Jablonski, Marek (Michael)


(iii) Yiddish and central European languages



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(iii) Yiddish and central European languages.


(a) Ashkenazi Europe.

(b) Composed song and Yiddish theatre.

Jewish music, §IV, 2(iii): Folksongs in Jewish languages: Yiddish and central European

(a) Ashkenazi Europe.


The folk music of Ashkenazi Europe is both unified and differentiated by the history and languages of central and eastern Europe. Historical issues are essential to understanding Ashkenazi folk music, for Jewish folk music, like ‘folk music’ in general, is the product of changing ideas about music, what it represents, and how it functions, which in the case of Ashkenazi Jews must also be understood as products of Europe and European concepts of music.

During the initial central European phase of Ashkenazi culture, traditional music already fitted the social structures and institutions of the Jewish presence in German-speaking Europe. Private and public religious practices provided a setting for folk music, not least because of the predominance of oral traditions. The urban cultures of medieval Jewish cities contrasted with rural folk traditions, just as local repertories were distinct from regional traditions and those practised by all Jews. Jewish traditional music, moreover, embraced practices unique to the Jewish community and those from surrounding, non-Jewish cultures.

The core of Jewish culture in the Rhine valley was frequently subjected to acts of prejudice and violence, but in the 14th century several major pogroms forced the Rhineland Jews into eastern Europe. Still retaining the Middle High German of the medieval Rhineland, with an essential complement of Hebrew words and orthography, the Jews of eastern Europe established new centres of culture where the Yiddish language developed and became the basis for east European Jewish folksong. The history of Ashkenazi folk music, therefore, unfolded from the schism between central and eastern Europe, and reflects the relation between these two parts of Europe until the present.

Distinctions of genre in Ashkenazi folk music result from religious and aesthetic distinctions between vocal and instrumental music. Vocal music, or folksong, contains more privileged genres because vocal music receives more approbation in religious attitudes about music. Religio-aesthetic judgment places folksong closer to the core of the community, not least because of the anchoring role of texts in Hebrew and Yiddish dialects. Folksong genres often reflect the polyglot nature of traditional Jewish society. Instrumental music often accompanies less strictly Jewish activities, such as dance, which has a much older presence in European communities than usually realized. At least as early as the Middle Ages, Rhineland communities could claim dance halls, where leytsonim (instrumental musicians) performed, perhaps the forerunners of klezmer musicians who first appear in the Early Modern Era (see below, §IV, 3(ii); see also Salmen, 1991).

Other concepts of genre reflect other functions, repertories and social structures in Ashkenazi Europe. Early 20th-century scholars (e.g. A.Z. Idelsohn and J. Schönberg) regarded synagogue song as ‘folklike’, especially when it used melodic and modal materials from folksong. Hasidic genres have developed in eastern Europe and spread throughout the Diaspora and to Israel with the mystical and ecstatic traditions of the practitioners (Vinaver, 1985). There are also genres that admit to the presence of outside traditions, but also stress their integration into Jewish uses and functions.

Though the settings and contexts for Ashkenazi music in Europe fall into two major categories, secular and religious, Ashkenazi folk music often bridges these categories and negotiates between them. Family traditions depend on religious repertories, such as zemirot, performed most frequently at Sabbath meals; zemirot have Hebrew texts and follow oral tradition, but they regularly borrow melodic material from other sources. Synagogue song in both central and eastern Europe regularly borrows from secular and sacred sources, Jewish and non-Jewish, which are then moulded into liturgies that undergo variation in a manner similar to secular folksong.

Secular contexts for folk music are present in both private and public spheres. Much Yiddish folksong in the home, for example, reflects the responses of women to life events, child-rearing and challenges to the family from non-Jewish society (e.g. conscription of sons into the army). Dance, both as a component of Holy Days such as mid-winter Purim, with its Purimball, and as an accompaniment to wedding celebrations, takes place in settings that cross the boundaries between sacred and secular. The folk music of political and ideological movements reconfigure Jewish traditions for functions in a changing public sphere. Accordingly, repertories of hasidic songs (Vinaver, 1985) and Zionist songs (Taich, 1906; Glaser, 1914) disseminated Jewish folk music to Jewish communities throughout Europe and the Diaspora. Finally, the stage is an important setting for folk music, which constantly interacts with popular music in Ashkenazi traditions (Slobin, Tenement Songs, 1982).

References to Jewish folk-music specialists appear in both Jewish and non-Jewish sources as early as the 12th century. Specialists have most often been instrumentalists within the Jewish community, for example klezmer musicians, or they have performed at events where instrumental music was necessary. Specialization and professionalism in Jewish folk music characterize domains in which the acceptability of music-making may be questionable, especially in more Orthodox communities. Folk-music specialists effectively assume responsibility for many forms of secular music-making, thereby negotiating the conceptual barriers between secular and sacred musical practices. The presence of badhanim (Yiddish badkhónim) at weddings reflects the ways in which they were once ritual specialists and tricksters.

Records documenting payment to folk-music professionals often reveal considerable mobility and frequent interaction with non-Jewish musicians (notably Roma musicians) and events (especially dances), both of which accounted for processes of exchange within regions and between central and east European folk-music traditions. In many areas, specialists provided music for folk drama or for wandering dramatic troupes. Within such historical contexts, Jewish folk musicians found their way to cabaret and popular stages in central Europe and to Yiddish theatres in eastern Europe (see below, §IV, 2(iii) (b)).

Specialization increasingly characterized the musicians of the synagogue in the wake of the haskalah (Jewish enlightenment). The hazzan not only won a place for his performances in the religious life of a community, but he also often contributed to secular traditions, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Hazzanim, moreover, moved from synagogue to synagogue, transforming melodic traditions and repertories through the introduction of new styles and the alteration of old ones. Cantors such as A.Z. Idelsohn were among those earlier 20th-century specialists who consciously collected and adapted folk traditions from Jewish communities throughout the world for the creation of new, international canons of Jewish folk music.

As a result of transformations in Jewish identity during the 19th and 20th centuries, there was growing interaction between folksong and other domains of music-making, within the Jewish community and without. Oral traditions in central European synagogues incorporated melodic and formal materials from secular and non-Jewish traditions, transforming these into new sacred identities. Collections of Jewish folk music appeared in published form and were then disseminated by the beginning of the 20th century, serving as the basis for growing attempts to compose new works based on Jewish folk melodies (e.g. Loewe, 1894; Ginsburg and Marek, 1901/R; Grunwald, 1924–5).

A recognizably European Jewish folk music had therefore emerged to form distinctive repertories and canons by the 20th century, and this Jewish folk music took its place alongside other national traditions whose roots could be philologically traced and whose distinctive representation of modern history grew from both textual and contextual uniqueness. As European Jews began to settle in the Yishuv, the Jewish community of modern Eres Yisrael (‘land of Israel’), a new historical phase emerged in which Hebrew folksongs and folk dances took their place within European collections next to German or Yiddish repertories. Folk music responded to 20th-century modernism and internationalism by representing Jewish identity in even more complex and diverse ways (Bohlman, 1989; Nathan, 1994).

Despite the massive destruction of Jewish communities during the Holocaust, Jewish folk music has gradually but steadily gained a new presence, albeit with radically different functions and roles. In many areas of eastern Europe, folk music was inaudible as Jewish communities maintained low public profiles. Professional musicians may have participated in other ethnic and national traditions, whereas the oral traditions of synagogue music preserved folk-influenced liturgies while membership dwindled through death and emigration. In the first decades after the Holocaust, until the 1960s new anthologies appeared as means of memorializing the Holocaust, but these also provided a store of Jewish folksongs for the German folk-music revival in the 1960s and 70s, and for the use of some east European state ensembles in the 1970s and 80s.

In the 1990s the folk music of Ashkenazi Europe underwent a widespread revival. New collections of older repertories (Lemm, 1992; Freund and others, 1992) complement fieldwork and the discovery of Jewish musicians who survived the Cold War era. Many east European Jews, especially Poles and Russians, have emigrated to Austria and Germany, where they introduced Eastern Ashkenazi traditions into religious and sacred practices of central European communities. Klezmer ensembles, with and without Jewish members, proliferated, and folk-music ensembles of all kinds included Jewish dances in their repertories. Historical and modern recordings juxtaposed Ashkenazi folk music in a postmodern mix, transforming it to a widely disseminated form of ‘world music’, that is, international popular music. With different functions but many of the same historical contradictions, the folk music of Jewish Europe continues to represent the changes in and challenges to Jewish communities throughout the world.



Jewish music, §IV, 2(iii): Folksongs in Jewish languages: Yiddish and central European


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