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Focus on: Klezmer
The term klezmer is derived from the Yiddish words 'kley' (instrument) and 'zemer' (song) and originally referred to musical instruments. The term was later extended to include the musicians (16th century), and later again, to the genre of music itself (20th century).
The first klezmer performers (klezmorim) were travelling musicians who would roam from village to village playing at celebratory occasions such as weddings, birthdays and circumcisions. Nothing is known about what the music would have sounded like at this time, but it is unlikely to have been anything recognizable as klezmer to the modern listener.
As the Jewish people moved through Europe the music of the klezmorim began to adapt, drawing influence from the various cultures of their new surroundings (Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Greece, Turkey/Ottoman Empire, and the Middle East).
In 1805 the Jewish population of Eastern Europe was confined within the Pale of Settlement, which spread from the Baltic and Poland in the west across to the Ukraine in the east comprising 20% of the total area of European Russia. Klezmorim found themselves constantly being restricted by authority, who would put limits on how much and where a musician could work and banned them from playing loud instruments. They were also looked down upon by Rabbis because of their secular lifestyle and their association with Roma (gypsy) musicians. Being of a similar social standing, the two groups of musicians would often play together, sharing tunes and picking up influences off each other.
The middle of the nineteenth century and the reign of Tsar Alexander II (1855 -1881) brought about many changes for the klezmorim. Many began to play the Clarinet and this quickly took over from the violin as the lead instrument because of its versatility and vocal quality. Brass instruments were also added around this time as many Jews, now playing in military bands, had started bringing their instruments home with them. Prior to this point Jews were prohibited from studying at the conservatories (unless they converted to Christianity), but under Alexander's reign Jews for the first time had the opportunity to study music.
The pogroms (massacres) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries forced millions of Jews to leave the "Pale of Settlement", and 2.5 million people emigrated to New York. In the USA, klezmer began to reach a much wider audience as the music was featured in many musical theatre and vaudeville shows, and later, silent movies and Yiddish Film. However, its time in the spotlight would not last long - the next generation of Jews growing up in America would be more interested in the popular American music of the time, Jazz, and soon forgot about klezmer.
By the Second World War klezmer and Yiddish culture in the USA were in decline. With the Holocaust came the decimation of Jewish communities through Eastern Europe, many klezmorim included.
A general folk music revival in the 1960s and 70s helped re-ignite interest in klezmer, and by the late 70s many new klezmer bands (The Klezmorim, Klezmer Conservatory Band) were formed across the United States. In the 1980s interest started to grow in the more traditional European klezmer amongst non-Jews in the USA and Germany.
The last 20 years has seen a growth of bands playing and recording a whole range of klezmer music - some aim to recreate the sound of late 19th century klezmorim, others show influences of jazz, rock and other musical traditions, some include sephardic music, others include Yiddish song (both traditional and new compositions). Klezmer music is heard in films and theatres as well as on radio and T.V., and is again played at weddings, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations.
Further reading: A Brief Introduction to the History and Background of Klezmer Music
You can find many examples of Klezmer music on our website.