I wrote in my blog a few days ago about how in recent months I have become increasingly drawn to klezmer music. Although I am a musician by profession, when I first came across the word klezmer I didn’t have the faintest idea what it was.
About 4 years ago we had a holiday in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, partly because we wanted to experience some live concerts at the renowned festival held at the Snape maltings, a festival which was founded by Benjamin Britten in 1948. We managed to secure tickets for two concerts during the week we had booked our holiday flat, one of which featured the Geneva Chamber Orchestra performing Dvorak’s Serenade, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Mendelssohn’s Octet. The other concert was given by Burning Bush, a group who played Jewish pieces, sung and instrumental, which they had collected from all over Europe and many of which came from Israel. They performed these on violins, guitar, clarinet, double bass, accordion, rebec and various other eastern plucked string instruments. The songs expressed both joyful celebration and a yearning for deliverance from enemies, persecution and suffering. At the end of the evening which was thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying from a musical point of view, I had, without realizing it at the time, experienced my first klezmer concert.
The label klezmer was unknown to me at the time even though I am supposed to have received a fairly wide musical education. The problem is that when I went to school just after Noah came out of the ark we were not taught anything about world music as it is now known. Italian grand opera was something we heard with regular monotony, as this happened to be the music particularly favoured by our Secondary school music teacher.
Approximately 10-12 months ago I was listening to music on Last FM when I happened to light on one of the musical tags which they feature which was the word klezmer. The word klezmer originates from Yiddish, ‘kley’ meaning instrument and ‘zemer’ meaning song. In Hebrew the word klizemer literally means musical instrument. In its contemporary setting the word klezmer is used to define a musical tradition which parallels Hasidic and Ashkenazic Judaism.
About the time of the 15th. century a tradition of secular Jewish music was developed by musicians which came to be known as klezmorim or kleymurim. This music relied on devotional traditions which went back to Biblical times and this has continued to evolve into the klezmer music we hear today. Like all traditional and folk music, because it is not generally written down it continues to change and there are often various different versions of any particular piece as a result. In many ways klezmer music is akin to jazz, featuring instrumental improvisation and vocal embellishments. I have noticed that some piece are more structured, rather like traditional jazz and other pieces seem almost random and ostensibly chaotic, something reminiscent of modern jazz.
The repertoire of klezmer music consists mainly of dance songs for weddings and other celebrations, of which there are many, as the Jews hold feasts in accordance with the instructions given to Moses in the Torah (law) in our Old Testament. Owing to the fact that this music comes from Ashkenazi roots, the lyrics, terminlolgy and song titles are generally in Yiddish.
To begin with, klezmer referred to musical instruments and later was a name given to the musicians themselves. It was only in the mid to late 20th. century that the word was adapted yet again to identify the musical genre. Earlier 20th. century recordings and writings usually refer to it as ‘Yiddish’ music, although it is also sometimes called Freilech music. In contrast to most other European folk music styles, very little is known about the history of klezmer music and there is a great deal of conjecture about when and how it developed.
In future postings I hope to explore the wonderful world of klezmer; its musical structure and characteristics, its historical development, its use in social and cultural settings and its entertainment potential. I also intend to look at some of the artists involved in the art of performing klezmer.
If you would like a listening preview of the adventures which await, try one or all of the following options.
1) Login to Last FM and type in ‘Burning Bush’ or ‘Klezmer’, then listen to the radio.
2) Login to Spotify and type in the search box ‘Burning Bush’ or ‘Klezmer’. Enjoy!
3) Login to Winamp and select the CBS radio player channel which is devoted to klezmer.
If your musical tastebuds are stimulated by this exercise then look out for my next article. If not, then I hope to engage your attention again in the near future. Meanwhile I wish you great joy and happiness in your listening to music.