Klezmer musicians, Russia, ca. 1912. (The Russian Museum of Ethnography, St. Petersburg, Russia)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the


Traditional and Instrumental Music

Page 4 of 7:
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7
Concert Music 

By the later sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries in Bohemia and then in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jewish musicians began to form their own guilds. The formation of guilds raised the social status of Jewish musicians, and led to the abandonment of the older term leyts (scoffer, clown), applied in Central Europe to singers, instrumentalists, clowns, and dancers, in favor of the new, more respectable term klezmer (from kele zemer, musical instruments or vessels of song; pl., klezmorim), designating exclusively an instrumentalist. The term klezmer made its way to Germany only in the eighteenth century, with the influx of Jewish musicians from Bohemia and Poland. Klezmer was a more favorable term for a Jewish musician, in contrast to the derogatory muzikant. This distinction persisted until the later nineteenth century, when Jews gained admission to conservatories in Russia and Austria-Hungary in significant numbers.

Social History of the Klezmorim

In areas where Gypsies (Rom) were never very numerous, especially Poland–Lithuania, klezmorim constituted the majority of professional musicians. They were primarily based in private towns on the large estates of Polish nobility; there were also several urban centers of klezmer music, especially in Vilna and Lwów. By the eighteenth century, klezmorim were also prominent in Ottoman Moldavia, particularly in the capital, Iaşi (Jassy). Professional klezmorim constituted an occupational caste; they spoke their own Yiddish professional jargon and intermarried at times with the families of wedding jesters (badkhonim). Some klezmer lineages persisted for a century or more, such as the Lemisches of Iaşi and the Beltsi in Moldavia, first documented in the mid-eighteenth century, who spread to Istanbul, Beirut, and Athens—and to Philadelphia in the United States.

Kapela Żydowska (Jewish band). Painting by Kolodorfer. Poland, late nineteenth century. Watercolor. The young boy (3rd from right) plays a tsimbl. (Moldovan Family Collection)

Klezmer ensembles (di klezmer, kapelye, or khevrisa/khevrusa) were exclusively male. Traditionally the leader was the first violin, who usually passed on his position to his son or son-in-law. Klezmorim did not accompany any Jewish vocal music, except at weddings, where they provided instrumentation to the rhymes of the badkhn [listen to a recording]. While the leader was usually a full-time musician, band members often had other professions. In better economic times these could include hat making or other crafts; in depressed times klezmorim turned to barbering, which they claimed as a monopoly.

In the Polish Commonwealth, the composition and territory of each klezmer ensemble had been strictly regulated by mutual agreement. After most of Poland came under Russian rule at the end of the eighteenth century, the gradual decline in Jewish communal autonomy led to the freedom of non-klezmorim to enter ensembles, which were now called kompaniya. Scions of the klezmer families still controlled the selection of musicians at Jewish weddings.

Early (pre-nineteenth-century) references to klezmorim occur in both Jewish and Christian communal and guild records. Non-Jewish literary and visual representations of klezmorim appear earlier and are often fuller than Jewish ones. The description of Jankiel Cymbalist in Adam Mickiewicz’s epic Pan Tadeusz (1834) is a conspicuous example; also noteworthy are the Galician Tales of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and the pioneering ethnomusicological study Evreiskie orkestry (Jewish Orchestras; 1904) by Ivan Lipaev. Important visual documents include the paintings of Jean-Pierre Norblin de la Gourdine (1745–1830) and Wincenty Smokowski (1797–1876). By the mid- to late nineteenth century, references to klezmorim appear occasionally in Yiddish memoirs.

After the expulsion of the Turks in 1699, some klezmorim emigrated from southern Poland to Hungary and collaborated with Gypsy musicians, leading to a profound interaction between Jewish and Hungarian popular music. The emancipation of the Jews in Habsburg lands in 1867, however, led to the rapid decline of the klezmer profession in Hungary and in Bohemia–Moravia. Gypsies then assumed the social position formerly held by the klezmorim. Combined Jewish and Gypsy ensembles became the rule in Ottoman Moldavia and Russian Bessarabia. In Moldavia, however—unlike the situation in Hungary and Bohemia—the Jewish musical element remained strong, often attracting non-Jewish musicians who performed and composed in a “Jewish” style.

The acceptance of Jews in Russian and Austrian conservatories by the last third of the nineteenth century affected both klezmer performance style and the professional opportunities open to klezmorim in cities and larger towns. After World War I, klezmorim were increasingly integrated into various forms of European musical life, even as they maintained a role in Jewish communal music. In some regions, daughters of klezmer families were now able to become professional musicians, forming froyen kapelyes—though these ensembles were not allowed to perform at Jewish weddings. The Holocaust put a complete end to klezmer music in Poland, while both the genre and the profession were largely suppressed in the Soviet Union.

Klezmer musicians at a wedding, playing an accompaniment to the arrival of the groom, Ukraine, ca. 1925. Photograph by Menakhem Kipnis. (Forward Association/YIVO)

Since in many regions the majority of musicians were klezmorim, their musical activity was not limited to Jewish society. In the Polish Commonwealth, there was a strict hierarchy among klezmer ensembles. While the greatest Polish magnates imported their musicians from abroad, the lesser gentry depended on local klezmorim. Low-status, part-time klezmorim frequently played at gentile weddings or in taverns.

Within Jewish society, the main venue for klezmer bands and the primary opportunity for performance and for paying work was the wedding. Jewish weddings could continue for more than one day, and included a transition from the meditative music prior to the ceremony to various forms of dance following it, along with concerts for wealthier guests. The very best klezmorim played only at such impromptu concerts. The wedding repertoire itself was often affected by social class, so that klezmorim reserved their finest and most original pieces for brides of wealthy or other high-status families.

Apart from weddings, klezmorim performed on holidays such as Hanukkah, Purim, and sometimes on Sukkot, Passover, and Rosh Ḥodesh (the beginning of the new month) and at the end of the Sabbath, in the synagogue or at the homes of the wealthy. In addition, cities and larger towns (e.g., Vilna or Berdichev) featured klezmer guild synagogues, where music was played on these holidays. Several Hasidic courts also encouraged the development of klezmer music, either by employing local klezmorim or by maintaining their own kapelye, as the rebbe of Lubavitch did in the first half of the nineteenth century. A distinctive klezmer repertoire survives from the courts of Sadagora and Buhuşi in Bucovina.

Music of the Klezmorim

Although the klezmorim of Prague played a variety of instruments, and those in Poland played the harp, zither, and lute, by the middle of the seventeenth century the klezmer ensemble became fixed as a four- to five-piece group led by the first violin and including a small cimbalom (Yid., tsimbl, a hammered dulcimer), a contra violin (sekund), a bass or cello, and at times a wooden flute. During the eighteenth century, this grouping made its way to Germany and Holland, and it seems also to have been influential among non-Jewish musicians, becoming the basis for most of the peasant string bands of Poland, Ukraine, and Belorussia in the nineteenth century. In the early 1800s, the clarinet became an accepted part of a klezmer band in Prussian Poland and in Moldavia; in the easternmost territories a frame drum was sometimes played as well. By the later nineteenth century, the loosening of Jewish communal controls in Russian territories led to the appearance of the 10- to 15-man kompaniya, featuring brass as well as strings, which came to dominate the cities and towns of Ukraine, Russian Moldavia, and Lithuania. After 1900, this ensemble made its way to America as well.

The majority of small-town klezmorim probably remained illiterate until late in the century, but musical notation seems to have been accepted by ensemble leaders in the early nineteenth century, at least in the larger centers. As professional musicians, klezmorim required as wide a repertoire as possible, including light classical as well as peasant folk music. When the ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovskii documented the klezmer repertoire of Ukraine in the 1930s and 1940s, he asked only for musical genres that both had a recognized place in the traditional Jewish wedding and were com-posed by klezmorim, thus establishing the foundation for the genre system of klezmer music. While Jewish professional musicians (both male and female) had been well known elsewhere, a distinctive Jewish instrumental repertoire, style, and system of genres is documented only in Eastern Europe, with derivatives in America and Israel.

Only a small fragment of the klezmer repertoire is extant today, as guild professional klezmer composers did not publish their music but simply passed it on to their successors in the kapelye. In Europe, commercial recording began prior to World War I in Poland. Early Galician recordings document a variety of artistic solo genres [listen to a recording], but were soon replaced by the popular Belf recordings from Podolia, which were on a lower artistic level [listen to a recording].

Klezmer musicians, Eastern Europe, ca. late 19th century. (YIVO)

Incidental documentation has bequeathed some data about a broad southern area from Galicia to Ukraine and Moldova, but much less about Belarus, Lithuania, or Poland proper. From this southern region, the genre system and the shape of melodies (along with many specific tunes) are known from the last third or at times the middle of the nineteenth century. In general, the repertoire forms a continuum beginning with improvisations in flowing rhythm (taksim, doyne [listen to recordings]), semifixed rubato melodies (shteyger, zogekhts [listen to a recording]), and improvisations with a rhythmic basis (gedanken); through display pieces based on duple (double) dance rhythms (skotshne [listen to a recording]), nondance moralishe nigunim in triple time (dobriden [listen to a recording]), and Near Eastern rhythmic melodies (terkisher dobriden); and extending to elaborate three-part dance tunes for virtuoso solo dancing or for listening, and dance tunes based on particular group dances.

Some pieces that were inspired by Near Eastern music were performed with Turkish violin tuning (tsvey shtrines; two strings [listen to a recording]). The better klezmorim created their own versions of liturgical or paraliturgical pieces (e.g., shteyger [mode], khsos [midnight], tish nign [table melody]), along with original individual compositions. One of the major genres of the wedding ceremony proper was the improvised kale-baveynen (“causing the bride to weep”) or kale-bazetsn, wherein the violinist and cimbalist played in a different mode from the singing of the badkhn. The kale-bazetsenish proper formed a genre of melodies in 3/4 or alternating 3/4 and 2/4 rhythms.

The most common dance music genre was called freylekhs, khosidl, rikudl, hopke, and karahod. The contradance sher generally employed music of a similar character at least in Ukraine, although not always in Belarus. Most of these tunes were created in a scale using an augmented second degree (the so-called “freygish” mode), but a significant minority employed the minor scale. Three-section tunes generally featured modulation and passing note-alternation. Syncopations and rhythmic contrasts within the sections of the freylekhs were striking. More elaborate dance tunes featured extended melodic lines, sometimes in 8 or 16 measures. Since the freylekhs was not bound to set dance figures, it contained a variety of substyles. Some featured note repetitions probably derived from Ashkenazic prayer; others were based on transpositions by thirds; still others employed more Near Eastern melodic techniques. The separate sections of a freylekhs were generally integral and were usually the work of a single klezmer composer—as opposed to the modular styles found elsewhere in Eastern Europe (e.g., Hungary and Transylvania), and on some Greek islands.

In Russian territory, the term khosidl referred to a slow freylekhs with a more introverted character, similar to tunes used for wedding ritual dances. In northern Bucovina this feature passed into Moldavian peasant folklore as the husit. The triple meter of the Moldavian hora boiereasca (noblemen’s hora), which was partly created by klezmorim in the mid-nineteenth century, was developed also as processional music (gas-nign [street tune] or mazltov [good luck]). Another nondance genre based on both Moldavian dance music and rubato melodies was termed volokhl (Walachian).

This mixture of Western, Ashkenazic, and Near Eastern and Balkan elements may well have been present from the beginnings of the genre in the 1600s; some of the same musical elements were present in non-Jewish festive music of seventeenth-century Lwów. Turkish musical elements are strong in parts of the Aaron Beer manuscript from Berlin (1792). During the era of Greco-Ottoman rule in Moldavia (1711–1828) and afterward, there was a deep reciprocal connection with both Moldavian and Greek instrumental music, resulting in the creation of a mixed Jewish–Moldavian repertoire, the adoption of the Jewish sher dance by Moldavians, and the modification of the music of the urban Greek dance hassapiko along both Jewish and Romanian lines. Moldavian Jewish musical elements were adopted by klezmorim as far north as Lithuania.

Klezmer in Europe and America

The first klezmer musician to achieve fame on the European concert stage was the Belorussian cimbalist Yekhiel Mikhl Guzikow (1806–1837). Composer-klezmorim of the nineteenth century included the violinists Avraham Kholodenko of Berdichev (1828–1902), known as “Pedotser”; Shepsl of Kobryn; Marder ha-Godol of Vinnitsa; Melekh Klezmer and Khayim Fiedler of Orhei; Shmuel Weintraub of Brody; Khone Wolfstahl of Tarnopol (1853–1924); and Selig Itsik Lemisch of Beltsy (1819–1891). Outstanding performers of the more distant past include Khayim Cimbalist, court musician of General Wallerstein during the Thirty Years’ War; Solomon Tambalarul, court musician of the Ottoman Greek (Phanariot) voivode of Moldavia in the mid-eighteenth century; Itsik Tambalgiu of early nineteenth-century Iaşi; the cimbalist Yosef Lipianski of Vitebsk; the violinists Yosef Drucker (known as “Stempenyu”) of Berdichev (1822–1879) and Yosef Solinski; and the cimbalist Yosef Moscovici of Galați and Washington, D.C.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, several Jewish musicians, most of them students of either Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov or Anatolii Liadov at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, composed pieces based in part on the klezmer repertoire. The major figures in this movement were Yo’el Engel, Joseph Achron, Aleksandr Krein, Mikhail Gnesin, and Jacob Weinberg [for recordings, see related media]. The clarinetist Simeon Bellison, an early associate of Engel’s, continued to perform this repertoire with his Zimro Ensemble (1918–1920) and with the New York Philharmonic after 1920.

Only a few of the established European klezmorim immigrated to America—including the fiddler Selig Lemisch, who came to Philadephia in 1882. The outstanding clarinetists Shloymke Beckerman (1883–1974), Naftule Brandwein (1884–1963), and Dave Tarras (1897–1989), all born in Europe, made their careers in America. Even in the first generation, however, klezmer music in America was primarily purveyed by Jewish musicians with military musical training or by the younger sons of klezmer families. Within a generation, the violin, flute, and tsimbl had lost their place in klezmer ensembles to the clarinet and brass instruments. Virtually the entire artistic and display repertoire of klezmer music was abandoned, and only dance music remained. The “klezmer revival” that occurred in the mid-1970s and 1980s benefited from the musical continuity afforded by such senior European figures as Tarras, along with the American klezmorim Max Epstein, Sid Beckerman (Shloymke’s son), and Ray Musiker (all clarinetists).

Within Europe after World War II, elements of klezmer music persisted only in those parts of the USSR that had been under Romanian occupation, and in which a substantial Yiddish-speaking Jewish population survived the war. Klezmer music reemerged in the former Soviet Union, Poland, and elsewhere only through the impact of younger American performers after 1989.

Suggested Reading

• Moshe Beregovski, “Yidishe instrumentalishe folksmuzik,” in Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski, ed. Mark Slobin, pp. 530–548 (Philadelphia, 1982); Moshe Bik, Klezmorim be-Orgeev (Haifa, 1964); Walter Zev Feldman, “Bulgareasca, Bulgarish, Bulgar: The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre,” Ethnomusicology 38.1 (1994): 1–35; Walter Zev Feldman, “Klezmer,” in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, pp. 88–90 (New York, 2000); Walter Zev Feldman, “Remembrance of Things Past: Klezmer Musicians of Galicia, 1870–1940,” Polin 16 (2003): 29–57; Ivan Lipaev, “Evreiskie Orkestry” (“Jewish Orchestras”), Russkaia Muzykal’naia Gazeta 4–6, 8 (1904): 101–103, 133–136, 169–172, 205–207; Isaac Rivkind, Klezmorim: Perek be-toldot ha-omanut ha-‘amamit (“Klezmorim: a Chapter in the History of Folk Art”) (New York, 1960); Mark Slobin, Fiddler on the Move: Exploring the Klezmer World (Oxford and New York, 2000); Mark Slobin, Robert Rothstein, and Michael Alpert, eds., Jewish Instrumental Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Syracuse, N.Y., 2001); Joachim Stutschewsky, Ha-Klezmorim: Toldotehem, oraḥ-ḥayehem vi-yetsirotehem (Tel Aviv, 1959).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1293, Harris Pine, Papers, 1920s-1980s; RG 397, Yom-Tov Spilman, Papers, 1893; RG 683, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Collection, ca. 1900-1970s.