The Jewish culture is unique, which is reflected in the Klezmer music tradition. This genre emerged in the 9th century, and during the 16th and 17th centuries, klezmer musicians were widely known as musicians playing at weddings. After the Second World War, this genre was forgotten by the general public. However, the Jewish community in the United States continued listening to and playing klezmer music, contributing to its development. This paper will focus on examining the tradition of Klezmer music in Jewish communities, its origins, and the specifics of this genre.
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What is Klezmer music?
Klezmer music is a unique representation of the Jewish culture, with an extensive history of development. A notable factor emphasized by Feldman is the fact that scholars have difficulty when examining this genre because it originated in eastern Europe (1). Hence, the geographical distance between the originators and the current community, as well as historical events that implied cultural assimilation, make it challenging to study klezmer music.
Most importantly, the events that occurred within Eastern Europe and Russian initiated by Hitler and Stalin had a significant impact on the Jewish community. Feldman argues that modern-day klezmer music is a result of work done by immigrants to the United States, Canada, and South America (1). Therefore, one should understand the historical context of klezmer’s development to have a complete comprehension of all the elements that affected this genre.
Firstly, it is necessary to define the notion of Klezmer music. Klezmer is a term used to describe a musical tradition of the Jewish population from Eastern Europe (Frühauf 166). When translated from Hebrew, this word means instrument and song. Sapoznik distinguishes between the American and Jewish understanding of the notion since, according to the author, the latter refers to a musician. In the context of the American culture, however, klezmer is usually understood as a music genre, which originated from Yiddish folk. Therefore, the notion of klezmer music tradition incorporates both the music genre and other elements associated with performers of klezmer.
An important note is that the word klezmer is Hebrew, and there are other terms that describe Jewish instrumental music and musicians. However, the development of klezmer and its popularity suggests the need to focus on this specific genre. According to Frühauf, the term itself was first introduced in the 1980s in Europe (166). Klezmers were male musicians who played instrumental music. Usually, these people were Jewish, which explains the connection of this music tradition to this community (Frühauf 167).
Moreover, klezmers’ craft was usually inherited from father to son. Feldman notes that historically, klezmer musicians earned their living by performing at events, meaning that this genre was supported by professional musicians (2). Also, the Klezmer music tradition developed under the influence of cultures and folk music of different states in Eastern Europe.
Next, it is essential to examine the origins of this music tradition. Sapoznick argues that this genre originated in the 9th century as part of the Ashkenazi culture. This signifies the fact that klezmer is a music genre that is essential for the Jewish culture because of its long history. However, Feldman points out that klezmer, as it is known today, emerged at the beginning of the 16th century. It became less popular and lost its relevance after the Second World War. This is mainly connected to cultural assimilation and the mass immigration of the community.
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The popularity of the Klezmer tradition is supported by the novels and stories about klezmer musicians. One example is “Stempenyu” by Aleichem, which is based on the life of Yosef Druker. One of the famous klezmer musicians was Felix Mendelson-Bartholdy, whose wedding a march is a favorite option at celebrations even today (Feder 5). This highlights the fact that klezmer was an integral part of the Jewish community, as well as an essential element of other cultures since Mendelson’s march is well-known across the world.
Klezmer music tradition is usually connected to the performance of an instrumental band. These bands performed at ceremonial events, for instance, weddings. Klezmer musicians did not perform solo; and instead, they joined bands. Typically, such a band consisted of violinists, usually two, and a bass or a cello player (Frühauf 167). Other instruments were optional and depended on a specifics of a particular band. Sapoznick points out that the variety of instruments used by klezmer musicians reflects the primary purpose of this genre, which is to serve as entertainment at weddings. In addition, the author states that a musical instrument, tsimbl, which is a part of a klezmer band, is associated with the Jewish culture.
Specifics of Klezmer Music Tradition
Klezmer’s music tradition differs from folk music and other similar genres, although it incorporates features associated with the Jewish culture. This feature is a result of the fact that klezmer was the music of Yiddish people, a group that lived in a vast territory across different European states (Feldman 2). This may be the result of the fact that the Jewish community resided in many different states across the world, incorporating some elements of different cultures into their music tradition.
A distinct characteristic of Klezmer music is the soulfulness of the melody. This characteristic is similar to other genres that emerged in the Jewish community (Frühauf 167). It is also connected to the religion of this community as it borrows some of the elements associated with traditional Jewish music. Sapoznick describes this genre in the following manner – it “reflects the Jewish soundscape, featuring the modes, scales, and articulations of cantorial (synagogue) music.”
Therefore, the klezmer tradition is a reflection of the Jewish community. Weiss provides the following characteristic of this music – “it evokes images of sage-looking, bearded men in long, dark coats; babushka-clad women; decrepit little houses dotting winding, narrow roads; and a host of other iconic trappings of a bygone era in eastern Europe” (302). The distinct features of this music genre make it unique and highlight the connection to the Jewish community.
Finally, the contemporary tradition of Klezmer music in Jewish communities is an essential factor to consider. In the United States, the Klezmer Music tradition emerged and developed due to mass immigration. Most notably, immigration in the 1880s of the Jewish communities from Eastern Europe to the United States signified the emergence of the klezmer tradition. Feldman argues that the term “klezmer” was used to describe all music produced by the Jewish community, and many debates regarding the specifics of this genre occurred in the 1970s and 1980s (15). However, currently, it is recognized that this notion refers to a distinct genre characterized by an expressive melody.
Over time, klezmer integrated into the music landscape of the United States. Netsky refers to the Russian Sher melody, a song that was popular in 19th century Philadelphia (89). Due to the fact that this melody was often used during wedding ceremonies, it was later referred to as “Philadelphia Sher,” This highlights the fact that klezmer music integrated into the culture of the United States while remaining to be an essential element of the Jewish culture. Such development of this music tradition is also connected to the evolution of the Jewish community after the Second World War (Netsky 89). This is because the Jewish community moved to the suburbs and began constructing synagogues leading to the culture becoming mainstream.
A notable factor is the fact that klezmer is a music tradition rather than a genre. Netsky states that the majority of scholars and klezmer musicians refer to klezmer in connection with the community (137). The author argues that the current efforts directed at reviving this genre serve as a means for constructing a new identity for the Jewish people. This is achieved by various musicians who use their artistic imagination to produce new klezmer music. On the other hand, this music continues to be an integral and functional part of modern-day celebrations because many klezmer melodies are associated with weddings or other events.
Overall, this paper examined the tradition of Klezmer music in Jewish communities. This genre originated in the 9th century in the Ashkenazi culture. Klezmer inherited their profession and typically played in a band. These groups of musicians were often invited to play at weddings or other ceremonial events. After the Second World War, this genre became popular in the United States, with “Philadelphia Sher” becoming a famous melody for wedding celebrations.
Feldman, Walter. Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Frühauf, Tina. Experiencing Jewish Music in America: A Listener’s Companion. Rowman & Littlefield, 2018.
Netsky, Hankus. Klezmer: Music and Community in Twentieth-Century Jewish Philadelphia. Temple University Press, 2015.
Sapoznik, Henry. “Klezmer.” Oxford Music Online. Web.
Weiss, Rays. “Klezmer in the New Germany: History, Identity, and Memory.” Three-Way Street: Jews, Germans, and the Transnational, edited by Jay Howard Geller and Leslie Morris. University of Michigan Press, 2016, pp. 302–320.