Klezmer: Definition, Music & Instruments

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Most people have a fairly limited knowledge of klezmer music, if they know of it at all. Read on to get an understanding of the roots, evolution, instruments and important nuances of klezmer music for a better understanding of this unique style.

What is Klezmer Music?

Have you seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof? Or heard the song 'Hava Nagila,' maybe performed at a Jewish wedding? If so, then you have been briefly exposed to klezmer music. Don't worry--it's not contagious. Actually, it's rather fun.

Old recording of Hava Nagila
Hava Nagila record image

Klezmer music is a type of Jewish folk music generally used to accompany dancing at celebratory events such as wedding receptions, anniversary parties and birthdays. It was originally played almost exclusively at weddings and for Jewish holidays. It is secular music that has strong ties to synagogue worship dating back to Biblical times.

Background of Klezmer Music

It is difficult to pinpoint the origins of klezmer music. It developed in Southeastern Europe, mostly in Romania, and spread throughout Europe and Russia wherever there was a Jewish population. Typical instruments included clarinet, violin and the cymbalon. The cymbalon was an Eastern European version of the hammer dulcimer. It could provide solos or be used for accompaniment. Smaller versions of the instrument could be suspended from the player's neck by a strap, which allowed hands-free playing and the ability to walk while performing. Larger versions were placed on a stationary stand.

Image of cymbalon

The accordion, trombone, trumpet and string bass were added to klezmer music in or about the nineteenth century. The original instruments used in klezmer music were quieter than the brassy and bigger instruments that were subsequently added. The quieter instruments--clarinet and violin, for example--were originally used because Jewish musicians were forbidden in some areas, such as the Ukraine, to play what was considered louder instruments.

There have been many influences on klezmer music, including music from areas where klezmer music was played. This includes Gypsy music. It also includes Greek, Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Polish and Turkish music. Instrumentation was based on the availability of instruments and players in each region. Singers were not traditionally part of klezmer music. They were added at some later point and were generally used only at wedding celebrations. Today's klezmer music, however, often includes instruments and singers.

Since the phonograph was not invented until 1877, it is difficult to know how this music may have sounded. A few clues can be found in some classical music excerpts when composers incorporated klezmer music into their works. One excellent example is in the First Symphony (1884) of Gustav Mahler. The third movement begins with the orchestra playing a familiar children's round called 'Are You Sleeping', more commonly known as Frere Jacques, which is played in a major key. Mahler's third movement is unusual because Frere Jacques is played in a minor key, which gives the music a sad quality. The Frere Jacques theme is followed by klezmer music--music that Mahler was recalling from his own childhood. Together, these two segments seem to acknowledge the bittersweet nature of life.

Klezmer Music in America

When Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1922, klezmer music was influenced by popular music of the period such as ragtime, blues and jazz. An important early 20th century klezmer musician was Abe Schwartz (1881-1963), who was 18 when he emigrated with his family from Romania to the United States. In 1917 he recorded a traditional song called 'Russian Scissors.'

Schwartz's early recordings reflect the disparaging meaning of klezmer--an inexperienced and poorly trained musician capable of only playing folk tunes. Klezmer is actually a Yiddish word that simply means 'musical instrument'. Ten years later, Schwartz recorded the song again, and one can hear the influence of blues and jazz in the instrumentation and tempo. The quality of the performance had also improved. This time he named the selection 'Russian Sherr.' A sherr is a traditional Yiddish dance that gets its name from the straight leg kicks that reminded people of shears or scissors used by tailors.

Russian Sherr sheet music cover
Russian Sherr

An important aspect of klezmer style is its expressive quality. This is where the synagogue roots are reflected in music that is reminiscent of emotions such as laughing and weeping. These sounds can be heard in Schwartz's recordings. In the song 'Live and Laugh,' the clarinet is featured and the performer utilizes techniques to imitate laughter. A woodblock played in the background gives the music a dance-like quality. The song 'Roumanian Doina' is an improvised lament featuring a violin that seems to weep as it is played.

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