Klezmer Music



Klezmer (כּלי־זמר) is a musical tradition which parallels Khassidic and Ashkenazic Judaism Around the 15th century, a tradition of secular Jewish musicians developed called klezmorim. They drew on devotional traditions extending back into Biblical times, and their musical legacy of klezmer continues to evolve today. The repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations.
Originally, klezmer (plural klezmorim) referred to the instruments played, then was extended to refer to the performers, and ultimately to the genre of music. Due to the Ashkenazi lineage of this music, the lyrics, terminology and song titles are typically in Yiddish.


Klezmer is easily identifiable by its characteristic expressive melodies, reminiscent of the human voice, complete with laughing and weeping. This is not a coincidence; the style is meant to imitate khazone and paraliturgical singing. Several techniques are used to accomplish this. There are krekhts, 'sobs', and dreydlakh which are a form of trill.


The Bible has several descriptions of orchestras and Levites making music. But after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70, many Rabbis discouraged musical instruments. But the importance of merrymaking at weddings was not diminished, and musicians came forth to fill that niche, klezmorim. The first klezmer known by name was Yakobius ben Yakobius, a 150s player of the aulus. in Samaria. The earliest written record of the klezmorim is in the 15th century. It should be noted that its unlikely that they played music recognizable as Klezmer today.
Klezmorim based their secular instrumental music upon devotional vocal music of the synagogue, in particular cantorial music. Even so, klezmorim -- along with other entertainers -- were typically looked down on by Rabbi because of their secular travelling lifestyle. Klezmorim often travelled and played with Roma musicians, since they occupied similar social positions. They had a great influence on each other musically. In fact, many European Klezmer songs were recovered from the memories of Transylvanian Roma.
Klezmorim were respected for their musical abilities and diverse repertoire. Klezmorim were by no means restricted to playing Klezmer. Christian churches would sometimes ask for their services, and some Italian classical violin virtuosos received their instruction. Local aristocracy held the best klezmer in high regard and often used their services.
Like other professional musicians, klezmorim were often limited by authorities. Ukrianian restrictions lasting into the 19th century banned them from playing loud instruments. Hence musicians took up the violin, cymbalom, and other string instruments. Later, around 1855 under the reign of Alexander II of Russia, Ukraine permitted loud instruments. The clarinet started to replace the violin as the instrument of choice. Also, a shift towards brass and percussion happened when klezmorim were conscripted into military bands.
As Jews left Eastern Europe and the shtetls, klezmer has spread throughout the globe, especially to the United States. Initially, not much of the Klezmer tradition was maintained by U.S. Jews, there were only a few Yiddish folk singers. In the 1920s the clarinetists Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein caused a brief, influential revival. But as U.S. Jews began to adopt mainstream culture, the popularity of Klezmer slowly declined, and Jewish celebrations were increasingly accompanied by non-Jewish music.
In the 1970s there was a Klezmer revival in the United States and Europe, led by Giora Feidman, Zev Feldman, Andy Statman, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. They drew their repertoire from recordings and surviving musicians of U.S. Klezmer. In 1985 Henry Sapoznik founded KlezKamp to teach Klezmer and other Yiddish music.
Shortly thereafter in the 1980s, the was a second revival as interest grew in more traditionally-inspired performances with string instruments, largely in non-Jews of the United States and Germany. Musicians began to track down older European Klezmer, by listening to recordings, finding transcriptions, and making field recordings of the few klezmorim left in Eastern Europe. Key performers in this style are Alicia Svigals and Budowitz.
Interest in klezmer has developed in avant-garde jazz musicians like John Zorn and Don Byron, who sometimes blend klezmer with jazz.


Historically, young klezmorim learned songs from their family and their elders in bands. However, there were several breaks in history where this transmission broke down, such as the Holocaust. Undoubtedly a lot was lost, especially wedding repertoire, since Jewish weddings would last several days, but technology of the time could only record a few minutes at a time. Fortunately, there remain a few older Roma musicians and klezmorim that are able to recall some of this repertoire. Also, some transcriptions were done in the 19th century.
In the 20th century, klezmer is typically learned from fake books and transcriptions of old recordings.

Song types

Most klezmer pieces are intended to be danced to. The sher -- also called the freylakh, khosidl, rikudl, hopke, or karahod -- was a fast 2/2 dance usually in the Ahava Rabboh melodic mode. Many other dances were performed such as the hora and bulgar.
Additionally, there are types not designed for dance. A doina is a improvisational lament usually performed solo. A fantazi is a slow piece inspired by outside musical influences.


Klezmer is traditionally instrumental, although at weddings they would accompany the wedding entertainer. They had a first violin, a contra-violin, a cimbalom, a bass or cello, and sometimes a flute. The lead violin played melody, while the remainder played rhythm and some harmony. Some modern performers in this style include Alicia Svigals, The Burning Bush, and Budowitz.
Some Klezmer revival bands look to loud-instrument klezmer, jazz, and Dixieland for inspiration. Their band is similar to a typical jazz band, with some differences. They use a clarinet for the melody, and make great use of the trombone for slides and other flourishes. When a cymbalom sound is called for, a piano is played with sustain. Performers in this style include The Klezmatics and Klezmer Conservatory Band.


In its original form, Klezmer was live music designed to facilitate dancing. Hence, the tempo would be altered as dancers tired -- or better dancers joined in. Trying to maintain a steady tempo was counterproductive. Nonetheless, klezmorim were often mocked for their drifting tempos by fellow musicians.
Like other musicians of their time, and many modern Jazz performers, early klezmorim did not rigidly follow the beat. Often they would slightly lead or trail it, giving a lilting sound.

Melodic Modes

Klezmer is usually played in shtaygerim, prayer modes of the synagogue. They are closely related to but distinct from Balkan modes.
Since klezmorim often had to perform for long events, it was difficult to keep the instruments in tune, especially the many-stringed cymbalom. This was not a great obstruction, since melody -- not harmony -- is the focus of klezmer. In fact, slight dissonances in harmony help give klezmer its character.
Ahava Rabboh Ahava Rabbah means 'Abounding Love' in Hebrew, and refers to a prayer from the Shabbat Musaf service. It is also called the Freygish, a Yiddish term derived from the German Phrygisch, or Phrygian mode. It is considered the mode of supplication. Usually it is found in Khassidic music. It is similar to the Arabic Hijaz maqam.
Mi Sheberach Mi Sheberach means 'He who blessed' in Hebrew, from the Mi Shebarach prayer. It is also called the Ukrainian, Altered Ukrainian, Doina, or Altered Dorian. It has a raised fourth, and is used for the doina, an improvised lament.
Adonoy Moloch Adonoy Moloch means 'the Lord reigns' in Hebrew. It is common in traditional synagogue services. It is similar to the Western Mixolydian mode and the Arabic Siga Maqam.
Mogen Ovos Mogen Ovos means "our forebears' shield" in Hebrew. Is an older mode from the synagogue, derived from the Haftarah. It is similar to the Western natural minor scale and the Arabic Bayat Maqamat and Bayat-Nava.
Yishtabach Yishtabach means "it shall become superb" in Hebrew. It has a frequent lowering of the 2nd and 5th. It is related to Mogen Ovos, above.

Important musicians

Aaron Alexander; Naftule Brandwein; Sam Musiker; Abe Schwartz; Andy Statman; Alicia Svigals; Dave Tarras; Joseph Moskowitz (See "Cymbalum"); Michael Alpert; Deborah Strauss - Important ensembles: Abe Schwartz' Orchestra; Belf's Rumanian Orchestra; Budowitz; Brave Old World; The Burning Bush; Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band; The Klezmatics; The Klezmer Conservatory Band; Naftule Brandwein's Orchestra



  • (solisti)  

  • (gruppi)


  • (cordofoni) Violin, Cymbalom

  • (aerofoni) Clarinet, , Trombone

  • (ancia libera) Accordion

  • (membranofoni)

  • (idiofoni)


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