From Academic Kids

Template:Genrebox Klezmer (כלזמיר, from Hebrew k'li zemer כלי זמר, "instrument of song") is a musical tradition which parallels Hasidic and Ashkenazic Judaism. Around the 15th century, a tradition of secular Jewish musicians developed called klezmorim. They drew on devotional traditions extending back into Biblical times, and their musical legacy of klezmer continues to evolve today. The repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations.

Originally, klezmer (plural klezmorim) referred to the instruments played, then was extended to refer to the performers, and ultimately to the genre of music. Due to the Ashkenazi lineage of this music, the lyrics, terminology and song titles are typically in Yiddish.



Klezmer is easily identifiable by its characteristic expressive melodies, reminiscent of the human voice, complete with laughing and weeping. This is not a coincidence; the style is meant to imitate khazone and paraliturgical singing. Several techniques are used to accomplish this. There are krekhts, 'sobs', and dreydlakh which are a form of trill.


The Bible has several descriptions of orchestras and Levites making music. But after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70, many Rabbis discouraged musical instruments. But the importance of merrymaking at weddings was not diminished, and musicians came forth to fill that niche, klezmorim. The first klezmer known by name was Yakobius ben Yakobius, a 150s player of the aulus in Samaria. The earliest written record of the klezmorim is in the 15th century. It should be noted that its unlikely that they played music recognizable as Klezmer today.

Klezmorim based their secular instrumental music upon the devotional vocal music of the synagogue, in particular cantorial music. Even so, klezmorim — along with other entertainers — were typically looked down on by Rabbis because of their secular traveling lifestyle. Klezmorim often travelled and played with Roma musicians, since they occupied similar social positions. They had a great influence on each other musically. In fact, many European Klezmer songs were recovered from the memories of Transylvanian Roma.

Klezmorim were respected for their musical abilities and diverse repertoire. Klezmorim were by no means restricted to playing Klezmer. Christian churches would sometimes ask for their services, and some Italian classical violin virtuosos received their instruction. Local aristocracy held the best klezmer in high regard and often used their services.

Like other professional musicians, klezmorim were often limited by authorities. Ukrianian restrictions lasting into the 19th century banned them from playing loud instruments. Hence musicians took up the violin, cymbalom, and other string instruments. Later, around 1855 under the reign of Alexander II of Russia, Ukraine permitted loud instruments. The clarinet started to replace the violin as the instrument of choice. Also, a shift towards brass and percussion happened when klezmorim were conscripted into military bands.

As Jews left Eastern Europe and the shtetls, klezmer has spread throughout the globe, especially to the United States. Initially, not much of the Klezmer tradition was maintained by U.S. Jews, there were only a few Yiddish folk singers. In the 1920s the clarinetists Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein caused a brief, influential revival. But as U.S. Jews began to adopt mainstream culture, the popularity of Klezmer slowly declined, and Jewish celebrations were increasingly accompanied by non-Jewish music.

However, many 20th century Jewish composers of classical music who secured mainstream success, such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin, were clearly influenced by the klezmeric idiom of their youth. A memorable instance of klezmeric inspiration can be heard in the clarinet glissando that opens Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924). Non-Jewish composers also turned to klezmer for a prolific source of fascinating thematic material. Dmitri Shostakovich admired klezmer music for embracing both the ecstasy and the despair of human life. He adapted several klezmer melodies in his chamber masterpieces, the Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57 (1940) and the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, op. 67 (1944).

In the 1970s there was a Klezmer revival in the United States and Europe, led by Giora Feidman, Zev Feldman, Andy Statman, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. They drew their repertoire from recordings and surviving musicians of U.S. Klezmer. In 1985 Henry Sapoznik founded KlezKamp to teach Klezmer and other Yiddish music.

Shortly thereafter in the 1980s, the was a second revival as interest grew in more traditionally-inspired performances with string instruments, largely in non-Jews of the United States and Germany. Musicians began to track down older European Klezmer, by listening to recordings, finding transcriptions, and making field recordings of the few klezmorim left in Eastern Europe. Key performers in this style are Alicia Svigals and Budowitz.

Interest in klezmer has developed in avant-garde jazz musicians like John Zorn and Don Byron, who sometimes blend klezmer with jazz.


Historically, young klezmorim learned songs from their family and their elders in bands. However, there were several breaks in history where this transmission broke down, such as the Holocaust. Undoubtedly a lot was lost, especially wedding repertoire, since Jewish weddings would last several days, but technology of the time could only record a few minutes at a time. Fortunately, there remain a few older Roma musicians and klezmorim that are able to recall some of this repertoire. Also, some transcriptions were done in the 19th century.

In the 20th century, klezmer is typically learned from fake books and transcriptions of old recordings.

Song types

Most klezmer pieces are intended to be danced to, from fast to slow tempo:

  • The freylakhs or bulgar is a (3+3+2 = 8)/8 circle dance, usually in the Ahava Rabboh melodic mode. Typically piano, accordion, or bass plays a duple oom-pah beat.
  • The sher is a set dance in 2/4.
  • The khosidl is a more embellished dance in 2/4 or 4/4.
  • The hora or zhok is a Rumanian-style dance in 3/8 with beats on 1 and 3, and is even more embellished.
  • The terkish is a 4/4 dance like the habanera. Terk in America is one famous arrangement by Naftule Brandwein, who used this form extensively.

Additionally, there are types not designed for dance:

  • A doina is a improvisational lament usually performed solo, and is extremely important in weddings. Its basis is the Rumanian shepherd's lament, so it has a expressive vocal quality, like the singing of the hazzan. Typically it is performed on violin or clarinet, though been done on everything from banjoes to xylophones. Often it is the first of a 3-part set, followed by a hora, then either a freylakhs or khosidl.
  • A taqsim is a freeform prelude that introduces the motifs of the following piece, which is usually a freylakhs.
  • A fantazi is a slow piece inspired by outside musical influences.

Song structure

Most klezmer songs are in several sections, each in a different key. Frequently sections alternate between major and minor keys.

A common ending for songs is an upwards chromatic run or glissando, followed by a slow staccato 8-5-1.


Klezmer is generally instrumental, although at weddings klezmorim traditionally accompany the wedding entertainer. A typical orchestra would include a first violin, a contra-violin, a cimbalom, a bass or cello, and sometimes a flute. The melody is generally assigned to the lead violin, while the remainder providing harmony, rhythm and some counterpoint (the latter usually coming from the second violin). Klezmer percussion tends to be minimal, no more than a woodblock or snare drum. (The snare drum is the more "authentic" of the two. The use of a wood block by modern klezmorim is the result of an attempt to imitate recordings from the early 20th Century, in which snare drums, whose volume tended to overwhelm the primitive recording equipment of the time, were replaced with quieter instruments.) Some modern performers in this style include Alicia Svigals, The Burning Bush, and Budowitz.

Some Klezmer revival bands look to loud-instrument klezmer, jazz, and Dixieland for inspiration. Their band is similar to a typical jazz band, with some differences. They use a clarinet for the melody, and make great use of the trombone for slides and other flourishes. When a cymbalom sound is called for, a piano is played with sustain. Performers in this style include The Klezmatics, Klezmer Conservatory Band and The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band.


In its original form, Klezmer was live music designed to facilitate dancing. Hence, the tempo would be altered as dancers tired — or better dancers joined in. Trying to maintain a steady tempo was counterproductive. Nonetheless, klezmorim were often mocked for their drifting tempos by fellow musicians.

Like other musicians of their time, and many modern Jazz performers, early klezmorim did not rigidly follow the beat. Often they would slightly lead or trail it, giving a lilting sound.

Melodic modes

Klezmer is usually played in shtaygerim, prayer modes of the synagogue. They are closely related to but distinct from Balkan modes.

Since klezmorim often had to perform for long events, it was difficult to keep the instruments in tune, especially the many-stringed cymbalom. This was not a great obstruction, since melody — not harmony — is the focus of klezmer. In fact, slight dissonances in harmony help give klezmer its character.

Ahava Rabboh

Ahava Rabbah means "Abounding Love" in Hebrew, and refers to a prayer from the daily morning prayer service (shacharit). It is built on the fifth degree of the harmonic minor scale, with a descending tetrachord to the tonic being the most characteristic final cadence. It is also called the "Freygish", a Yiddish term derived from the German "Phrygisch", or Phrygian mode. It is considered the mode of supplication. Usually it is found in Khassidic music. It is similar to the Arabic Hijaz maqam.

Mi Sheberach

Mi Sheberach means "He who blessed" in Hebrew, from the Mi Shebarach prayer, recited after the honor of being called to the Torah reading. It is also called the Ukrainian, Altered Ukrainian, Doina, or Altered Dorian. It has a raised fourth, and is used for the doina, an improvised lament.

Adonoy Moloch

Adonoy Moloch means "the Lord reigns" in Hebrew. It is common in traditional synagogue services (they are the beginning words of many of the Psalms). It is similar to the Western Mixolydian mode and the Arabic Siga Maqam.

Mogen Ovos

Mogen Ovos means "our forebears' shield" in Hebrew. Is an older mode from the synagogue, derived from the Friday night prayers. It is similar to the Western natural minor scale and the Arabic Bayat Maqamat and Bayat-Nava.


Yishtabach means "it shall become superb" in Hebrew (from the daily morning services). It has a frequent lowering of the 2nd and 5th. It is related to Mogen Ovos, above.

Important musicians

Important ensembles

External links

See also

fr:Klezmer ja:クレズマー nl:Klezmer pl:Klezmer


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