Klezmer music reveals a world in which music and language are inextricably linked. It is a fascinating collage of Yiddish songs, poems and texts, cantoral songs combined with instruments of laughter and sobs, and sometimes Jewish jokes. She lives on her touching and strong expressiveness …

Klezmer music reveals a world in which music and language are inextricably linked. It is a fascinating collage of Yiddish songs, poems and texts, cantoral songs combined with instruments of laughter and sobs, and sometimes Jewish jokes. It feeds on its touching and strong expressiveness and is a rich music of exile which is strongly influenced by its geographical and cultural environment as well as by the changes.

The origin The word “klezmer” comes from the Hebrew “kli zemer”, which means key, tool, instrument or container of the song according to the translation. Until its revival, this traditional music, which dates far back to biblical times, was simply called Yiddish music. The profession of folk musicians, known as “klezmorim”, was inherited by men, mainly because fathers taught their sons, although some boys were apprentices to musicians in other cities. As early as the 13th century, klezmer were mainly Jewish minstrels who performed an international repertoire consisting mainly of songs, instrumental pieces, but also recitations of long epics and various types of poetry.

Constant change In the 17th and 18th centuries, klezmer ensembles consisted of a lute or a few stringed instruments, notably the violin and viola. The drums were often just a single drum (tshekal) or a bass drum (puk or baraban). At the end of the 19th century, larger orchestras finally emerged in order to achieve more balance. They were mainly influenced by the early recordings. On the first recordings, we mainly hear small ensembles. But with improved recording techniques, wind instruments and brass instruments, especially the clarinet, could soon be recorded with better sound. Influenced by jazz music, the saxophone and banjo quickly complete the sound. Nowadays, the ensembles also play the guitar, the piano as well as the didgeridoo or the tabla. The alternation between major and minor sounds is particularly characteristic.

Klezmer music is not only very versatile in terms of instrumentation. He lives on tensions and melodic-harmonic dissonances: He borrows from Hasidism the joy, the zeal and especially the niggunim, the repetitive and easy to learn sound melodies. There is also a subtle blend of popular Jewish and non-Jewish melodies and the influence of onomatopoeic settings such as sighs or laughter. Harmonies are not totally absent, but they submit to the melody and so a single chord can sometimes be enough for an entire section.

Connected in dance But it was especially at balls and Jewish events that the Klezmers were able to express their talent: every event, especially weddings, demanded a certain style of music. The “Freylekhs” are the most popular and joyful dances and are danced in a circle while the piano, accordion or bass play an “oom-pah” rhythm. “Bulgar” is also a round dance, performed in 8/8 beats with an emphasis on 1st, 4th and 7th beats. It is especially popular in the United States and the “Skotshne” focuses on jumping.

Influence of history Despite legal restrictions and the disapproval of Jewish authorities, klezmer were regularly invited to festive occasions and even to imperial audiences in the 16th century. A real guild was formed in Prague only. A large procession with more than 20 instrumentalists and a choir of singers took place there in 1678. Highly respected and also to earn a living, professional Jewish musicians also performed in front of a Christian audience and thus created bridges between the world Jewish and non-Jewish. At the start of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of people of the Jewish faith in Central and Eastern Europe fled famines and pogroms and mostly emigrated to the United States. They worked in theaters, hotels, bars, cafes and soon after in cinemas. With this easy access to performance opportunities, they had the opportunity to express their creative talents. A new generation has made a name for itself, like singer and actor Aaron Lebedeff or Molly Picon, who played in “The Fiddler on the Roof”, for example.

Music in the Diaspora During World War II, more than six million Jews were murdered by the National Socialist regime and its allies. The Holocaust almost completely destroyed the tradition of klezmer music, like most other aspects of European Jewish culture. Like most folk music, klezmer has a sonic tradition. When the older musicians died, so did the music. In the United States, the klezmer tradition could continue with a few musicians. For example with Abe Schwartz, who probably contributed the melody to “Di grine kuzine”, a song that was popular on the east coast of the United States at the time. It became known in Germany in the late 1970s when the band Zupfgeigenhansel put it to music on their album “Jiddische Lieder – ‘ch hob gehert sogn”. Also by future Klezmer mentor Dave Tarras, who with “Dance!” 1956 accompanied an important step towards the connection with jazz. It is also thanks to the recording industry that the musical tradition has been able to continue. If only because between 1894 and 1942, around 50,000 records of Jewish music, including nearly 700 of klezmer music, were produced.

In addition, famous Jewish composers such as Leonard Bernstein or George Gershwin incorporated klezmer sounds into their works. Perhaps the best-known piece is the clarinet glissando at the start of “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924). Non-Jewish composers have also been inspired and incorporated klezmer elements into their works, such as Dmitry Shostakovich in his Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940).

Remembering In the post-war period, Jewish music first lost its importance. With the creation of Israel in 1948, Hebrew also replaced Yiddish, and the new Israeli culture became a benchmark for the Diaspora. But interest in Yiddish culture returned as early as the 1970s and 1980s. Pioneers like Giora Feidman and Henry Sapoznik (from the Kapelye group) or Lev Liberman (The Klezmorim) once again drew attention to the music called “Klezmer” “. Starting from the United States, this “new wave” arrived soon after in Europe and Israel.

Traditional klezmer music was originally purely functional, but like jazz, it has now grown into a genre in its own right. Over the centuries, the features have become more universal and musically influenced with inspirations from countries like Romania, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Greece, Turkey or Hungary.

Improvised adaptation This is how klezmer musicians today continue to oscillate between tradition and modernity. Because, as in previous centuries, klezmer music adapts to the surrounding culture without fully assimilating. On the contrary, she borrows it deliberately without giving up her sensibility and Jewish values, the rhythms of language or the musical motifs of the synagogue. It has managed to keep its unique character. The melody always comes first and lives on multiform ornamentation and successful improvisation. But what is most surprising is this impressive freedom, which gives the feeling that all the instruments communicate simultaneously in harmony with the musicians and the listener.