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

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An Overview

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Concert Music 

In East European Jewish culture, the very term music signifies modernity. The Yiddish word muzik, itself probably of recent origin, would not have been used by performers and musicians to cover the sweeping range of intoned, chanted, sung, and played textual and instrumental sounds and compositions performed over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. No significant amount of East European Jewish music was transcribed or recorded until the late nineteenth century, and even then little was written down in forms acceptable to today’s scholarship, so we know next to nothing about what how music sounded throughout 1,000 years of Ashkenazic history in the region.

In the nineteenth century, starting well after similar developments in Western and Central Europe, internal Jewish values about humanly produced sound clashed, overlapped, and combined with contemporary European attitudes and practices in fruitful ways. By the late nineteenth century, music had become a hallmark of the Jew as a figure in the European mind, while Jews themselves were ever more energetically involved in a variety of professional and expressive musical vocations. The cantor, the klezmer, the folk singer, the composer, and the concert performer all moved into modern Jewish history in their own ways. At the same time, the conservatism and comfort that music offered meant that a significant set of older Jewish attitudes and materials would endure.

With increasing urbanization, the occasions and venues for music making and consumption increased significantly in the late nineteenth century. Some Jews moved in and out of a limited set of musical zones, while many were involved in most or all of them as performers or spectators. The arrival of mediated forms—sound recordings, radio, film—only multiplied the ways in which Jews could express themselves musically.

Music and Sacred Text

The many forms of intoned, chanted, and sung prayer stretch along a continuum of liturgical and paraliturgical performance that ranged from the personal to the professional, from the domestic to the public, and from the everyday to the once-a-year (e.g., the Kol Nidre prayer of Yom Kippur) [listen to a recording]. Whether the gemore-nign—the intonations of Talmudic schoolroom pedagogy and commentary—or the Got fun Avrom (God of Abraham) chant women sang every week at the close of the Sabbath should count as “music” is an open question [listen to a recording].

Program for a concert of the Głębokie Choir, directed by A. Adler, at the Summer Theater, Głębokie, Poland (now Hlybokaye, Bel.). (YIVO)

The existence of figures such as the court composers of Hasidic dynasties, along with the exalted status accorded the ḥazan or congregational cantor (to use a modern term adapted from Christian parlance), tells us not only that music was highly regarded as part of spiritual practice, but also that specially designated individuals had extraordinary powers of musical persuasion and beauty. Both the Hasidic nigun (a tune with spiritual significance) [listen to a recording] and the soulful supplications of the cantor or shaliaḥ tsibur (messenger of the congregation) rely on the power of music to effect spiritual transformation. The musical beautification of sacred texts also speaks to the issue of hidur mitsvah, the adornment of a sacred obligation, as a necessity for making prayer work; this can be interpreted as an opening for an aesthetic as well as ritual layer in the performance of sacred text. The difference between keva‘, structured or fixed ritual, and kavanah, in the sense of inspiration or intentionality, creates a space for musical expression—and for techniques to infuse, and even drive, the power of sacred text.

Sonically, music also demarcated a gender line in performance of the sacred, as the rabbinic injunction of kol ishah (men should not hear a woman’s voice in some or all settings) kept women from assuming leadership roles in the service. Yet the acoustically tight spaces of both sanctuary and home meant that girls grew up hearing and absorbing the inflections and melodies of male sacred song. Women created the social role of the zogerin or zogerke, an informal specialist adept at listening to male prayer performance in the women’s section of the synagogue and transmitting it to other women during the service.

Folk Song

Dzhum, dzhum. Label of an early twentieth-century recording performed by G. Lebedev for Siren Grand Record, Russia. (YIVO)

The sphere of expression denoted by the folk song seems more amenable to the usual sense of the term music. Singing permeated Jewish communities, crossing age, gender, class, religious, and ideological lines. East European Jews had a large and eclectic repertoire of songs and felt comfortable singing in public at appropriate times. Here the sacred–secular line blurs with regard to paraliturgical songs sung at the Passover Seder [listen to a recording], after Sabbath meals (with songs known as zmires [Heb., zemirot] [listen to a recording]), or at holidays such as Purim [listen to a recording] and Hanukkah [listen to a recording]. The notion of collective singing spread to modern social movements, including Zionism and socialism, and entailed frequent ritualized song performance at public events.

Social Significance.

Data from the interviews of the YIVO Yiddish Folksong Project (directed by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett in the 1970s, with the participation of immigrants to the United States and Canada) give a sense of the importance of song in Jewish life. One woman described the chicken-preparation sessions that a group of women would share before a holiday, and how she was asked to sing to lighten the work: “You have a good voice; sing for us and we’ll do your chicken.” A man tells of how a group would be baking Passover matzot collectively, and he, as a designated singer, would have his portion baked for him. In such stories, the communal need for music reflects an appreciation of its power and beauty, along with the recognition of individual excellence.

Personal music making also flourished. The YIVO project’s interviews yield, for example, subtle differences within the ubiquitous lullaby genre. For babies too young to understand song texts, a young woman might sing her heart out about her past loves, her life before her arranged marriage, or about the hardship of her family life; but for children old enough to be instructed, she might offer songs extolling Jewish values.

Authorship and Dissemination.

Many Yiddish folk songs are centuries old, and show similarities to coterritorial repertoires and even texts. Jews shared musical texts and tastes with Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and others. Yet among the most treasured items in the Yiddish repertoire are songs of literary origin, penned by writers of the Haskalah period from the mid-nineteenth century on, or by masters of the Yiddish theater in its early street or later institutional forms. Perhaps the two best-known Yiddish folk songs are “Rozhinkes mit mandlen” (Raisins and Almonds) [listen to a recording], written for the opera  Shulamis by Avrom Goldfadn around 1880, and “Afn pripetshik” (On the Hearth) [listen to a recording], or “Der alef-beyz,” written by the Kiev lawyer and friend of Sholem Aleichem Mark Varshavski around 1900. In “Afn pripetshik,” Varshavski is already nostalgic about the small-town atmosphere his generation had left behind and which he memorialized in his well-loved songs. The leading Yiddish folk song scholar Chana Mlotek has shown how a tune for a song by Sholem Aleichem spread through Jewish networks across a huge territory of Russia within just a few months. Once sheet music and records spread among the urbanized Jewish masses, popular songs could move even more quickly into the minds and hearts of large populations, coexisting with centuries-old melodies and becoming lodged as “folk songs” in collective memory.

Music and Communal Life

In the emerging urban centers, the proliferation of dynamic social movements brought ideology-specific music to many sectors of the Jewish population. Bundists, Zionists, and religious factions all found their voice in collective song. Choruses, often with mixed Hebrew and Yiddish repertoire, began in the early twentieth century, alongside and performing with communal ensembles such as mandolin orchestras. The film Mir kumen on (We Are on Our Way; 1935) [listen to a recording], about the life of the Jewish Labor Bund’s Medem Sanatorium in Poland, shows active children’s participation in music as part of the regimen.

Beyond social movements, music spilled out into the streets of communities across the region. A rich tradition of hoyf-zinger—street singers—and itinerant instrumentalists filled the courtyards and marketplaces of small towns and big cities alike, throughout the interwar period. Extant amateur film footage shows violinists in town squares, and commercial films detail the sometimes romanticized life of wandering musicians, classically in the American-produced movie Yidl mitn fidl (Yidl with His Fiddle; 1938) [listen to a recording]. Contemporaneous Polish-produced films such as Der dibek (The Dybbuk; 1937) [listen to a recording] or the Soviet Yidishe glikn (Jewish Luck; 1925) portray a teeming musical life.

Instrumental and Concert Music

The interaction between tradition and modernity is nowhere clearer than in the evolution of Jewish instrumental music. Severely restricted to celebratory occasions by a sanction against the use of instruments in sacred services (partly to commemorate the loss of the Temple, and its associated music, in Jerusalem), instrumentalists carried on family traditions of performance within male lineages. These performances served as the heart and soul of weddings and are lovingly described in Yiddish fiction, such as Sholem Aleichem’s novel Stempenyu (1889). The theater and nightlife of the cities enhanced performance opportunities even as the older klezmer styles persisted.

Brass band, Kolbuszowa (Kolbishev), a town in southeastern Poland, 1930. (Film commissioned by the town's landsmanshaft organizations in America: The Kolbuszower Relief Association and the Kolbuszower Young Men's Benevolent Society) (YIVO)

With the opening of conservatory training to Jewish students in the late nineteenth century, players, many from families of musicians, slowly infiltrated the concert world of Eastern Europe, until they constituted a major wave of classical music professionals. Russian composers, as early as Mikhail Glinka (1804–1857), took an interest in Jewish traditional melodies. In the late nineteenth century, the founding of music conservatories coincided with the growth of mass culture in Eastern Europe, allowing Jewish musicians to slowly gain standing and employment as both performers and composers of art and popular music. This development was typically two-sided: on the one hand, an autonomous movement for “national” music, starting with the Society for Jewish Folk Music in Saint Petersburg [listen to a recording]; on the other, participation in the mainstream, leading to the dominance of Jewish songwriters in the popular music systems first of Russia, and then the Soviet Union and Poland by the 1930s.

Music in the Holocaust Period.

All the types of music just listed circulated among the populations restricted to ghettos, camps, and partisan fighting units from 1940 to 1945. Eloquent testimony by survivors relates how crucial music was to morale in extreme situations. Songwriters grafted new texts onto old songs and composed new ones as a way of providing continuity and hope [listen to a recording]. In Terezín, composers produced large-scale works for performance; these have been repeatedly revived in recent years.

Post–World War II Jewish Music.

Jewish music survived the depredations of both Nazism and Stalinism. Recent musician immigrants to the United States have provided accounts of the often covert survival of Jewish music in the Soviet Union, including popular songs, sacred song, and instrumental tunes. Elsewhere, composers such as the Hungarian Jews György Ligeti and György Kurtág carry on the energy of earlier concert music traditions, though not presenting it as “national” Jewish music. The revival of ethnic and religious culture in Russia and Ukraine began in the 1990s with a return to traditional styles among the remaining Jewish population, with help from American sources. In particular, the U.S.-based klezmer movement has spread across Central and Eastern Europe, bringing the music back to its regions of origin. Anthologies of East European Jewish music, from publication of manuscript sources by Ukrainian Jewish ethnomusicologist Moisei Beregovskii (reflecting his work of the mid-1920s–1940s) to Israeli-based collections, have dramatically expanded our range of reference.

Musical Style

East European Jewish music is highly distinctive in its style, vis-à-vis the repertoires of the German and Central European culture zones. The preference for melodic material varies regionally in terms of scales and modes as well as with respect to borrowings from coterritorial sources. The lack of relevant scholarship makes it hard to be precise about local variations, but we have some sense of genre-based preferences. Regarding instrumental music, the influence of southeastern sounds, from the Ottoman borderlands such as Bessarabia and Transylvania, became paramount in the nineteenth century. Cantorial music reflected the strong impact of operatic stylings and westernized choral arrangements [listen to a recording]. Hasidic music [listen to a recording], with its combination of domesticated non-Jewish tunes and composed sect-specific melodies, demarcated off its own eclectic, yet distinctive, musical sphere. Trends unrelated to the tastes of the many surrounding non-Jewish music cultures could spread widely across Jewish networks, as with the influence of the Romanian doyne sound [listen to a recording] as far as Lithuania.

Many types of East European Jewish vocal and instrumental music, sacred and secular, shared similar leanings with respect to melodic stock and performance manner. Underlying varied genres and forms is a common aesthetic that makes it hard to say that any one domain of Jewish music dominated. An overarching taste—a set of preferences for musical items, genres, and stylistic devices—infused the interlocking zones of musical activity, despite the diversity of geography and social layering. We have yet to write the history of, or even to describe adequately, the whole picture of this rich musical world.

Suggested Reading

Gila Flam, Singing for Survival: Songs of the Lodz Ghetto, 1940–1945 (Urbana, 1992); Sholom Kalib, The Musical Tradition of the Eastern European Synagogue (Syracuse, 2002); James Loeffler, “A Social and Cultural History of Jewish Musicians in Late Imperial Russia” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2005); Ezra Mendelsohn, ed., Modern Jews and Their Musical Agendas (New York, 1993); Mark Slobin, ed., Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Syracuse, N.Y., 2000); Mark Slobin, Robert A. Rothstein, and Michael Alpert, eds., Jewish Instrumental Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovski (Syracuse, N.Y., 2001); Chemjo Vinaver, Anthology of Hassidic Music (Jerusalem, 1985); Albert Weisser, The Modern Renaissance of Jewish Music (New York, 1983).