February 9, 2013

Program to include: Selections of Klezmer, Sephardic, and Turkish-Jewish music (to be announced from the stage)


SALAMONE ROSSI “Sonata Prima”, “Sonata Settima sopra l’Aria d’un Balletto”

HANS KRÁSA “March”, “Waltz” from “Brundibár”

KURT WEILL “Tango-Ballade” from “The Threepenny Opera”



Tickets are now on sale at the Honolulu Museum of Art front desk, and online at http://www.honolulumuseum.org/events/lectures_performances/


NOTES By Sasha Margolis

What is Klezmer Music?

Klezmer is a new name for an old musical style. The Yiddish word, derived from Hebrew kley zemer (“vessel of song”) originally meant “musical instrument.” About five hundred years ago, it came to refer to a person who played music, and in the 1970s, with the advent of the socalled “Klezmer revival” in America, it began to be used as a name for the music itself (which up until then had been called Jewish music, if it was called anything.)

What is now called klezmer music has probably existed as a distinct musical style, however, since the Middle Ages. Arising in traditionally observant Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe, the music’s most common use was as an accompaniment for wedding ceremonies, and the sometimes week-long festivities which surrounded them. The music came in three varieties: street music, table music, and dancing music. Street music was played to invite wedding guests from their homes, accompany bride and groom and parents to and from synagogue, and in the case of marriages between families resident in different localities, welcome the groom into town. It was usually in triple meter, often with a distinctly limping rhythmic quality. Table music was used to serenade the wedding party and guests while they ate, and often featured highly embellished melodies and virtuosic playing.

Dance music was by the far commonest kind of music played by klezmorim at weddings, and was marked by a great variety in tempo and meter. Fast, typcially Jewish freylekhs were played alongside French valses mignonnes, Hungarian wingerkas, and pas d’espagnes. Dances were paid for on an individual basis by guests, so that a klezmer band resembled a live jukebox: the dance-money was put into a box hanging either from the little drum played by the band’s youngest member, or from the tsimbl, that is, the hammered dulcimer or cymbalom. (A Yiddish proverb has it that “as one pays the tsimbl, the dance continues”–in other words, one must pay the piper.) Klezmer musicians also played dance music at other Jewish and non-Jewish functions. For example, in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a “Jewish Orchestra” consisting of three violins, flute, and bass plays for a ball given by the noble Ranevsky family; while Rimsky-Korsakov recalled of his hometown that, “for a long time, the dance band in Tikhvin was composed of a violin, on which a certain Nikolai sawed away at polkas and quadrilles, and a tambourine, virtuosically beaten by Kuz’ma, a house-painter and a confirmed drunk. In later years (ca. 1856) Jews turned up on violin, cymbalom, and drum, supplanting Nikolai and Kuz’ma and becoming fashionable musicians.”

Several further aspects of the klezmer’s world are worth noting. Until some time in the nineteenth century, music was, for the klezmer, a hereditary trade, regulated by guilds and communal administrations. The profession was none too lucrative, and klezmorim supplemented their income by plying other hereditary trades, most often those of barber and glazier. Klezmorim had their own secret language in order to communicate behind their employers’ backs. Called klezmer-loshn, it was closely related to thieves’ cant. (The great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleikhem included passages of klezmer-loshn in his novel Stempenyu, the fictionalized story of a true-life klezmer violinist.) Finally, there often existed in close proximity to klezmorim other personalities whose emphasis was verbal and visual rather than sonic, but who collaborated with the musicians in entertaining wedding guests. The master of ceremonies at a wedding, called a badkhn, improvised verses to make the bride cry, flatter or make fun of important guests, and make everyone laugh. Sometimes, the badkhn was one of the klezmorim. In general, showmanship was integral to the klezmer’s craft. Certain klezmorim were known for tumbling, magic tricks, and clowning. One famed bandleader led his wedding parties to the synagogue dressed as a harlequin, half his face covered in black; another amused his wedding guests by dancing a Cossack dance, and then jumping up on a table to recite Torah, accompanying himself on a drum. In the nineteenth-century, several klezmer violinists were known for playing with gloves on, imitating train sounds, or playing their instruments behind their backs.

Musical Characteristics of Klezmer

Existing as it did as an unwritten form, over hundreds of years, and over a wide geographical area, klezmer music had a shifting musical profile. One constant was the use of certain scales related to Jewish liturgical sources, including two featuring the characteristic augmented second: ahava raba, or freygish, a form of the phrygian mode (A-Bflat-C#-D-E-F-GA); and mi sheberakh, or Ukrainian Dorian (D-E-F-G#-A-B-C-D.) Unique to klezmer music was the use of certain ornaments resembling groans and hiccups, particularly the slide-hiccup known as the krekhts.

Klezmer musicians borrowed liberally from the folk traditions of surrounding peoples–such as the Hungarians–and from classical music. (A favorite Jewish wedding piece was the “Farewell Polonaise” by Polish composer M.F. Oginski.) According to the great klezmer scholar Moshe Beregovski (who completed his doctoral thesis in Moscow at the same time that Shostakovich was writing his klezmer-tinged piano trio): “As opposed to ethnic distinctiveness, ethnic closed-mindness is absolutely foreign to folk art. A people always accepts new melodies embodying a familiar spirit, even if those melodies lack the typical qualities of that people’s music. Very often tunes become popular precisely because they offer the new resources of another people’s folk music.”

As the Enlightenment came to Central Europe, and Jewish communities became less traditional in religious observance and cultural taste, klezmorim looking for work were forced to relocate southward and eastward. As a result, later klezmer music increasingly came to be influenced by the music of Russia, of the Rom, and especially, of the Balkans. A new scale became popular, Romanian major (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C-D.) And more and more, dance music incorporated the rhythm known as bulgar (12345678), to the point that the term bulgar became virtually synonymous with freylekhs, the most common name for a fast klezmer dance. In addition, dances were often introduced by Romanian-style improvisations known as doinas.

Along with new rhythmic and melodic influences came new trends in instrumentation. In many places, especially the Ukraine, Jews had long been subject to laws forbidding them from using so-called “loud instruments.” They were allowed only “quiet instruments” such as the violin, flute, tsimbl, bass, and small drums. In the mid-nineteenth century, these laws were rescinded. At the same time, the guilds and communal associations controlling musicians lost their power, leading to a dramatic rise in the number of musicians; and many Jews who had been drafted into the Russian army began to return home, bringing with them instruments they’d learned during their service. The result of all this was the appearance of much larger and louder bands, which included trumpets, trombones, and accordions. Most popular of all was the clarinet, an instrument ideally suited to playing ornaments such as the krekhts.

It was the new Balkan-flavored, clarinet-laden style that was most popular with Jewish immigrants to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and which is mainly heard on early klezmer recordings. It was this same style that formed the basis for the “Klezmer revival” of the 1970s.

In addition to these turn-of-the-century influences, modern klezmer has felt the impact of jazz: as klezmer became a concert music, separated from its original function, jazz-like improvised solos over chord changes became an integral feature. In addition, the 1930s-40s trend of melding jazz and klezmer in popular songs such as “The Angels Sing” and “Bai Mir Bist du Shein,” left an indelible rhythmic mark.

Yiddish Theater Music

A close relation to klezmer music was the music written for Yiddish-language theatrical productions in cities such as Warsaw and New York in the first half of the twentieth century. Two classics of the genre are Papirosin (“Cigarettes”), from a play of the same name by Herman Yablokoff; and Rumenye, written and made famous by the great singer Aaron Lebedeff. Papirosin is the tragic lament of an impoverished and homeless orphan, trying to make a living selling cigarettes. Rumenye is a sendup-cum-celebration of the penchant among Romanian Jews for enjoying food, wine, and romantic escapades.

Sephardic Music

The Sephardic Jews, speakers of the various Judeo-Spanish languages, lived first on the Iberian peninsula and in Morocco, and after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly Salonika, Greece. Their music demonstrates the influence of the Jewish liturgy, Spanish Renaissance music, and the rhythms and ethos of Moorish Andalusia.

Turkish-Jewish Music

Although some Sephardic Jews settled in Turkey, older Jewish communities already existed there. Various features of Arabic music, such as the maqams, or microtonal scales, and the use of complex meters such as the 10/8 jurjina, found their way into the music of these Turkish Jews.

Salamone Rossi (1570-1630)

Until the nineteenth century, with a few exceptions, Jews (and Christians of Jewish origin) were rare in Classical musical life. One of the exceptions was the ducal court of Mantua in Italy, where, in the late 1500s and early 1600s, many Jews played in the duke’s orchestra and also composed. The most famous of these was Salamone Rossi, violinist and composer, and a colleague of Monteverdi. (His sister, who went by the name of Madame Europa, was one of the earliest operatic sopranos, and premiered Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna.) Rossi invented the continuo madrigal form; wrote numerous volumes of instrumental trio sonatas, sinfonie, and gagliarde; and also composed a collection of liturgical music in Hebrew, titled The Songs of Solomon (a play on his own name), which had less in common with earlier Jewish music than it did with the works of his Baroque contemporaries.

Hans Krása (1899-1944) and Kurt Weill (1900-1950)

Hans Krása, a native of Prague, began his musical career as an opera house répétiteur in his native city, and remained closely involved with the opera world for the remainder of his short life. A composition student of the ubiquitous Alexander Zemlinsky (also teacher and brother-in-law of Schoenberg, and teacher and romantic suitor of the future Alma Mahler), Krása had notable success writing, among other works, a string quartet, some orchestral songs, and an opera based on a story by Dostoevsky. He is most famous, however, for the events of his final years. Shortly after writing the children’s opera Brundibár, he was sent in 1942 to Terezin concentration camp. Terezin was a Nazi show camp, designed to convince the world that life in concentration camps was perfectly civilized; a number of artists and writers were sent there, and there was a good deal of artistic activity. At Terezin, Brundibár was performed 55 times, and a film of the production was made in order to impress the International Red Cross. Immediately after filming, Krása and all of the children in the production were sent to Auschwitz. Krása died there in October of 1944. Brundibár lives on; recently, it was translated and turned into a children’s book by Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak.

Kurt Weill, the scion of two families of cantors, also worked as a répétiteur, in his case at a theater in his native Dessau. Weill had two successful careers: as a composer of classical music in Germany, and, after he fled the Nazis in 1933, as a composer of musicals on Broadway. His Threepenny Opera of 1928 dates from the first period, but includes popular elements more typical of the second.