Klezmer Music

What is Klezmer music?

Klezmer is the folk and dance music of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Ashkenazic Jewish communities, enjoyed and played by those of any religion or none.

The word translates as ‘vessel of song’ and can be used as both an adjective (‘klezmer music’) and, perhaps less commonly, as a noun (‘She is a klezmer’).

Klezmer has its origins in the 16th century but nearly disappeared after World War II. The so-called ‘klezmer revival’ or ‘revitalization’ of the late 1970s brought klezmer style and repertoire back on to the world music scene, where it now occupies an important and growing place.

Klezmer modes

The distinctive sound of klezmer comes in large part from its modal nature. If you attend KlezNorth you will be immersed in this wonderful sound world for a whole weekend. You will come away with a far better understanding of modes than can be conveyed in a few words here! For example, one common klezmer mode, known as freygish, contains elements of the more familiar major and minor key system. By combining both a major third and a minor sixth in the same scale, a somewhat ambiguous ‘happy-sad’ quality or mood is created. It is partly this which gives klezmer its distinctive expressiveness, something that most people find evocative and moving. Other modes have different qualities, suggested by the closeness of the word to ‘mood’.

For more information on klezmer modes, see Josh Horowitz on Klezshack.

Klezmer rhythms

Although there are some purely listening pieces, most klezmer music is made for dancing, so rhythm is vital. Even when not being explicitly stated by any instrument, the underlying rhythm must be felt and internalised by musicians to make the music come alive. Common dances and rhythms include a slow dance in a ‘limping’ three-time called a hora (a bit like the Scottish strathspey), and faster couples, line and set dances such as bulgars and freylekhs. See the Dance page for more information. The best way for musicians to learn to play these tunes and rhythms is to try the dances they are designed to accompany – there are plenty of opportunities throughout the whole KlezNorth weekend!

For more information, see  Ilana Cravitz’s summary of Types of Klezmer Tunes (MS Word document).

Klezmer Style

Style is the hardest aspect to define and is only appreciated by lots of listening and by hearing great players (like our guest tutors) play for you in workshops. In a supportive learning environment, they can demonstrate key aspects and pass on instrument-specific tips. Style encompasses aspects such as tone quality, phrasing and ornamentation/decoration of the melody. It makes the music sound authentic and takes the listener (and player) to a new place.

For style/arrangement, Bob Cohen’s brief paper, Jewish Fiddle, is worth reading.

Need more information?

Come to the weekend! We have talks, workshops, sessions, films, masterclasses and enthusiastic people of all levels of experience, from none to lots, all sharing their journey towards understanding this music better.
For those seeking detailed information, an authoritative, new history of klezmer has recently been published. See:
Feldman, Walter Zev (2016) Klezmer: music, history and memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.