The Historical Roots of Klezmer

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In my last posting I made the admission that I like Klezmer music and gave a brief introduction to what is a vast subject. In the course of my ramblings I mentioned that it was formerly known as Yiddish or Freilach music. Yiddish is the term referring to anything concerned with the culture of Ashkenazic Jewry, as in the Yiddish language and Yiddish literature. The Yiddish language, written in the Hebrew alphabet, became one of the world’s most widespread languages, appearing in most countries with a Jewish population by the 19th. century. The earliest known Yiddish literature dates back to 1096, consisting of a list of proper names. A Yiddish rhymed blessing dates back to 1272, and the extensive Camridge Yiddish Codex of 1382 was discovered in Egypt and contains Jewish tales about Abraham, Joseph and Moses.


Freilach is a Yiddish word meaning ‘happy’ or ‘cheerful’ and is most commonly used in reference to music. The music to which it usually refers is that which we are investigating, currently known as klezmer.


Does this mean that klezmer is always happy and cheerful? I think it is this characteristic of the music which first caught my attention, however to me it also seems to have a sense of desire, yearning and reaching out for something greater and beyond myself. I believe this gives it a spiritual dimension which becomes more evident with further listening. Owing to the minor and modal variations and often slow tempi which I intend to investigate in a future article, I think it is also sad at times and seems to explore the whole range of emotions we experience, rather like a symphony. It may be more apt to compare each musical entity to a symphonic movement which expresses a particular aspect of life. If you have already listened to some klezmer music as suggested in my earlier posting you will have already experienced your own individual response to what you have heard so far. I assume that, like me, you have been drawn in to the world of klezmer, otherwise you would have probably by now abandoned my blog and looked for other kinds of music!


In essence the roots of klezmer can be seen to go back to Biblical times and follow the development of the Jewish nation. The Old Testament section of the Bible makes a great deal of reference to instrumental, orchestral and group music making, particularly in a liturgical setting as can be seen in Numbers 10:1-2 and Psalm 150. The shofar (ram’s horn) and the silver trumpets mentioned in Numbers 10 were used for calling the community together, usually for prayer and worshipping God. In New Testament times, after the destruction of the Second temple in 70AD many rabbis discouraged the use of instruments for musical performance. The need for music did not diminish, however, as some kind of musical performance was required for weddings, bar-mitzvahs and other festive occasions. New musicians emerged to fulfil this need, who were known as the klezmorim. The first klezmer known by name was Yakobius ben Yakobius, a player of the aulos, a wind instrument devised by the Greeks, in Samaria. The earliest written record of the klezorim dates from the 15th. century. The music they played is unlikely to have been recognizable as the klezmer we hear performed today. Contemporary klezmer and its style is more likely to have come from 19th. century Bessarabia and this is where the larger part of today’s traditional repertoire was written.


The secular instrumental music performed and used by the klezmorim for weddings and other feasts was based on the devotional vocal music of the synagogue, especially cantorial music, where a solo voice sings, alternating with a full choir. To begin with the klezmorim, like other entertainers, were frowned on by Rabbis because of their secular travelling lifestyle. Klezmorim often teamed up with Roma musicians (‘lautan’) for performance and they tended to also travel together. They got on well together because they occupied similar positions in society. They therefore also had a great influence on each other musically and linguistically, the extensive klezmer argot in Yiddish borrows parts from the Roma.


Klezmorim were renowned for their musical expertise and wide repertoire but they were not restricted to playing only klezmer. Sometimes they would be requested to play for services at Christian churches and they even gave instructions to Italian classical violin virtuosos. They also performed for local aristocracy who requested their services for special occasions.


As was the case with other professional musicians the klemorim were sometimes stopped from playing by local authorities. Ukranian restrictions lasting until the 19th. century banned them from playing loud instruments. This is partly why they adopted the use of the violin, tsimbl (or cymbalon), and other string instruments which were much quieter.


The first musician to introduce klezmer to European concert audiences was Josef Gusikov, who played a type of xylophone of his own invention, which he called a ‘wood and straw instrument’. It was arranged like a cymbalon and received favourable comments from Felix Mendelssohn but was frowned upon by Franz Liszt. Around 1855 the Ukraine at last permitted the performance of louder instruments and subsequently the clarinet started to replace the violin as the instrument of choice. There was also a move towards incorporating brass and percussion instruments into klezmer bands as a result of klezmorim being conscripted into military band


I hope to look at the modern development of klezmer music in my next article. Meanwhile, take a further listen to some klezmer music on Last FM, Spotify or CBS klezmer station. See if you can identify some of the instruments we have already mentioned and then see if there are any others you can add to the list. Also, see if you can identify traces of the influences of cantorial synagogue music and Eastern European gypsy music. There may be other influences and styles you can identify and which you may have heard in other genres.


Enjoy your further listening and please contact me if you have any questions or comments on this article, at my email address below.


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