The Yiddish term klezmer (pl. klezmorim; from the Hebrew word for musical instruments), was first used for the professional musician in the 17th century by Jews in eastern Europe. The klezmer profession originated in the older Ashkenazi centres of central Europe, where the Jewish musician had formerly been termed leyts (pl. leytsonim, from Heb.: ‘clown’).
The link between the west and east European klezmer traditions seems to have been Bohemia. The characteristic four to five-piece ensemble, consisting of lead violin, contra-violin (sekund), cimbalom (cimbal), bass or cello, and occasionally a flute, seems to have spread from early 17th-century Prague both eastwards and westwards. In western Europe it was adopted by non-Jews only in the 18th century, and in parts of the east during the 19th. The clarinet was accepted as a second lead instrument by the early 19th century in Moldavia, Ukraine, Lithuania and possibly other areas. In the later 19th century an ensemble of 10–15 men, featuring brass as well as strings, appeared in the cities and towns of the Tsarist Pale of Settlement and also Bessarabia. After 1900 it was recreated in the USA.
Throughout the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Poland, Galicia, Lithuania, Belarus', Ukraine), landowners encouraged the development of the klezmorim as a Jewish guild. During the 19th century, however, after most of these territories had come under Tsarist rule, the guild-like structure of the klezmer ensembles (kapelye, khevrisa) declined, surviving mainly in Austrian Galicia and Ottoman Moldavia. Professional klezmorim formed an occupational caste, intermarrying at times with the families of wedding jesters (badkhón or marshalik). Klezmorim spoke their own Yiddish professional jargon (labushaynski). By the beginning of the 18th century klezmer ensembles were exclusively male. Traditionally, the leader was the first violinist, who usually passed on his position to his son or son-in-law. While the first violinist was usually a full-time musician, the band-members often held secondary professions, often that of the barber.
In most of the northern areas, where Gypsies (Rom) were never particularly numerous, the klezmorim constituted the majority of the professional musicians. Principally located in the private towns on the large estates of the Polish nobility, there were also several urban centres of klezmer music, especially Vilna and Lemberg (Lwów, now L'viv), as well as Iaşi, the capital of Ottoman Moldavia. Depending upon their legal status, klezmorim played many genres of popular dance music for the nobility and for the urban gentile population. Non-Jewish sources between the 17th century and the 19th speak of the high regard in which the nobility held the best Jewish violinists and cimbalists. At the same time klezmorim from lower-status kapelyes worked as individual musicians at taverns and at peasant weddings.
While Jewish professional musicians (both male and female) were well-known in West Asia and North Africa, a distinctive Jewish instrumental repertory, style and system of genres is documented only in eastern Europe, with its derivatives in America and Israel. The genres and style of European klezmer music originated mainly in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, probably before the middle of the 18th century. Most of the European repertory known today developed between 1800 and 1900. This repertory displays both Western and Near Eastern/Balkanic features, but reveals relatively little influence of purely local musics, except those of Moldavia and Wallachia. Since the 18th century at least – during the era of Greco-Ottoman rule in Moldavia (1711–1828) – klezmer music shared a deep mutual connection with both Moldavian and Greek instrumental traditions, resulting in the creation of a Jewish Moldavian repertory, generally performed by mixed ensembles of Jews, Gypsies, Romanians, Greeks and Russians.
The most common klezmer dance-genre was known variously as the freylakh, khosidl, rikudl, hopke, karahod or sher. Most of these tunes were created in a scale employing an augmented second degree (‘freygish’), but a significant number used a minor scale. Some degree of harmonic accompaniment was present in even the simplest klezmer performance. The development of the chromatic klezmer tuning for the cimbal seems to have been a product of this early harmonization. Three-section tunes generally feature modulation and passing-note alterations. Syncopations and rhythmic contrasts within the sections of the freylakhs are striking.
Only a small fragment of the original klezmer repertory is extant today. The leading klezmorim based their performances on extended metrical or unmetred improvisations (gedanken and taksim), interspersed with dance-tunes for listening (skochne). Some Near-Eastern inspired pieces were performed with the Turkish violin tuning (tsvei shtrines: ‘two strings’). These klezmorim created their own versions of liturgical or paraliturgical pieces (shteyger, khsos, tish-nign etc.), as well as individual compositions (zogekhts etc.). Among the prestigious composed wedding genres were the dobriden and mazltov. One of the major genres of the wedding ceremony proper was the improvised kale-bazetsn or kale-baveynen. Klezmorim performed their Jewish repertory principally at Jewish weddings, and at Holy Days such as Simhat Torah, Hanukkah, Purim, sometimes Sukkot, Pesah and Rosh-hodesh and at the end of the Sabbath. At weddings klezmorim also accompanied the rhymes of the wedding jester – otherwise they would not accompany any Jewish vocal music. Apart from both Jewish and gentile dance-music, the leading klezmorim utilized the wedding table (tish) of wealthier Jews, as well as certain Holy Days (such as Hanukkah) to perform their finest compositions and improvisations. Several hasidic courts, such as Liubavich and Sadegora in the 19th century, encouraged the development of klezmer music, either by employing local klezmorim, or by keeping their own kapelye.
Composer-klezmorim of the 19th century included Abraham Kholodenko of Berdichev, known as ‘Pedotser’ (1828–1902), Shepsl of Kobryn, Marder Ha-Godol of Vinnitsa, Khayim Fiedler of Orhei, Shmuel Weintraub of Brody and Khone Wolfstahl of Tarnopol (1853–1924). The first klezmer to achieve fame on the European concert stage was the Belarusian cimbalist Mikhl Guzikow (1806–37). In 19th-century Moldavia, such klezmorim as Itsik Tsambalgiu and Lemish of Beltsi were performers and composers of the local urban music that was also performed by Gypsies. Similar trends existed in Hungary, where Jewish musicians seem to have played exclusively non-Jewish popular pieces. The descendant of a Hungarian klezmer family, Mordekhai Rosenthal (Rózsavölgyi, Márk, 1787–1848) became one of the first composers to introduce the popular national style (verbunkos) into Western-style symphonic and chamber music; such a practice among Jewish musicians, however, seems to have been unique to Hungary.
Music notation seems to have been first accepted by ensemble leaders in the early 19th century, at least in the larger centres. While some wrote down their compositions, they were never published, but handed down only to their successors in the kapelye. The majority of small-town klezmorim remained illiterate until late in the 19th century. The acceptance of Jews into Russian and Austrian conservatories in the last third of the 19th century affected both the performance style and professional opportunities of klezmorim in larger cities and towns. After World War I klezmorim were increasingly integrated into various forms of European musical life, while sometimes also maintaining a role in the communal music of the Jews. The Holocaust put a complete end to klezmer music in Poland, while the genre and profession were largely surpressed in the Soviet Union.
Documentation of klezmer music began only in the early 20th century. Between 1908 and 1911 the Columbia, Victor and Odeon labels recorded violin and cimbal duets through their studios in Lemberg (L'viv). Between 1912 and 1913 the Warsaw-based Sirena and the Kiev-based Stella companies recorded many sides by the ‘Belf's Romanian Orchestra’. In this era a few sides were issued in Istanbul by the Odeon and Orfeon labels. Scientific collection of klezmer music began between 1912 and 1914 in Tsarist Ukraine and Belarus', principally by Joel Engel (1868–1927), working with S. An-Ski (1863–1920). In the 1930s they were followed by Moisey Beregovski (1892–1961) at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev, who amassed the single most significant collection of klezmer music. Moshe Bik's small but important collection from Orhei, Bessarabia was published in Haifa in 1964. In New York the klezmer violinist Wolf Kostakowsky published a major commercial collection of dance repertory in 1916. Between roughly 1912 and 1929 American record companies issued a large number of klezmer recordings featuring large ensembles, clarinetists or violinists. A more purely American klezmer repertory was issued in the 1940s and 1950s.
Previously unknown repertory is emerging from older Jewish musicians from the former Soviet Union. Certain hasidic groups in Israel and America still preserve some of their instrumental traditions; several hasidic vocal repertories are also closely related to klezmer music. In addition, a small independent repertory exists among Orthodox musicians in Israel. Of the numerous klezmer manuscripts that once existed, many were destroyed in the 20th century, but some may still survive in eastern Europe and Israel. During the early decades of the 20th century, several Jewish musicians, most of them students of either Rimsky-Korsakov or Liadov at the St Petersburg Conservatory, composed pieces based in part on the klezmer repertory. The major figures in this movement were Joel Engel, Joseph Achron (1886–1943), Alexander Krein (1883–1951), Mikhail Gniessin (1883–1957) and Jacob Weinberg (1879–1956). The clarinetist Simeon Bellison (1883–1953), an early associate of Engel, continued to perform this repertory with his Zimro Ensemble (1918) and, after 1920, with the New York Philharmonic.
In America, following the mass immigration from eastern Europe in 1881, much of the klezmer repertory and its distinctive performance style were lost. It was only during the 1920s that an American klezmer music began to emerge, chiefly in New York. Its most influential figures were the clarinetists Naftule Brandwein (1889–1963) and Dave Tarras (1897–1989). Tarras's music, which combined a mainly Romanian repertory with a classically-influenced clarinet tone, became the model for most American Jewish dance music during the early 1960s. By this period most of the American-born children of the klezmer families abandoned Jewish music, entering the classical or various popular fields. Only a small minority of these musicians continued to perform parts of the American klezmer dance repertory for parochial Jewish communities in New York, Philadelphia, Boston or Toronto.
The revival of klezmer music occurred in two distinct stages, the first c1970–85, and the second from 1985 to the present. In the early 1970s Giora Feidman, a clarinetist with the Israel Philharmonic, began to popularize American klezmer music in Europe. In the mid-1970s young musicians from non-klezmer families in New York and California (the Bay Area ‘Klezmorim’) began to relearn some of the klezmer repertory and style, mainly from old American recordings. In New York Zev Feldman and Andy Statman (cimbal and clarinet) were apprenticed to Dave Tarras, and their 1978 concert with him became a milestone in the revival. Statman went on to become a major voice of klezmer. The following decade witnessed a revival of both American klezmer and Yiddish theatre music, by such groups as the Klezmer Conservatory Band in Boston and Kapelye in New York. In 1985 Henry Sapoznik (founder of Kapelye) instituted the yearly ‘KlezKamp’ which fulfilled an important role in teaching klezmer and other Yiddish music.
In the mid-1980s a largely non-Jewish audience for both more traditional European and innovative klezmer styles emerged in the USA and Germany. This led to the formation of several influential groups and eventually to regular concert programmes and festivals in Europe and elsewhere featuring klezmer and other Yiddish music. Among the major groups formed at this time were the Chicago Klezmer Ensemble, Brave Old World and Budowitz, featuring such musicians as Kurt Bjorling, Joel Rubin, Michael Alpert, Alan Bern, Stuart Brotman and Joshua Horowitz. A somewhat younger group of musicians began to take klezmer music in new directions, with the support of a growing audience in Germany, especially after the unification of 1989. Klezmer Rock’n’Roll took its most influential shape with the Klezmatics (formed by Frank London and Alicia Svigals), while the clarinetist David Krakauer created a sophisticated klezmer jazz. Zev Feldman and the violinist Steven Greenman formed Khevrisa, performing European klezmer compositions. By the early 1990s Germany was the home to an increasing number of klezmer ensembles and performers, followed by the Netherlands and other European countries. In Israel a small group of Orthodox klezmorim, led by Musa Berlin, perform a largely American-derived, but partly local, repertory especially at religious pilgrimages.