Klezmer (from Yiddish כּלי־זמיר, kley - instrument and zemer - song; etymologically from Hebrew k'li zemer כלי זמר, "musical instrument") is a musical tradition which parallels Hasidic and Ashkenazic Judaism. Around the 15th century, a tradition of secular (non-liturgical) Jewish music was developed by musicians called kleyzmorim or kleyzmurim. They draw on devotional traditions extending back into Biblical times, and their musical legacy of klezmer continues to evolve today. The repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations. Due to the Ashkenazi lineage of this music, the lyrics, terminology and song titles are typically in Yiddish.
Originally, klezmer (plural klezmorim) referred to musical instruments, and was later extended to refer to musicians themselves. It was not until the mid-to-late 20th Century that the word was used to identify a musical genre. Early 20th Century recordings and writings most often refer to the style as "Yiddish" music, although it is also sometimes called Freilech music.
Klezmorim based their secular instrumental music upon the devotional vocal music of the synagogue, in particular cantorial music. Even so, klezmorim — along with other entertainers — were typically looked down on by Rabbis because of their secular traveling lifestyle. Klezmorim often travelled and played with Roma musicians ("lăutari"), since they occupied similar social positions. They had a great influence on each other musically and linguistically (the extensive klezmer argot in Yiddish includes some Roma borrowings).
Klezmorim were respected for their musical abilities and diverse repertoire but they were by no means restricted to playing klezmer. Christian churches would sometimes ask for their services, and some Italian classical violin virtuosos received their instruction. Local aristocracy held the best klezmer in high regard and often used their services.
Like other professional musicians, klezmorim were often limited by authorities. Ukrainian restrictions lasting into the 19th century banned them from playing loud instruments. Hence musicians took up the violin, tsimbl (or cymbalom), and other string instruments. The first musician to bring klezmer to European concert audiences, Josef Gusikov, played a type of xylophone of his own invention, which he called a 'wood and straw instrument', laid out like a cymbalom, and attracted comments from Felix Mendelssohn (highly favourable) and Liszt (condemnatory). Later, around 1855 under the reign of Alexander II of Russia, Ukraine permitted loud instruments. The clarinet started to replace the violin as the instrument of choice. Also, a shift towards brass and percussion happened when klezmorim were conscripted into military bands.
As Jews left Eastern Europe and the shtetls, klezmer has spread throughout the globe, especially to the United States. Initially, not much of the klezmer tradition was maintained by U.S. Jews, there were only a few Yiddish folk singers. In the 1920s the clarinetists Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein caused a brief, influential revival. But as U.S. Jews began to adopt mainstream culture, the popularity of klezmer slowly waned, and Jewish celebrations were increasingly accompanied by non-Jewish music.
While traditional performances may have been on the decline, many Jewish composers who had secured mainstream success, such as Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, continued to be influenced by the klezmeric idioms heard during their youth. Many believe that Gershwin was influenced by the Yiddish of his youth, and that the opening of "Rhapsody in Blue" was a nod to klezmer clarinetting. And, much of Benny Goodman's clarinet style can be interpreted as having been derived from klezmer.
At the same time, non-Jewish composers were also turning to klezmer for a prolific source of fascinating thematic material. Dmitri Shostakovich, in particular, admired klezmer music for embracing both the ecstasy and the despair of human life and quoted several melodies in his chamber masterpieces, the Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57 (1940), the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, op. 67 (1944), and the String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, op. 110 (1960).
In the 1970s there was a klezmer revival in the United States and Europe, led by Giora Feidman, Zev Feldman, Andy Statman, The Klezmorim, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. They drew their repertoire from recordings and surviving musicians of U.S. klezmer. In 1985 Henry Sapoznik founded KlezKamp to teach klezmer and other Yiddish music.
Shortly thereafter, in the 1980s, there was a second revival as interest grew in more traditionally-inspired performances with string instruments, largely in non-Jews of the United States and Germany. Musicians began to track down older European klezmer, by listening to recordings, finding transcriptions, and making field recordings of the few klezmorim left in Eastern Europe. Key performers in this style are Joel Rubin, Budowitz, Khevrisa, Di Naye Kapelye, The Chicago Klezmer Ensemble, the violinists Alicia Svigals, Steven Greenman and Cookie Segelstein, the flutist Adrianne Greenbaum, and the tsimbl player Pete Rushefsky. The New York City-based Klezmatics also emerged during this period.
Interest in klezmer has developed in avant-garde jazz musicians like John Zorn and Don Byron, who sometimes blend klezmer with jazz. Klezmer melodies have also more recently been incorporated into songs by 3rd-wave ska band Streetlight Manifesto. Singer/songwriter Tomas Kalnoky frequently slips in horn licks with Russian and Jewish origins.
Historically, young klezmorim learned songs from their family and their elders in bands. However, there were several breaks in history where this transmission broke down, such as the Holocaust. Undoubtedly a lot was lost, especially wedding repertoire, since Jewish weddings would last several days, but technology of the time could only record a few minutes at a time. Fortunately, there remain a few older klezmorim that are able to recall some of this repertoire. Also, some transcriptions were done in the 19th century.
Additionally, there are types not designed for dance:
Klezmer percussion tended, in early 20th Century recordings, to be minimal, no more than a wood block or snare drum. (The snare drum is the more "authentic" of the two. The use of a wood block by modern klezmorim is the result of an attempt to imitate recordings from the early 20th Century, in which snare drums, whose volume tended to overwhelm the primitive recording equipment of the time, were replaced with quieter instruments.) In Eastern Europe percussion was often provided by a drummer who played a frame drum, or a poyk, sometimes called Baraban. (a poyk is a bass drum type drum often with a cymbal or piece of metal mounted on top. In Bulgaria, Serbia, and Macedonia, sometimes the pikeler would also play in the tapan style, i.e. with a switch in one hand on a thin tight head, and a mallet in the other, on a thicker, looser head.
Some Klezmer revival bands look to loud-instrument klezmer, jazz, and Dixieland for inspiration. Their band is similar to a typical jazz band, with some differences. They use a clarinet for the melody, and make great use of the trombone for slides and other flourishes. When a cymbalom sound is called for, a piano is played with sustain. There is usually a brass instrument ensemble, and sometimes there is a tuba for a bass. Performers in this style include The Klezmatics, Klezmer Conservatory Band and The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band. Other klezmer bands look back to different eras or regions, and attempt to recreate specific styles of klezmer--for example, the band Muzsikas has released albums in the 19th-century Romanian klezmer style, with only violins, tsimbls and other stringed instruments, giving even the happier passages a more haunting feel.
Like other musicians of their time, and many modern Jazz performers, early klezmorim did not rigidly follow the beat. Often they would slightly lead or trail it, giving a lilting sound.
Since klezmorim often had to perform for long events, it was difficult to keep the instruments in tune, especially the many-stringed cymbalom. This was not a great obstruction, since melody — not harmony — is the focus of klezmer.
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