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Klezmorim in Ukraine 1925
Giora Feidman before a concert in Bad Nauheim in January 2007
Klezmer concert and festival, Vienna 2009

Klezmer [ ˈklɛzmɐ ] ( YIVO transcription from Yiddish כליזמר or קלעזמער, from Hebrew כלי kli ("tool, device, vessel") andזמר zemer ("song, melody"), literally "vessel of the song", in modern Hebrew "musical instruments, musicians"; rare Klesmer ) is one of the Ashkenazi Jews originating folk music tradition . Around the 15th century, folk musicians called klezmorim developed a tradition of secular, non-liturgical Jewish music. They were based on religious traditions that go back to biblical times; their musical expression, however, has continued to develop into the present. The repertoire mainly consists of music to accompany weddings and other celebrations.

The term klezmer (plural klezmorim ) originally referred to musicians. Only since the revival of this music in the USA in the 1970s has the term been used to denote the musical style. Until then this music was mostly called "Yiddish" music. Under Klezmer refers primarily instrumental music.

The spelling “Klezmer” comes from English , where the z stands for a voiced s .


Klezmer music is easily recognizable by its characteristic melody lines reminiscent of the human voice. This does not take place as a stylistic equivalent, but in conscious imitation of the chasan and paraliturgical chant. There are krekhts, “sobs”, and dreydlekh, a kind of trill .


Jewish musicians, Prague 1741

The Bible describes variously the sound bodies and the musical creation of the Levites . Even if many rabbis gave up their music with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 , the need remained to spread musical joy at celebrations such as weddings. The klezmorim occupied this niche. The first Klezmer known by name was Yakobius ben Yakobius (around 150), an aulos player in Samaria . The first written record of Klezmorim comes from the 15th century. Mind you, it is unlikely that this music would be recognizable in today's klezmer music, as the type and structure of this music in all probability originated in the 19th century from Bessarabia , where the majority of today's traditional repertoire was written.

The klezmorim based their secular instrumental music on the liturgical vocal music of the synagogue , especially the cantor singing . However, the klezmorim - along with other minstrels  - were rather despised by the rabbis because of their traveling lifestyle. The Klezmorim often traveled and made music together with Roma musicians , as these had a similar social rank. Thus they exerted a great mutual musical and linguistic influence on one another (the extensive Yiddish klezmer argot shows Roma borrowings).

The klezmorim were valued for their musical abilities and their varied repertoire and were by no means restricted to playing pure klezmer music. Church parishes sometimes took them into service, and a few classical Italian violin virtuosos took inspiration from them. The local nobility held the best klezmorim in high esteem and often hired them for their festivities.

Like other traveling musicians, the klezmorim were often harassed by authorities. The restrictions in the Pale of Settlement in western Russia , which continued into the 19th century, forbade them to play loud instruments. Consequently, the musicians used the violin , tsimbl (a kind of dulcimer ) and other stringed instruments. Michael Joseph Gusikow , the first klezmer to appear in front of a European concert audience, played a xylophone he had invented and which he called a “wooden and straw instrument”. It sounded like a dulcimer and triggered enthusiastic comments from Felix Mendelssohn ; in the case of Liszt, however, disapproving. With the reforms under Alexander II of Russia around 1855, Jews in Russia were also allowed to play loud-sounding instruments. The clarinet soon replaced the violin as the preferred instrument. A development in the direction of brass and percussion music also took place when the klezmorim were drafted into military bands.

Klezmorim from what is now western Ukraine, 1912

When the Jews in Eastern Europe left the shtetl and emigrated by the hundreds of thousands to the USA , the klezmer culture spread worldwide. At first, American Jews thought little of the klezmer tradition; only a few Yiddish folk song singers lived there. Clarinetists Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein had a brief but influential revival in the 1920s . However, as the Jews took over the governing culture of the United States, the popularity of the klezmer declined, and Jewish festivities were increasingly accompanied by non-Jewish music.

Although traditional performances lost their popularity, many famous Jewish composers of art music , such as Leonard Bernstein , Aaron Copland or George Gershwin , experienced lasting klezmer influences during their youth. The best-known example of such inspiration that applies clarinets - glissando at the beginning of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (1924). At the same time, non-Jewish composers discovered a rich source of fascinating musical themes in klezmer music. Dmitri Shostakovich in particular admired klezmer music for its combination of ecstasy and human despair and quoted some melodies in his chamber music works such as the piano quintet in G minor, Op. 57 (1940), the 2nd Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 67 (1944) and the 8th String Quartet (1960).

In the 1970s there was a Klezmer revival in the US and Europe with Giora Feidman , Zev Feldman, Andy Statman, The Klezmorim and the Klezmer Conservatory Band at the helm. They based their repertoire on old recordings and klezmer musicians from the USA who were still alive. Zev Feldman and Andy Statman were able to learn personally from Dave Tarras and persuade him to give another concert in 1979 and record a record. In 1985, Henry Sapoznik founded the KlezKamp for training in Klezmer and other Yiddish music.

In the 1990s, more and more ensembles were formed and the popularity and spread of klezmer increased noticeably. In the USA, Klezmer was and is predominantly played by Jewish musicians for a Jewish audience, in Europe, and especially in Germany, this is not the case. Most of the musicians and their audience here are not Jewish, Klezmer is primarily understood as a branch of the world music genre.

Interest in klezmer has evolved in avant-garde jazz; Musicians like John Zorn and Don Byron occasionally combined klezmer and jazz music .

The range of styles within Klezmer music is very large today. On the one hand, there are ensembles that have dedicated themselves to the performance practice of the 19th century, such as B. Khevrisa and Budowitz. On the other hand, there are ensembles that combine klezmer music with other music such as B. combine jazz, pop, rock and ska, such. B. The Klezmatics .


The young klezmorim originally learned the songs from their families and in their parents' music bands. However, these traditions were disrupted dramatically, most notably by the Shoah . Undoubtedly, a lot of material was lost as a result, especially the wedding repertoire would have filled a period of several days, but the technology of the time could only record a few minutes. However, some older klezmorim were able to partially remember this repertoire. Some transcriptions from the 19th century have also been preserved.

The folk revival from the end of the 1960s onwards made klezmer popular again in Europe, and at the end of the 20th century, klezmer is usually learned from fake books (chord tables) and transcriptions of old recordings, with vocal soloists through song compilations, mostly by American musicologists (e. B. Eleanor Mlotek), recordings and - at least in the last few decades - by living native speakers.

Song types

Klezmer music includes pieces of dance music from fast to slow tempo

  • The Freylekhs (shortened from a freylekhs shtikele "a happy piece") is a dance in 2/4 time
  • The Bulgar , a round dance in 8/8 time with an emphasis on the 1st, 4th and 7th beat, the most popular of the dances, especially in America
  • The Sher , a set dance in 2/4 time
  • The Khosidl in 2/4 or 4/4 time, named after the Hasidim who danced it
  • The Hora or Zhok is a Moldavian style dance in 3/8 time with an emphasis on the 1st and 3rd beat
  • The Kolomeike is a fast and catchy dance in 2/4 time from the Ukraine , named after the city of Kolomea
  • The Terkish is a 4/4 time dance like the Habanera
  • The Skotshne ("hopping")

In addition to these dances, the klezmorim also played other dances, but these cannot be counted as klezmer music

  • The nigun , pl. Nigunim , is a melody that is sung in Hasidism . When klezmorim play for Hasidim, these melodies are played instrumentally by them
  • Waltzes were very popular, whether classical, Russian or Polish
  • The mazurka and polka , Polish or Czech dances were common for Jews and non-Jews played
  • Cakewalks were African-American folk dances thatwerepopular even among Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century
  • The csardas was a Hungarian dance that was widespread among Hungarian and Slovak Jews and in the Carpathian Mountains . It starts slowly and gradually increases the pace
  • The Sîrba , a Moldavian dance in 2/4 time, characterizes the hopping steps accompanied by the triplets in the melody
  • Tango , which originated in Argentina , was extremely popular worldwide in the 1930s. Numerous Eastern European tangos were written by Jewish composers

There are also types that are not intended for dance

  • The doina is an improvised lament, usually performed as a solo, and is an indispensable part of a wedding. It has an expressive vocal quality like the chazzan's singing . Although no form in the above sense, the music does not sound random in Jewish style - the musician works with clear references to the Jewish prayer and Eastern European lament. Usually it is performed with violin ( Fidl ) and dulcimer ( Tsimbl ) or clarinet; Otherwise, variable instruments from banjo to xylophone can also be selected. Often the Doina is the first movement of a three-movement piece, followed by a Hora and then either a Freylekhs or a Khusidl . The Romanian Doina has a decisive, rhythmically free main voice in the form of singing or a melody instrument, usually accompanied by a small ensemble according to a given harmony scheme, whereby the harmonies have to change according to the specifications of the main voice. The plaintive character in both cases is comparable to the blues or the Portuguese fado .
  • The Taksim - usually a Freylekh - is a free prelude (prelude) that introduces the motifs of the following piece; it was largely supplanted by the Doina at the beginning of the 20th century .
  • A Fantazi resp. Fantasy is a free song traditionally played during the Jewish wedding supper, which resembles the Fantasia of light classical music.


Most klezmer songs are divided into sections, each in a different key ; often alternating between major and minor . The instrumental pieces often follow oriental harmony, such as Greek music , while Yiddish vocal works are often more simply structured and resemble Russian folk songs in style and harmony.

The song finishes chromatically or as a glissando , followed by a slow staccato 8-5-1.


The orchestration in klezmer music has changed over time. A typical ensemble in the 18th and 19th centuries comprised the first violin and second violin (also called second), a tsimbl ( dulcimer or dulcimer ), a double bass or cello and sometimes a flute . The melody is generally assigned to the violin, while the other instruments provide harmony and rhythm, and others (usually the second violin) counterpoint.

In the 19th century, a frame drum was also used as a percussion instrument . This was later replaced by a bass drum on which a cymbal is mounted, called a poyk, which came from military music. In general, the military music of the tsar's army had a great influence on the instrumentation of klezmer music. The violin was replaced by the clarinet as a solo instrument. Various brass instruments were also used: trumpet, horn, tuba and trombone. Large orchestras often consisted of 12 to 15 players.

In the USA the piano was also used since the beginning of the 20th century, and soon the accordion, which replaced the cymbal ( tsimbl ). As a percussion instrument, the established snare drum . In the 1950s and 1960s the saxophone played a role as an accompanying instrument that played the 2nd voice. In the course of the revival, the mandolin finally became a typical klezmer instrument.


Klezmer was originally a music intended for dance; accordingly, the tempo was adapted to the dancers, depending on whether tired or fresher dancers came along. Like other musicians (including jazz musicians, for example ), the early klezmorim did not follow exactly one strict basic beat . One "dragged" or accelerated the melody according to feeling.

The modes

Certain modes are decisive in klezmer music .

Ahavo Rabo

Ahavo Rabo or Ahava Raba (Hebrew "great love") refers to the morning prayer ( Shacharit ). The mode is also called “Freygish” in Yiddish, whereby “freygish” is not simply the Yiddish word for Phrygian and denotes the same mode, but refers to the Phrygian-dominant scale . The excessive second between the second and third stage is characteristic.


Mishebak (Hebrew "He who blesses"), after the beginning of the prayer recited after reading the Torah, is also called Ukrainian-Dorian , altered Ukrainian , Doina or altered Dorian . The key is similar to the Western Doric mode , but in contrast to this has a raised 4th degree.

Adonoi Moloch

Adonoi Moloch (Hebrew “the Lord rules”) often sung in traditional synagogue services opens many psalms . It is similar to the Western Mixolydian as well as the Arabic Siga Maqam .

Mogen Ovos

Mogen Ovos (Hebrew "shield of our ancestors") is an older synagogue type, coming from the Friday evening prayer. It is similar to the western minor scale as well as the Arabic Bayat Maqamat, and Bayat-Nava.


In the Yishtabach (Hebrew “He be praised”, the beginning of a prayer recited in the daily morning prayer) the second and fifth levels are often degraded. See Mogen Ovos above .

Musical forms

Dance forms

Important musicians and groups


  • Alan Bern
  • Pierre Cleitman, companion of Volker Biesenbender
  • Achim Eckert, member of the Manfred Lemm & Ensemble ensemble
  • Heiner Frauendorf
  • Jossif Gofenberg (accordion and vocals), founder of Klezmer Chidesch and Gofenberg & Friends
  • Joshua Horowitz
  • Franka Lampe (accordion and vocals), ensemble member of various bands
  • Andreas Malliaris, ensemble member of Anna Werliková & The Klezmer Music Ensemble and Der Singende Tresen (until 2006)
  • Oleg Nehls
  • Moritz Neumann, member of the Klesmorim Oif Simches ensemble
  • Johannes Pahlitzsch , member of the Anna Werliková & The Klezmer Music Ensemble
  • Mishka Ziganoff





  • Julia Rebekka Adler (viola)
  • Meir Brauner (double bass), guest of Klesmorim Oif Simches
  • Stuart Brotman (double bass)
  • Roman Grinberg (piano, vocals)
  • Armin Gröpler (piano), constant companion (1994–2000) of Anna Werliková
  • Michael Hinrichs (percussion; band The Neapolitan Alliance ), guest with Anna Werliková & The Klezmer Music Ensemble
  • Alex Jacobowitz (xylophone, marimba, vibraphone)
  • Michael Kempa (cello), ensemble member of Manfred Lemm & Ensemble
  • Frank-D. Koblinsky (piano, Fender Rhodes, SIEL synthesizer, vibraphone, flute), constant companion of Dany Bober
  • Howard Levy (harmonica)
  • Boris Lichtman (double bass)
  • Roger Lindner (oboe, tenor saxophone, trombone; band The Neapolitan Alliance ), guest with Anna Werliková & The Klezmer Music Ensemble
  • Frank London (trumpet)
  • Hankus Netsky
  • Claudia Ott (flutes, percussion), guest with Anna Werliková & The Klezmer Music Ensemble
  • Johannes Pahlitzsch (piano / accordion / harmonica; band Die Neapolitanische Allianz ), guest with Anna Werliková & The Klezmer Music Ensemble
  • Günter Schenk (sub-double bass balalaika), ensemble member of Manfred Lemm & Ensemble
  • Johannes Schmidt (Primbalalaika), member of the Manfred Lemm & Ensemble ensemble
  • Pete Sokolow (piano)
  • Eric Wilhelm (drums, percussion, bass), accompanist from Dany Bober

Vocal soloists

Groups and ensembles


  • yiddish songs traditionals (1911 to 1950) , 4 CD set, Membran Music Ltd., Hamburg 2004, Grosser und Stein GmbH, ISBN 978-3-937730-94-3 .


  • Wiltrud Apfeld (Red.): Klezmer. Heym and hip. Klartext Verlag, Essen 2003, ISBN 3-89861-379-8 (exhibition catalog with 1 CD)
  • Alex Jacobowitz: A classic klezmer. Travel stories of a Jewish musician. 2nd Edition. Tree of Life, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-00-003226-6 .
  • Rita Ottens, Joel Rubin: Jewish Music Traditions (Music Practice in School; 4). Verlag Gustav Bosse, Kassel 2001, ISBN 3-7649-2694-5 .
  • Rita Ottens, Joel Rubin: Klezmer music. Bärenreiter, Kassel 2003, ISBN 3-7618-1400-3 .
  • Seth Rogovoy: The essential klezmer. A music lover's guide to Jewish roots and soul music . Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill NJ 2000, ISBN 1-56512-244-5 .
  • Joann Sfar: Klezmer Volume 1 The Conquest of the East . Avant-Verlag, Berlin 2007, ISBN 978-3-939080-17-6 .
  • Mark Slobin (Ed.): American Klezmer. Ita roots and offshoots. University of California Press, Berkeley CA 2002, ISBN 0-520-22718-2 .
  • Georg Winkler: Klezmer. Features, structures and tendencies of a music-cultural phenomenon. Lang, Bern 2003, ISBN 3-03910-126-9 (also dissertation, University of Salzburg 2002)
  • Juliane Lensch: Klezmer. From the roots in Eastern Europe to the musical patchwork in the USA . Wolke, Hofheim 2010, ISBN 978-3-936000-45-0 .
  • Magdalena Waligórska: Klezmer's Afterlife. An Ethnography of the Jewish Music Revival in Poland and Germany . Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013.

Web links

Commons : Klezmer  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. “Klezmer, after all, was as germane to Gershwins's musical development as jazz - a fact noted by the gentile clarinet ist who, at a rehearsal, mockingly improvised a klezmerlike glissando at the beginning of Rhapsody in Blue, which Gershwin promptly added to the score. ”; from Jonathan Freedman: Klezmer America - Jewishness, ethnicity, modernity. Columbia University Press, 2008, p. 186.
  2. npr.org