A Brief History of Klezmer Music

by Carl Dimow

The term klezmer originally came from two Hebrew words referring to musical instruments. Over time it came to signify the musicians themselves, and in current usage it also refers to the musical genre - secular Jewish music - which dates back at least as far as the 16th century.

The early klezmorim (plural) played primarily for Jewish weddings though they were also hired for other Jewish and non-Jewish events. Jews lived under a variety of ever changing legal restrictions in Europe which effected when and where the klezmorim could work.

As the Jewish people moved throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the music was influenced by local cultures. There are strong Middle Eastern roots which can also be heard in Jewish litugical music. Other major influences came from Romania, Russia, the Ukraine, and Bessarabia.

Abraham Goldfaden (1840 - 1908) founded the first Yiddish theatre in Romania in the 1870’s. (Yiddish is the secular language of East European Jews.) The Yiddish theatre, both in the old world and in the new, was a major influence in the creation and popularization of Jewish songs. Goldfaden is also known for composing Rozhinkes mit Mandlen (Raisins with Almonds), one of the most popular Jewish ballads.

It was also around this period that the clarinet became the primary lead instrument in klezmer. Previously the violin had been predominant, usually in an ensemble that included flute, drums and hammered dulcimer. Brass instruments were also introduced around the end of the 19th century.

The mass immigration of Jews to the U.S. between 1880 and 1920 coincided with the development of commercial recording technology. Recordings made between 1912 and 1940 for the Jewish public have been the major source material for the current revival of klezmer music. Two immigrant clarinetists in particular, Naftule Brandwein (1889 - 1963) and Dave Tarras (1897 - 198 ), developed unique virtuosic styles which have influenced all subsequent players.

With the assimilation of Jews into mainstream American culture after World War II, klezmer music fell out of favor in the Jewish community. It was only in the 1970’s, as an extension of the folk music revival, that a new group of musicians began to rediscover klezmer music. This lively and soulful music is now more popular than ever, being performed and taken in new directions by bands all over the world.

This material drawn from:
Phillips, Stacy. Klezmer Collection. Pacific, MO.: Mel Bay, 1996.
Sapoznik, Henry. The Compleat Klezmer. Cedarhurst,N.Y.: Tara, 1987.