Skip to main content

Jewish Music: Klezmer Style Folk Music

Yiddish Music

Klezmer music is a musical style said to be created by the Ashkenazi Jews. Over the centuries, this unique style of folk music was inspired by other musical cultures like Roma gypsy, Turkish, Greek, Russian and French.

A work in progress, Klezmer has evolved into the style we know today but no doubt, it will continue to change as its popularity increases.

Having suffered a dry spell in terms of being a popular music style, it currently is on the upswing in terms of revival.

Klezmer music is a style uniquely its own. This style of music speaks of people of certain nationalities who despite the cruelest of times such as the Holocaust, still managed to carry with them their music. In addition, they were able to teach this colorful musical style to their children and families.

This is a style that falls under the genre of folk music. It has survived for centuries. It's a very emotional style of music as well, only one of the reasons it's gaining in popularity.

Klezmer in Yiddish means "musician" yet it now serves to define this particular style of music in one word.

What is Klezmer Music?

The synagogue was the original birth place for this type of Jewish musical style. It evolved as musicians tried to replicate the intonations of voice spoken by the church leaders or rabbis.

Born out of the Jewish viewpoint that people should approach their god with a variety of exuberant emotions such as extraordinary joy and happiness or extreme sadness such as wailing and crying, the music reflects these passions accurately.

Klezmer is a timeless musical style as you will see on the selected YouTube videos.

If you listen to the gifted musician Giora Feidman playing Klezmer below, you can almost hear human voices through his amazing clarinet technique.

The energetic pieces are played at celebrations or "simkhes." They speak of great joy and hope for the future. The music can be like polkas or other fast European country dances.

Scroll to Continue

On the other hand, Klezmer can also express the heartache and sadness associated with stressful or life changing events such as funerals or great losses.

The haunting melodies express the suffering of the human soul and express the voice of mourning.

Listen to Judith Eisner and her crying violin on the YouTube video below for a sampling of the Klezmer style violin in "sad mode."

In Klezmer style music, there are also the "street songs" which actually were created out of the sense of family and community.

For instance, songs would be played as people walked home after a visit.

These songs were a combination of styles, speaking of the love of family and participation in a greater community.

Listen below to the different styles of Klezmer played by the talented Itzhak Perlman.

How Did Klezmer Music Change?

Over the centuries, Klezmer music was influenced by many cultures. European influences brought Roma gypsy music to join with the Jewish or Yiddish style while Russian folk music, French cafe music and even early jazz started to appear as components.

The original Klezmer musicians were mostly violinists. The person who got to play the first "voice" was considered the most important or the "lead" musician. Other violinists played a second "voice which would usually be an octave lower than the first voice musician.

Later, many other instruments were added, notably the clarinet for its soulful sound similar to a violin.

The gypsy and French influences brought in accordions, also known for their emotional sound.

Other instruments were dulcimers (great stringed instruments), cellos, small drums or base drums, flutes and sometimes a piano. The piano was a rare instrument, however, as it was not portable like all the other instruments and usually only very wealthy families could afford them.

Klezmer Music Yesterday and Today

Klezmer music in its early stages was a "closed group." It was a supreme honor to be a musician and usually the status was carried on down through the family. The father taught the son who in turn taught his son.

The Holocaust and the events of the "cleansing of Europe" are said to have wiped out 90% of the Klezmer musicians but enough survived to carry their music into the 20th century.

Many Jews escaped to America where their rich musical style caught on in many neighborhoods. However, out of fear, many Jews struggled to be less noticeable in the aftermath of the hatred that drove them from their homelands so their light was hidden under a bucket for a time. Finally, when it became a good thing to be Jewish again, their music underwent a revival and remains a very popular genre of folk music today.

One can't listen to Klezmer style music without feeling something.There is great joy and great sadness to be found as well as all the emotions in between.

The music employs trills like in classical music yet on a different level and has many jazz components. However, in Klezmer music, the musician doesn't go "off" from the main melody as most other jazz forms do. Instead, it's an improvisation centered around the main melody line.

The Klezmer music style is something straight out of the past. It probably speaks to our souls more than other types of music because it's packed so full of emotion and history.

For many Americans, our roots go back to European ancestors and what a lovely tribute to them to hear this musical style played in our country today.

Perhaps one of the most famous movies to feature Klezmer is Fiddler on the Roof. Watch the YouTube video below for a great sample of more Klezmer.


Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on September 04, 2012:

Thanks RT and IG~ I was totally enthralled with it once I learned what it was...I've always loved the sounds but didn't have a clue what the style was or where it came from!

RTalloni on September 04, 2012:

Yes, truly timeless! Thanks for posting this look at Klezmer music and players.

ignugent17 on September 04, 2012:

Something new today. Klezmer is added in my vocabulary. Thanks. :-)

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on September 03, 2012:

My pleasure - it's a good hub so it wasn't a difficult decision to include it! Alun.

Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on September 02, 2012:

Alun - How wonderful~ Thank sister was the inspiration as she had to "learn" Klezmer style to do a show playing her clarinet - interestingly Fiddler~ Thanks again!

Greensleeves Hubs from Essex, UK on September 02, 2012:

An interesting article akirchner about a very distinctive style of music. Not having heard of klezmer before, tho' of course being aware of 'Fiddler on the Roof', I found the history to be enlightening and the videos instructive. Voted up.

I am including the article in a review of the very best folk music hubs with a short description of the page and an image of the musicians downloaded from wikimedia commons to illustrate the review. The review will be published in the next few days, and hopefully it will bring more traffic to this hub. Best wishes. Alun.

Audrey Kirchner (author) from Washington on July 29, 2012:

How awesome, Russell - I only wish I was there to behold such a grand event....and how funny that the stars were from LA. It doesn't matter though where they're from in my humble opinion - it is a charming bit of old world music any time any place by anyone~

Thanks for stopping by!

Russell-D from Southern Ca. on July 29, 2012:

In Krakow every summer, in the town square, Klezmer players from the world over perform at the International Jewish Music Festival. Leading up to the event, during the day hours, everywhere their are soloists, duos, trios and bands playing on street corners and the main town square, which is on the same street which had served as Nazi headquarters in Schindler's List. With Hollywood precision, it was suddenly a site with 10,000 chairs, a huge stage, five video cameras and computer controlled lighting. That night, we, and an estimated 20,000 persons attended the Festival. Perhaps we were partial, but our choice as best performing group wasthe Klezmatics from, gasp!, Los Angeles. David Russell

Related Articles