What is Klezmer Music?

Music - Jewish music - wedding music - klezmer music. Throughout Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea, across continents and oceans to the New World and around the globe, klezmer music, the traditional instrumental music of East European Jews, has been the heartbeat of Jewish celebration for at least a century and a half.

The roots of klezmer music, a musical mirror of the Jewish diaspora reach far back into the past. In the Yiddish-speaking Jewish world that flourished in Eastern Europe for a thousand years, the occupation of the klezmer -- a Yiddish term derived from the Hebrew Kley-zemer, literally "vessels of song" - was an age-old, usually hereditary profession. Like the Roma (Gypsies), whose music influenced klezmer music, and was in turn influenced by it, Klezmorim were a professional musical caste within East European Jewish society. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Klezmorim developed a large and diverse repertoire of great virtuosity and sophistication.

Although alternately disdained and revered as a caste, Klezmorim were an integral part of Jewish communities and Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Firmly rooted in the spiritual soundscape of the Jewish world, klezmer music resonates with the age old Jewish liturgical traditions of prayer chant and Torah cantillation melodies of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, and the ecstatic mystical singing of the Hasidim.

At the same time, klezmer music is a distinctly secular genre. Like Yiddish folk song, it is a uniquely Jewish form whose repertoire embraces and reinterprets the music of the non-Jewish neighbors among whom Jews lived for centuries. Klezmorim performed this broad repertoire for both Jews and non-Jews, and their ensembles sometimes included non-Jewish musicians. Like Yiddish culture in general, klezmer music is a metaphor for the continual interaction of cultures in contact with one another, a pluralistic folk tradition in a world that often seeks to simplify and erase the true complexity of ethnic identity.


Notes by Michael Alpert
Klezmer Music - A Marriage of Heaven & Earth
CD and book #090
Ellipsis Arts