Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

8.11: Jewish Klezmer Music

  • Page ID
    55915
  • Klezmer music is a term used to designate the Yiddish dance music of Ashkenazi Jews that dates back to the Middle Ages when it developed in Eastern Europe before eventually migrating to the United States. The Yiddish term “klezmer” comes from two Hebrew words, klei-zemer, which translates as “vessel of melody.”

    Early Klzemer bands played for a variety of social occasions including weddings, holiday celebrations, and rite of passage ceremonies throughout European Jewish communities. Up through the 18th century fiddles, cellos, string basses, flutes, drums, and tsimbls (hammered dulcimers) were the primary instruments. By the early 19th century the clarinet became the primary lead melodic instrument, and brass instruments including the trumpet, trombone, and tuba were added to the ensembles. Repertories were wide, including Yiddish melodies, Hassidim chants and dances tunes, non-Jewish dance forms such as the polka, light classical pieces, and salon dances such as the waltz.

    Klzemer tunes are most often built around 8 or 16 bar, AB or ABC sections that are repeated with small variations. Melodic lines tend to be modal with complex ornamentations resulting from the generous use of trills, slurs, slides, and triplets. The clarinet is known for its particularly wild, shrill sounds (the dramatic clarinet glissando that opens George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is thought to be influenced by klezmer styling). Harmonic accompaniments are characteristically built around minor chords; often a piece will feature dramatic shifts between minor and major modalities. Most klezmer dance pieces have a strong rhythmic pulse stressing the downbeat of a 2/4 or 4/4 meter producing a bouncy feel. Occasionally irregular meters such as 3/8 or 9/8 are used. Klezmer tunes sometimes begin with a taxim, or free meter modal improvisation, usually played on the clarinet.

    Social and political unrest in Russia, Poland, and other regions of Eastern Europe fostered the immigration of millions of Yiddish-speaking, Ashkenazi Jews to America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of whom settled in New York City. Klezmer music became popular at Jewish-American weddings, holiday celebrations and social club dances, and by the 1920s was being recorded by Jewish musicians like virtuoso clarinetist Dave Tarras. Born in the Ukraine into a family of musicians, Tarras immigrated to New York in 1922 and became the leading klezmer clarinetist of his generation. In the tradition of the old world klezmer bands, early New York Jewish ensembles consisted of reeds, brass, and string instruments, often backed by accordion or piano and drum accompaniment. As Jewish musicians came under the influence of American tin pan alley and early jazz of the 1920s and 1930s they created innovative hybrids like Yiddish swing and the popular Yiddish theater songs.

    Interest in traditional Asheknazi culture in general and klezmer music in particular waned during the Holocaust, World War Two, and the early post-War years. The 1970s saw a revival of activity by a new generation of Jewish musicians bent on rediscovering the roots of their Ashekanazi ancestors. Not surprisingly, New York was the center of the action, and at the forefront of the revival was Brooklyn-born clarinet virtuoso Andy Statman (b. 1950). A protégé of Dave Tarras, Statman spent years mastering the traditional klezmer style and repertoire. His eclectic tastes have led him to incorporate elements of bluegrass, jazz, rock, Middle Eastern music, and Western classical music into his innovative sound. Today klezmer has become a true world music, blending the traditional Asheknazi tunes of Eastern Europe with the sounds of modern classical, jazz, rock, soul, rap, and various North African and Mid-Eastern musics.

    • Was this article helpful?