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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.


Klezmer is easily identifiable by its characteristic expressive melodies, reminiscent of the human voice, complete with laughing and weeping. This is not a coincidence; the style is meant to imitate khazone and paraliturgical singing. Several techniques are used to accomplish this. There are krekhts, 'sobs', and dreydlekh which are a form of trill.


The Bible has several descriptions of orchestras and Levites making music. But after the destruction of the Second Temple in 68, many Rabbis discouraged musical instruments. But the importance of merrymaking at weddings was not diminished, and musicians came forth to fill that niche, klezmorim. The first klezmer known by name was Yakobius ben Yakobius, a 150s player of the aulos in Samaria. The earliest written record of the klezmorim is in the 15th century. It should be noted that it is unlikely that they played music recognizable as klezmer today since the style and structure of klezmer as we know it today is thought to have come largely from 19th century Bessarabia, where the bulk of today's traditional repertoire was written.

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.

In the 20th century, klezmer is typically learned from fake books and transcriptions of old recordings.

Song types

Most klezmer pieces are intended to be danced to, from fast to slow tempo:

  • The freylekhs (also bulgar, bulgarish - literally "Bulgarian", volekhl/vulekhl - literally "Wallachian", or "Romanian") is a (3+3+2 = 8)/8 circle dance, usually in the Ahava Rabboh melodic mode. Typically piano, accordion, or bass plays a duple oom-pah beat. These are by far the most popular klezmer dances. The name "Bulgar" (Yiddish "bulgarish", Romanian "bulgarească") probably refers to the Bulgarian minority in southern Bessarabia, although their association with this particular dance has long been forgotten.
  • The sher is a set dance in 2/4. It is one of the most common klezmer dances.
  • The khosidl, or khusidl, named after the Hasidic Jews who danced it, is a more dignified embellished dance in 2/4 or 4/4. The dance steps can be performed in a circle or in a line.
  • The hora or zhok is a Romanian-style dance in a hobbling 3/8 time with beats on 1 and 3, and is even more embellished. The Israeli hora derives its roots from the Moldavian hora.
  • The kolomeike is a fast and catchy dance in 2/4 time, which originated in Ukraine, and is prominent in the folk music of that country.
  • The terkish is a 4/4 dance like the habanera. Terk in America is one famous arrangement by Naftule Brandwein, who used this form extensively.
  • The skotshne ("hopping") could be an instrumental display piece, but also a dance piece, like a more elaborate freylekhs.
  • The nigun, which means "melody" in both Yiddish and Hebrew, a mid-paced song in 2/4.
  • Waltzes were very popular, whether classical, Russian, or Polish. A padespan was a sort of Russian/Spanish waltz known to klezmers.
  • The mazurka and polka, Polish and Czech dances, respectively, were often played for both Jews and Gentiles.
  • Cakewalks were African-American folk dances popular around the start of the 20th century, even among Eastern European Jews.
  • The csárdás is a Hungarian dance popular among the Jews of Hungary, Slovakia, and the Carpathians. It started off slowly and gradually increased in tempo.
  • The sîrba, a Romanian dance in 2/3 or 2/4. It features hopping steps and short bursts of running, accompanied by triplets in the melody.
  • The Humoresque 'Halaka' dance, a traditional Israeli dance from Safed in Galilee; it has an ancient melody handed down from generation to generation.
  • The tango, the well-known dance that originated in Argentina. These were extremely popular around the world in the 1930s, and many Eastern European tangos were originally written by Jews.

Additionally, there are types not designed for dance:

  • A doina is an improvisational lament usually performed solo, and is extremely important in weddings. Its basis is the Romanian shepherd's lament, so it has an expressive vocal quality, like the singing of the khazn. Although it has no form, it is not just random sounds in a Jewish mode--the musician works with very particular references to Jewish prayer and East European laments. Often these references might occur in the form of harmonic movements or modal maneuvers which quote or otherwise invoke traditional Jewish cantorial practices. Typically it is performed on violin (Yiddish "fidl"), cymbalom (Yiddish "tsimbl") or clarinet, though has been done on everything from banjoes to xylophones. Often it is the first of a 3-part set, followed by a hora, then either a freylekhs or khusidl.
  • A taksim is a freeform prelude that introduces the motifs of the following piece, which is usually a freylekhs; it was largely supplanted by the doina by the beginning of the XX century.
  • A fantazi or fantasy is a freeform song, traditionally played at Jewish weddings to the guests as they dined. It resembles the fantasia of "light" classical music.

Song structure

Most klezmer songs are in several sections, each in a different key. Frequently sections alternate between major and minor keys. Instrumental songs often follow the type of chord progressions found in Middle Eastern and Greek music, whereas vocal Yiddish songs are often much simpler, and follow a style and chord progressions similar to Russian folk songs.

A common ending for songs is an upwards chromatic run or glissando, followed by a slow staccato 8-5-1.


Klezmer is generally instrumental, although at weddings klezmorim traditionally accompany the wedding entertainer. A typical 19th century European orchestra would have included a first violin, a contra-violin (or modified 3-stringed viola also called Groyse Fidl [Yid. Big Fiddle], Sekund, Kontra or Zsidó Bratsch [Hun.]), a tsimbl (cimbalom or hammered dulcimer), a bass or cello, and sometimes a flute. The melody is generally assigned to the lead violin, while the remainder providing harmony, rhythm and some counterpoint (the latter usually coming from the second violin or viola). The inclusion of Jews in tsarist army bands during the 19th century led to the introduction of typical military band instruments into klezmer. Brass instruments eventually inherited a counter-voice role, amongst which the french valved cornet and the keyed German trumpet. Modern klezmer instrumentation is more commonly influenced by the instruments of the 19th century military bands than the earlier orchestras.

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.


In its original form, Klezmer was live music designed to facilitate dancing. Hence, the tempo would be altered as dancers tired — or better dancers joined in. Trying to maintain a steady tempo was counterproductive. Vocal songs would also come to a near-halt as the bandleader sang a particularly sad part, perhaps picking up slowly and eventually bursting into happy song once more (this is a feature of many Rom and Russian folk songs as well). Nonetheless, klezmorim were often mocked for their drifting tempos by fellow musicians.

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.

Melodic modes

Klezmer is usually played in shteygerim, prayer modes of the synagogue. They are closely related to but distinct from Balkan modes.

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.

Ahava Rabboh

Ahava Rabbah means "Abounding Love" in Hebrew, and refers to a prayer from the daily morning prayer service (shacharit). It is built on the fifth degree of the harmonic minor scale, with a descending tetrachord to the tonic being the most characteristic final cadence. It is also called the "Freygish", a Yiddish term derived from the German "Phrygisch", or Phrygian mode. It is considered the mode of supplication. Usually it is found in Hassidic music. It is similar to the Arabic Hijaz maqam. Most Klezmer makes use of the D Ahavah Rabboh scale (such as Nigun Rikud, Tish Nigun and numerous freylekhs), although there exist some that use other scales.

Mi Sheberach

Mi Sheberach means "He who blessed" in Hebrew, from the Mi Shebarach prayer, recited after the honor of being called to the Torah reading. It is also called the Ukrainian, Altered Ukrainian, Doina, or Altered Dorian. It has a raised fourth, and is used often for the doina or dance pieces, like the Odessa Bulgar. When used in combination with the Ahavah Rabboh scale in the same piece (as in Mayn Shtetl Yas), the Mi Sheberach section is usually a whole tone below the Ahavah Rabboh scale (for example, D Ahavah Rabboh changes to C Mi Sheberach or vice versa).

Adon-y Moloch

Adon-y Moloch means "my Lord reigns" in Hebrew. It is common in traditional synagogue services (they are the beginning words of many of the Psalms). It is similar to the Western Mixolydian mode and the Arabic Siga Maqam.

Mogen Ovos

Mogen Ovos means "our forebears' shield" in Hebrew. It is an older mode from the synagogue, derived from the Friday night prayers. It is similar to the Western natural minor scale and the Arabic Bayat Maqamat and Bayat-Nava.


Yishtabach means "it shall become superb" in Hebrew (from the daily morning services). It has a frequent lowering of the 2nd and 5th. It is related to Mogen Ovos, above.


  • Jewish Soul Music: The Art of Giora Feidman (1980). Directed by Uri Barbash.
  • A Jumpin' night in the Garden of Eden (1988). Directed by Michal Goldman.
  • Fiddler on the Roof (1971) Directed by Norman Jewison.
  • Fiddlers on the Hoof (1989). Directed by Simon Broughton.
  • The Last Klezmer: Leopold Kozlowski: His Life and Music (1994). Directed by Yale Strom.
  • A Tickle in the Heart (1996). Directed by Stefan Schwietert.
  • Dummy (2002). Directed by Greg Pritikin.



See also

External links

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