Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 5

The Classical Klezmer: Rebirth of a Folk Tradition

by Neil W. Levin

PROMINENT IN THE LATE-20TH-CENTURY LITANY OF NOUNS whose frequent, permissive but originally careless use as adjectives not only offends grammatic distinction but also jeopardizes meaning (fun and quality spring to mind) is the Hebrew-derived Yiddish word klezmer (pl.klezmorim). Potentially more misleading than other, similar concessions to common parlance, the difficulties posed by this particular abuse go beyond the typical tensions between grammatical fussiness and linguistic leniency. For shorn of any subjective associations or experiential connotations, the word klezmer translates most directly from the Yiddish simply as “instrumental musician.”

In ethnological and musical-historical contexts, however, klezmer is also understood more specifically as “Jewish instrumental folk musician” (leaving aside the issues of professional and communal status). This understanding now implies a performer of Jewish, perceived Jewish, or adopted and adapted (as Jewish) instrumental Gebrauchsmusik repertoires and styles emanating from the eastern European (i.e., Yiddish-speaking) geographical-cultural orbit of Ashkenazi Jewry. Many klezmorim were also fully capable of playing other ethnic musics for a non-Jewish clientele. At the same time, we must keep in mind that Jewish instrumental folk musicians and their role within Jewish life—and as entertainers and performers for other elements in surrounding society—predate the establishment of eastern European Jewry altogether. In those Western and west Central European phases of the tradition among German and Judeo-German–speaking Jewry (viz., Judisch-Deutsch, or the now extinct Western Yiddish of German-speaking areas), however, such musicians were not called klezmorim, but rather leytsim or letsonim in the Yiddish—indicating (especially from the Hebrew etymology) a less than refined, even crude group of musicians who might also have offered comic entertainment in addition to music—or simply called Musikanten, or Spielleute.

Even for those who come out on the liberal side of debates about popular language evolution, this particular noun-cum-modifier (klezmer) reveals little about that which it purports to modify—either about the music or the performers. It offers no elucidation of the nature, typology, styles, breadth, or variety of the many musical repertoires performed over the centuries by klezmorim in myriad environments. To the contrary, such usage in the name of identification can be inappropriately reductive, if not unintentionally condescending—fueling misleading and superficial perceptions of musical boundaries, limitations, consonance, and homogeneity, while masking or ignoring a long history of artistic individuality and originality. This, even if we allow ourselves to succumb to the entrenchment of such phrases in our vocabulary.

Equally unhelpful for similar reasons is the even more recent conflation of an occupational designation with a supposed single genre—as in “Ari specializes in klezmer” or “Do they teach klezmer at this conservatory?” As the variety of music offered in this volume demonstrates—even in its restriction to the 19th- and early-20th-century guises and their extensions and transformations in America—klezmorim have excelled historically in a variety of heterogeneous musics. Moreover, the models for many of the formal structures, tune shapes and contours, modalities and modal bases, ornamentation practices, and other stylistic features of the aggregate klezmorim repertoire often lay in Jewish as well as non-Jewish musical traditions in disparate parts of large swaths of two empires and beyond. In addition to the Czarist and Hapsburg empires, these regions of influence included areas that were at various times parts of independent or quasi-independent political entities, such as Romania; and there was also the not insignificant imprint of musics from Greek, Turkish, and Balkan regions within the Ottoman Empire.

And yet, there is some undeniable, recognizable aura that seems to bind the traditional repertoires of klezmorim, no matter how varied their derivations. Even as we put to rest the notion of a single genre, we cannot dismiss the purely aural perceptions of an evocative set of aesthetic characteristics (apart from any musical analysis or historical examination), that, taken together, suggest an overall sound that calls to mind the “music or style of klezmorim.” Nor can we ignore the persistence of a substantial emblematic catalogue of instrumental techniques, idioms, timbres, and inflections that can be heard as common to most of the European repertoires that—beginning with the late-19th-century tides of eastern European immigration—were brought to America only to undergo the inevitable processes of adaptation, acculturation, dilution, and transformation that attend any cultural transplantation.

Indeed, it is not the klezmer designation alone but also the aura of its associative melos that invites legitimate attempts to define—or at least to identify and describe—the musical content and substance of those traditional repertoires. This drives the serious ethnologist or ethnomusicologist to explore comparisons with other, non-Jewish eastern European–based instrumental folk music traditions of ceremonial, entertainment, and dance band repertoires. These include some of the very traditions, such as Gypsy musics, that may have served as sources for the borrowed features, hybrid grafts, and assimilated elements evident in the repertoire of Jewish ensembles. Most important for any understanding of the klezmer phenomenon is the particular way in which the klezmorim assimilated specific influences, modalities, and even entire tunes or tune skeletons, resulting in a unique musical delivery of their own.

Musical definitions, of course, can be risky business, if not unsuspected traps, riddled with frustrations, and sometimes they may prove ultimately futile. Genres, styles, and classifications are particularly vulnerable: the endless search for a satisfactory definition of “classical music” (art music, serious music, concert music, “long-hair” music, etc.), for example, which could encompass under a single rubric (and without qualitative assessment) all related time periods, styles, and functions. A similar reservation about definition pertains to the breadth and range of the collective repertoire of klezmorim, with its diversity of styles and origins. The value of any definition would in any case depend on some prior, thorough understanding of the ethnic, social, religious, and even economic contexts.

In 1997 the Milken Archive conducted and filmed a daylong oral history interview and discussion with three members of the famous Epstein Brothers Orchestra. They were for the most part retired, but were receiving international accolades in the wake of the undiminished post-1970s fascination with the klezmorim phenomenon. The Epstein Brothers Orchestra (which included a fourth brother) had reigned for decades in the New York City area as one of the leading ensembles for traditional weddings and bar mitzvah parties. And they appeared on numerous recordings. Fully conversant with many of the European klezmer traditions (though the brothers were born in America), many elements of which they perpetuated as part of their own wider repertoire, they had a good deal to say about the interrelationships of various musics under a klezmer banner. And they disavowed the notion of klezmer as any type or genre of music—in fact, as anything other than an accomplished Jewish dance band or club date musician:

We’ve got to clear up the air.… We do not recognize “klezmer music.” It’s a misnomer. “Klezmer” is a guy who plays an instrument…. When we used to play jobs in the city—and by the way, we never knew this to be a concert form of music; nobody did!—it was called “Jewish music.” . . . The question was always “Does he play Jewish?” Didn’t even say the word music. One word: Jewish. Klezmer was not in our lexicon. (Julie Epstein)

Incidentally, “klezmer music” does not mean Jewish music alone. Klezmer music means all kinds of music…. They played Hungarian music, they played Polish music, they played Romanian, Gypsy, all kinds of music at (Jewish) weddings. (Max Epstein)

We play this music, we don’t think twice about it. It’s music we’ve played all our lives. [Some in my daughter’s generation] said, “We don’t want Jewish music.” … Today the same people say, “I love klezmer music.” The same people! They’re twenty-five years older, but they’re the same people … it became stylish. (William “Willi” Epstein)

And Max Epstein added:

Then, all of a sudden, some guy calls up, or sees us, and says, “You guys play klezmer music?” Klezmer music? We didn’t know what he means!

Several years earlier, in similar interviews conducted by Joel Rubin (and quoted in his Ph.D. dissertation), they had explained that in the heyday of the Epstein Brothers Orchestra, anything perceived as Jewish might have been considered klezmer music, although not so labeled. “The types of music we played was considered klezmer music, ’cause it wasn’t American music.

The burst of late-20th- and early-21st-century scholarly attention to European and American phases of the composite klezmer phenomenon (including the “klezmer revival movement” of the late 1970s) embraces serious, eminently worthy studies by ethnologists, cultural critics, ethnomusicologists, music historians, and performers. In some cases following on the impressive preliminary work of the preeminent Soviet-era Jewish music folklore scholar Moshe Beregovsky, whose groundbreaking scholarship on this subject dates to the 1930s, these contemporary scholars include Mark Slobin, Henry Sapoznik, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Walter Zev Feldman, Hankus Netsky, Joel Rubin, and James Loeffler, among others. They have addressed an array of ethnological, sociological, socioeconomic, geographical-cultural, cross-cultural, and aesthetic contextual issues.

Yet nowhere at this stage of research do we find either a single satisfactory definition (or a set of definitions) that identifies and analyzes all the musical parameters in specifically musical terms—from linear harmonic (and dare we propose contrapuntal?) as well as modal, melodic, and ornamental perspectives. Rubin and Feldman probably come the closest so far in several ways (the former with his wealth of comparative musical notations and transcriptions, and the latter most prominently in his celebrated 1994 article, “Bulgareasca/Bulgarish/Bulgar: The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre”). But that type of musical analysis has not necessarily been the primary purpose of many of the other studies, some of which have focused more directly on cross-cultural and related extramusical but not excessively tangential aspects, while others have not altogether ignored some of the principal musical issues. Far from evasion, this may be an indicator of the state of research and of a framework of expanding conceptions.

This present state of our knowledge concerning the actual music is affected by several factors, among which are: (1) the very youth of the field of studies (less than twenty-five years old), which was not really joined by contemporary scholarship until the catalyst was provided by the nostalgic renewal of the 1970s and the attendant explosion of popular intrigue; (2) the necessary reliance on transcriptions from early-20th-century recordings—most of which were made in the United States—rather than on fully notated manuscript sources with accompanimental content and inner voices as well as melody lines; and (3) the persisting insufficiency of primary musical materials in general.

Temporary or tentative deferral of more concrete musical-analytical approaches to definitions—which at this point would establish artistically limiting and perhaps artificial boundaries—is probably therefore appropriate. At this stage of research, we might also recall Albert Einstein’s dictum that “Not everything that counts can be counted.” Perhaps it can be heard?

The Yiddish word klezmer derives from the Hebrew k’li zemer (pl., k’le zemer), which translates literally as “vessel of song.” Originally, therefore, it is thought to have implied or referred exclusively to musical instruments. But the contraction of the two words to klezmer centuries ago in Yiddish came to refer instead to an instrumental performer. In general, the term did not apply to a performer of classical or cultivated art music on the Western model—although a number of highly accomplished klezmorim have successfully straddled the classical and folk band music worlds, and some klezmorim have had conservatory training and experience. (Some of the most famous classical artists, themselves entirely outside the world of klezmorim, have been able to count klezmorim among their ancestors.) Rather, the primary connotation involved a mostly professional (in some cases semiprofessional) class of musicians who performed—most commonly as part of a kapelye (band, or small folk or dance-type orchestra)—a repertoire of functional instrumental folk music at festivities, celebrations, public entertainments, and other functions of eastern European Jewish life throughout the vast Yiddish-speaking regions of the Czarist and Hapsburg empires. They also flourished in areas that were at various times parts of other, independent national units (Romania, Moldavia, Transylvania, and Hungary or “greater Hungary”).

Klezmorim often formed a separate, cohesive socioeconomic group with a circumscribed social or quasi-class status that was determined by their communal roles as professional folk musicians. That status applied whether or not they were able to rely completely on their music-making for their sustenance and provisions for families. Laboring simultaneously at other occupations out of financial necessity was not uncommon. As professional musicians, however, they were often unified by peer organizations or, in effect, mutual benefit societies not unlike the medieval and Renaissance-era guilds in Western Europe. There was even an insider professional lingo—an argot (klezmer-loshn, or klezmer shprakhs) that appertained into the 20th century to varying degrees, depending on the region and the time frame. And in some cities klezmorim had their own small synagogues (shtiblekh, or bethauses), whose worshippers and participants were primarily klezmorim. It was a phenomenon current among other professions and trades as well, where shared occupational, social, and other bonds played a role (a furriers’ shul, for example, or a carpenters’ shul).

Similar in some ways to the class of eastern European traveling cantors and cantorial choirs—who, unlike their more geographically stable counterparts with permanent or established pulpits, relied primarily on guest Sabbath, Festival, and High Holy Day engagements along with concerts—klezmorim were frequently itinerant. In this, of course, they paralleled many other ethnic music ensembles throughout Europe and America, as well as popular, vaudeville, and jazz groups always “on the road” in the latter.

Klezmorim often adopted names or tags that suggested their particular instruments or hometowns—a custom rooted in eastern European Jewish folk culture. It was typical, for example, among famous cantors and synagogue choral soloists to adopt monikers (by which they were sometimes known exclusively) that referred to their cities of birth or initial success, voice types, and even physical characteristics: Zeidl Rovner (elderly [grandfather]-looking, from the town of Rovno); Kashtan (the red- or chestnut-bearded one [Solomon Weintraub]); Y’rukhm Hakatan (the short one); Yosl Bass; B’tzalel Schulsinger (the synagogue singer); Nissi Belzer (Nissan from Belz); and Pitzsche [Osias/Joshua] Abrass (little one, stemming from his wunderkind years).

The perpetuation of the klezmorim as a cultural institution relied heavily on inherited family tradition—childhood influence, instruction, on-the-spot experience, status, and, of course, natural talent. Yet again, the situation was similar to the cantorial world in eastern Europe, where the chain of cantorial tradition from father to son could be unbroken for many generations, and where uncles and cousins were frequently well-known cantors as well. In the klezmer world, there is ample documentation of families with several generations of continual inheritance of the gift, the occupation, and the social status. In Sholem Aleichem’s fictional, romantically exaggerated, but reality-based characterization of a klezmer in his novel Stempeniu, the chain across generations is described with pride. The author provides us with a valuable context for the roles, attitudes, mores, and even jargon of the klezmer world, as shown in the following excerpts:

Stempeniu—a kind of sobriquet he inherited from his father. His papa, may he rest in peace, was a musician known as Berl Bass, or Berl Stempene (after a village in the region of Mazepevka). He was not only a bass player, but a good badkhn as well….

The family had been musicians for generations. Berl’s father was known as Shmulik the Trumpeter; his grandfather had been Fayvish Tsimbler [the cimbalom, or hammered dulcimer player]; and his great-grandfather, Efrayim Faytl [violist]…. thus, Stempeniu came from at least ten generations of musicians, and he was proud of it. And why not? He made a name for himself and acquired fame everywhere….

For Jews it was always a great occasion to hear the great hazzan, Nissi Belzer [Spivak], to hear the famous badkhn Godik do his routines, and to hear Stempeniu play [the violin]. Obviously, thus, Stempeniu was no ordinary fiddler… his fame had to have been well deserved…. Jews are lovers of music and have a special appreciation for good tunes; even our worst enemies can’t take that away from us! …. Say what you want, we’re “experts” when it comes to singing, playing…. When a famous hazzan comes to town, everybody scrambles to get tickets to hear him; and having good klezmorim at a wedding is an absolute requirement altogether. We’d give just about anything to hear the band play as the happy couple begins to sip the special wedding soup, although a freylekh tune comes later; here, the klezmorim play a mournful tune, with the fiddle weeping…. Heart, especially a Jewish heart, is a fiddle…. All you need is the right fiddler, a master such as Stempeniu.

Stempeniu was indeed a master! He would grab the fiddle, draw the bow across it, and the fiddle immediately began to speak; actually to speak…. pleading, singing, crying out from the depths of the heart and soul…. The listeners were practically ready to faint…. hearts filled up nearly to overflowing, and everyone had tears in his eyes…. Even Stempeniu wasn’t sure where he was….

The sensation caused by the arrival in a small town of Stempeniu and his band is indescribable….

The primary forum for the klezmorim was the Jewish wedding and its related festivities before and after the liturgical rite. In traditional circles, these celebrations could last a week, including the nightly sheva b’rakhot rituals in the days following the actual marriage. The role of secular wedding band musicians for these festivities is a tradition dating to premedieval eras. For a long time after the destruction of the Second Temple in 72 C.E., all instrumental music (and even secular vocal music) was prohibited by rabbinical authorities, a sign of collective mourning. But so important in Judaism is the mandate for rejoicing at weddings and for assisting the bride and the bridegroom to rejoice, that the related festivities were—along with those connected to Purim—among the first occasions to be excepted. (Debates concerning even those occasions, however, persisted for some time.) Eventually the issue was more or less dropped. Secular wedding celebration music came to be regarded not only as a social function but also as a quasi-religious obligation.

Among the other occasions for which klezmorim were typically engaged were dedications of new synagogues, especially the processions surrounding the transfer of the Torah scrolls; Purim feasts and the revelries following the reading of m’gillat esther (the scroll of the Book of Esther); communal public celebrations; occasional special events as part of post-Sabbath gatherings (m’lave malka); and a range of weekday or weeknight ceremonies and festivities at Hassidic courts and among Hassidic circles in general.

Klezmorim also performed for non-Jewish clients and patrons in eastern Europe—a clientele that ranged at certain times from landed aristocracy in Poland to an ethnically and economically diverse local peasantry in other parts of the Czarist and Hapsburg empires and the aforementioned other regions. For those bands, familiarity with a broad range of expected ethnic (sometimes classically tinged) musics was required in addition to the perceived Jewish repertoires that could intrigue non-Jewish customers.

Traditional Jewish weddings, however, remained the mainstay of klezmer activity. Among the vast majority of eastern European Jewry, especially outside Hassidic courts and circles, weddings usually provided the sole opportunity for festive social interaction, diversion, entertainment, and dancing. Among cosmopolitan Haskala-oriented, partially westernized, or partly assimilated Jewish upper-middle classes in the latter part of the 19th century, of course, the occasional and dance music, even for orthodox or nominally orthodox weddings, generally mirrored the Western fashions of the surrounding non-Jewish society. And their social life could embrace a wide range of occasions. But klezmorim were synonymous with wedding entertainment music for the masses. Hence the frequent reference to klezmorim and their ensembles simply as “wedding bands.” That designation clung to them and their descendants in America during the eastern European immigrant era and for decades afterward.

The wholesale American invention of the bar mitzvah party sometime in the late 19th/early 20th century also proved to be a bonanza for immigrant klezmorim and their succeeding generations—as it did for caterers. Their advertisements and brochures (though without the term klezmer) now listed bar mitzvahs right along with weddings on a virtually equal footing. Such bar mitzvah celebrations had no European precedent. And the artificially inflated importance of the synagogue event was not part of the European experience, which had been a rather unremarkable, even perfunctory exercise that could have occurred as easily on a Monday or Thursday morning—or at any other time when the Torah is read—as on the Sabbath. But even among well-to-do families in Europe, there was nothing more in the way of a post-synagogue celebration than perhaps something special for lunch at home, a congratulatory toast, or the opening of a bottle of prized spirits. Nonetheless, the new American shtik, soon to be blown out of all proportion even as a social festivity, substantially increased the opportunities for professional Jewish bands. Their repertoires expanded to include American (and Latin American) dance steps and popular tunes, American-born hits from Yiddish theater and vaudeville, and some classical Viennese ballroom imports, usually interspersed with at least a healthy dose of the high points of eastern European Jewish wedding dance traditions. The degree of the last, of course, depended on the wishes of the clientele, which in turn depended on their background and orientation.

Immigrant-era commercial American 78-rpm recordings by some of the better-known Jewish bands (often billed for promotional purposes as “Russian,” “Romanian,” or even “Oriental” orchestras to satisfy the hunger for anything perceived as exotic) also provided an important avenue for the preservation and dissemination of at least the veneer of the European klezmer tradition—and sometimes more. Through these recordings, a few superstar virtuoso soloists of that time—such as Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras—and several bands or bandleaders, such as Abe Moskowitz and Abe Schwartz, were able to extend their fame far beyond their home territory of New York.

It should come as no surprise that the sheer volume of recordings that followed (or in some cases spawned) the late 1970s wholesale rediscovery of the klezmorim and their legacy has yielded its share of mediocre, inauthentic, and self-serving bandwagon joiners, thus sometimes distorting the tradition itself. That was the case with the earlier “popular folk music revival” of the 1960s and is to be expected as part of any large-scale revival movement. Other recordings among the huge output of the past thirty-plus years, however, have deliberately addressed aesthetic reinventions, extensions, and reinterpretations of the tradition. On the other hand, beginning with some of these early 1970s and post-1970s ensembles—such as Kapelye, the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and Brave Old World—many new recordings have been devoted to unearthing significant portions of the previously all-but-forgotten European repertoires, replete with serious scholarly attention and, in some cases, attempted replications of authentic instrumental combinations.

The klezmorim heritage has had a profound impact on a number of American composers of classically oriented concert music. They have used aspects of the tradition—and sometimes actual tune resources—in a variety of artistic works, just as jazz was appropriated as source material and as aesthetic influence by earlier generations of American composers. The concert works in this volume reflect a wide variety of styles, compositional approaches, and forms, indicating the different ways in which American composers have been inspired by the phenomenon of the klezmorim.

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