exultation, jubilation. It is the expression of the soul. The Klezmer does not "play",
he sings. Klezmer is an invitation to dance and to meditation, to celebration and introspection.
"Klezmer touches our soul, and it gives us an inkling of
what our ancestors used to listen to and dance to and be happy to." Yzhak Perlman
The Klezmer music is all about interpretation, each individual player
can interpret the same melody, the same "nigun" in many ways as long as he is in accordance with his true
emotions.The bending and twisting notes are the remembering of the cantor's prayers singed at the synagogue and
produce the laughing and crying quality of Klezmer. A personal touch of ornamentation, embellishment and
improvisation will bring the simplest melody to heaven.
"Klezmer does NOT denote a particular kind
of music, and is not a reflection of a musical style...it refers to the natural ability of a human being to
express him or herself through song. This is TRULY the meaning of the term KLEZMER" Giora
The word klezmer may be quite confusing, because it holds multiple meanings. At the origin, klezmer referred to
its etymological sense which is musical instrument, but at some point, the word klezmer underwent a semantic shift
and designated the instrument and the musician as well ('musikant'). The modern meaning that includes the music
genre element appeared some eighty years ago. Beregovsky, the famous ethnomusicologist was the first to use the
klezmer term ('klezmerishe musik') to name the music in his book 'Yiddishe Instrumentalishe Folksmuzik' . In
fact, "klezmer music" is a pleonasm, because the same concept is said twice in different words.
Music is klezmer and klezmer is music, choose the right order!