Klezmer music: from the past to the present

Translated from Hervé Roten’s article

Klezmer is an instrumental music for celebrations which was once performed in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe at weddings or joyous religious celebrations, such as Purim, Simhat Torah, or for the inauguration of a new synagogue. Like most of musical Jewish traditions, klezmer is a music of exile [1] strongly marked by its geographical and cultural environment. But in Eastern Europe, consisting of many different people and languages, this environment was constantly changing. Klezmer music therefore took from here and there, and developed a rich and pluralistic practice which never stopped developing through time and space.

To speak today of the klezmer phenomena, is therefore to study how a musical genre is born, evolves and is transformed throughout history. It is also to consider the music within a given society and the interactions between these two elements.


The word “klezmer” comes from Hebrew “kli zemer” which means “instrument of the singing”. It is in a manuscript from the XVIth century kept in Trinity College of Cambridge, that “klezmer” designated the musician and no longer the instrument [2]. The word is pejorative: in slang, it means a thief, a criminal. In the beginning of the XXth century, “klezmer” meant a self-taught musician who played popular music by ear. According to the native Polish cantor Shalom Berlinski (1918 – 2008), “In the 1920-30’s, there were no definite words to call the instrumentalists playing at weddings. The word “klezmer” - that we use today everywhere – was pejorative: it meant a “bum” who plays vulgar music. Klezmers were not really appreciated. When they played, each one added harmony, the one passing by in his head, depending on his talent, his inspiration. It wasn’t very valuable; actually it had no value at all” [3]. But nowadays, the word has become more complimentary for the musician and in everyday language, it also qualifies traditional Jewish music from Eastern Europe.

Historic route

Klezmers are therefore children from roaming Jewish musicians, from which we find traces since the Roman period. Until the end of the Middle-Ages, many Jewish people joined the universal class of entertainers. Ironically, their inferior status as musician guaranteed them a certain indulgence that their wealthier co-religionists didn’t have. We therefore find indications of Jewish musicians related to Christian kings as well as Muslim Califs.

These Jewish minstrels and jugglers performed an international repertoire, mainly composed of songs, instrumental pieces, but also recitations of long epic stories and various types of poetry. In the XIIIth century they performed their art among provincial troubadours, Trouvères from the North of France and Minnesänger from the Rhine region.

From the XVIth century on, the instrumental usage of klezmers was severely restricted, by civil authorities who gave very few playing authorizations to a limited number of musicians allowing them to play (in Metz in XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, only three musicians, maybe four were allowed at weddings), and also by Jewish religious authorities who did not really like this craze for this music among worshippers, since it was hardly compatible with a Jewish ethic.

Klezmers were nevertheless regularly invited by the communities to play for different festive occasions. In Prague, where they formed an actual guild, the musical life was intense. The welcoming of the Shabbat was the occasion for great spiritual concerts. In 1678 in Prague, there was a great procession with more than 20 instrumentalists, a choir of cantors and assistants, and a choir of worshippers. Klezmers were also requested for celebrations that the community gave for the various emperors. But such events didn’t happen everyday. In order to make a living, the professional Jewish musician also performed in front of a Christian audience. Jewish musicians therefore created bridges between Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. This is why we see Jewish musicians playing in local orchestras, and non-Jewish musicians playing in Jewish orchestras called kepelyes, kompanye, or orkestr. This is also why musical exchanges happened daily between Jews and Gypsies [4]..

At the turn of the XXth century, hundreds of thousands Jews from Central and Eastern Europe fled pogroms and misery and emigrated to the United States. Among them, many found jobs in theater, cabarets, hotels, cafes, circuses, and later on in cinema. The American Jewish community continued to request klezmers for weddings and other traditional celebrations. The community soon owned its own cafes, restaurants, cabarets and its radio, where musicians could perform. The Yiddish theater was also a place where singers, musicians and composers could express their talents. A new generation of actors, singers, such as Aaron Lebedeff (1873-1960) or Molly Picon (1898-1992) appeared in that period.

During the second world war, Central and Eastern Europe were emptied from its Jews by nazi barbarism. Entire communities vanished, taking with them a multi-secular culture. But in the United States, klezmer music survived and flourished as music for dancing and rejoicing due to musicians such as Abe Schwartz (1881-1963), Harry Kandel (1885-1943), Naftule Brandwein (1889-1963) or Dave Tarras (1897- 1989). Feeling there was potential money to make, by the end of the XIXth century the American record industry became interested in this repertoire. About 50,000 records of Jewish music, among them just 700 of klezmer music, were made between 1894 and 1942.

After the second world war, a tendency to cultural assimilation and Zionism that was strong among Jews from America gave less importance to Jewish music. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 launched a new cultural and linguistic program which did not look back at Eastern Europe; Hebrew replaced Yiddish and the new Israeli culture became a reference for the diaspora.

However, in the 1970-80’s, the interest for Yiddish culture came back. And with the performance of various pioneers such as the clarinet player Giora Feidman, Henry Sapoznik (from the band Kapelye) or Lev Liberman (The Klezmorim), a music named “klezmer” reappeared, just like “celtic” was named for Irish music.

Starting in the United States, this “new wave” klezmer didn’t take long to arrive in Europe and Israel. In 1970, the reviving klezmer movement counted 3 orchestras in United States; in 1990, there more than 50, 10 just for New-York [5]. In France, new bands playing klezmer music appear each year and the record production dedicated to this genre is growing. Observation shared by professionals: “Late of more than 20 years compared to United States, the Klezmer phenomena breaks through in our old country, touching professionals and amateurs. They are more and more to sign up French “Klezkamps””.

Klezmer is still alive, but it has strongly changed, as we can see with the instruments and repertoire in usage.

The instruments of klezmer music

The instruments played by klezmers were always varied: first was the violin and other string instruments (alto, cello, double bass), but also clarinet, flute, percussion, and brass instruments in the XXth century. According to Henry Sapoznik, “the importance was its capacity to play the local repertoire, the possibility to make and repair them, and its transportability”. [6].

In the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, klezmer ensembles were mainly composed of a lute or a small string ensemble – in general two violins and a viola da gamba. Sometimes there was a cymbalum, from which the soft and sizzling sonorities completed the virtuoso performance of the violins. In Ukraine, in XVIIIth and XIXth centuries, the law divided music instruments in two categories: “strong” (brass instruments and percussions) and “soft” (strings and flutes). Jews were authorized to play just those from the second category. But around the second half of the XIXth century, linked likewise with the military brass bands, klezmer ensembles started integrating wind instruments, such as the clarinet, and progressively brass instruments. The accordion was used a lot at the end of the XIXth century, but rare due to its expensive price. The percussion was often just a simple drum (tshekal) or a bigger bass drum (puk or baraban) with or without cymbals (tats).

At the end of the XIXth century, in order to have more balance, the number of string instruments became bigger in bands, and bigger orchestras appeared.

The first records – in Europe in 1897, and especially in United States – also influenced the composition of the orchestras. The first known recordings of klezmer music are mainly small ensembles, like two violins and a cymbalum, with sometimes an accordion. But progressively, the record companies encouraged wind and brass instruments due to the technical means of recording which were more effective for the more powerful and directional sound of brass instruments than of strings.The tuba therefore replaced the double bass. In the United States, influenced by jazz music, saxophone and banjo were also used. Nowadays, klezmer ensembles, incorporated to “world music”, can use guitars, pianos, but also ethnic instruments such as didjeridoo or tablas!

The repertoire

Klezmer music is very mixed. It has borrowed to the hassidic movement [7] the joy, the eagerness, and especially the niggunim, these melodies without words, easy to memorize and repeat. Is added to it a subtle blend of popular Jewish and non-Jewish melodies, music from secular dances and synagogue music. Like for klezmer art, the ashkenazi cantorial style (Hazzanut) includes much ornamentation. Furthermore, it uses the same modes and motives. This influence of Hazzanut on instrumental Jewish music is clear, like for certain ornamentation – such as the krechts (sigh) -that comes directly from the cantorial tradition.

However, it was mainly during dances and Jewish events that the klezmers could express their talent: each event called for a particular style of music: for meals and meditation, mostly niggunim. But the biggest part of the repertoire was linked to weddings that included music for dancing (broyges tants: reconciliation dance between the step-mothers; patsh tants: clapping in the hands; freilekh: happy dance; sher: square dance: etc) but also ritual and processional music (the arriving and leaving of the guests, the procession of the bride and groom under the wedding canopy (the khupa), etc).

The klezmer repertoire in its larger meaning includes also many Yiddish songs, traditional or more recent. This is not surprising when we consider the fact that traditional weddings, for one part, were enlivened by a badkhan, a master of ceremony who was at the same time a comic improvisor, a parodist or moralist, and sometimes a singer, and secondly, that the ceremony or Purim was the occasion for performances (Purimshpil), with musicians, actors and singers.

Although the repertoire is varied, klezmer music is still a genre that is easily recognizable. What are its main musical characteristics?

Music systematics

The concept of klezmer music is borrowed from oriental music: the melody has the prime place and the discourse develops with the ornamentation and modal improvisation. But what’s the most surprising when we listen to klezmer music, is this sensation of freedom, one can even say chaotic noise. It is as if every instruments talked at the same time! But all say the same thing, all refer to a same melodic model, but each one develops in his particular way. It’s a heterophonic relationship, just like in the synagogue, when every worshipper sings the prayer with his own tonality, speed, with his phrasing and ornamentation.

However, harmony is not completely absent; it is subject to the melody: therefore, one only chord can be enough for a whole section. It is the friction between the melody and harmony that creates the discords and the melodic tension, typical of this music.

The ornamentation is extremely rich and varied (krekhts: sigh, dreydelekh: grupetto, tshok, clicks, etc). Vibrato is not used very much but long notes are completed with trills. The glissandi are often used by the fiddlers but also by other instruments.

Improvisation is frequently used in klezmer music. At first, it consisted of modifying the phrase, or the ornamenting of a melody. But this concept has naturally evolved in the 20th century under the influence of jazz and the emergence of solos over harmonies.

Klezmer music mainly uses five mode types; the major mode, the minor modes (natural, harmonic, and ascending) and three synagogue modes (shtaygerim [8]): Ahava Raba (great love), Mi sheberakh (the one who blesses) and Adonay molokh (God king), named after the beginnings of famous prayers. These shtaygerim are defined by a modality very close to the Arab modes (maqamat) or Indian (raga) [9].

The rhythms, in general binary, borrow from the characteristics of the dances to which they correspond (khosidl, hora, terkish, sirba, etc.). However in certain pieces (taksim or doyna for example) or inside songs, there can be unmeasured parts: the accompaniment, often played by the accordion or cymbalum, just stays on a note or a chord while the soloist improvises his melody.

At first, tempo was quite free and changed according to the atmosphere or the audience: it had to be faster when the ambiance was getting hotter, and slower and a grand-mother came into the dance. This adaptation is hearable in the way they end the songs: a chromatic rise ends up on a melodic and harmonic progression VIII – V – I, played at tempo or often slower, allowed a piece to end quickly and at anytime according to the event (entrance of the bride, announcement of a present, etc.).

Traditional klezmer music is purely functional, linked to the lifestyle of Ashkenazi Jews. Today, things are slightly different: like jazz, klezmer has become a genre on its own; it is played by artists of all origins and all religions, and has gotten onto stage. Klezmer’s particular characteristics have been smoothed over a little by universality of its inspirations: a mix of popular music from Romania, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, Greek, Ottoman (Turkish or Arab), and especially Gypsy, we can maybe say klezmer music is one of the first “fusion” music.
But by leaving its original place and function klezmer music may lose its identity. And as the sociologist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett said, going from a “traditional music” to a “heritage music” is not without danger [10].

Nowadays, klezmer musicians swing between respect, tradition and modernity. Some play it reproducing the sounds and arrangements of the past. Others kept its pseudoliturgic function, performing it at weddings and Jewish events. Finally, in other cases, the most predominant, their music is married to contemporary music, to jazz, to world music...

But after all, isn’t klezmer music a music for marriage?

Watch the conference : "Le renouveau du klezmer - Hervé Roten et Denis Cuniot

Read the article about Klezmer dances
Listen to the playlist Klezmer Music 1
Listen to the playlist Klezmer Music 2
Listen to the playlist The clarinet in klezmer music

[1How can one forget that the Jewish people spent more than half of its existence outside its homeland ? To the point that the Greek word "diaspora" (dispersion) which was used only for the displaced Jews has now entered the common language to designate exiled ethnic minorities (Chinese diaspora, Armenian diaspora, etc.) !

[2A great part of the documentation for this article comes from Michel Borzykowski’s website (http://borzykowski.users.ch) who did a remarkable work on the subject. May he be thanked here.

[3Conversation with the cantor Shalom Berlinski (1918-2008) recorded by H. Roten on September 24, 2003.

[4These exchanges between Jews and Gypsies result from a community of fate (same inferior status and same travelling way of life) as well as a preference for Eastern influenced music. The doina, this sad tune, is an example of music played by both of these people. In fact, one of the creators of Gypsy-Hungarian national music, Mark RozsavölgyI (1787-1848) was actually called Mordchele Rosenthal. His Gypsy orchestra was entirely composed of Jews disguised as Gypsies.

[5PAYEN Dominique, La musique klezmer et les klezmorim de Berkeley, mémoire de Maîtrise, Université de Rouen, oct. 1990, p. 31.

[6SAPOZNIK Henry, Klezmer ! Jewish Music from old World to Our World, New-York, Schirmer books, 1999.

[7The hassidic movement is a mystic branch born in Podolia in the first half of the 18th century. It preaches that one can access the divine with collective and extatic experiences based in particular on music and dance.

[8The shtayger (or steiger) - word which means "mode" or "way" in Yiddish - is a melodic model which serves as a base for the cantor’s improvisation. It is composed of a determined scale and of specific melodic formulas.

[9Cf. AVENARY, Hanoch, "Shtayger", Encyclopaedia Judaïca, Jerusalem, Keter Publishing House, 1972, vol. 14, pp. 1464-1466.

[10Cf. KIRSHENBLATT-GIMBLETT Barbara, « La renaissance du klezmer : réflexions sur un chronotope musical », Cahiers de Littérature Orale, n°44, 1998, pp. 229-262.

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