Back in Oxford for a couple of weeks I am trying to settle into being "home".
I was shopping in Cornmarket, one of the pedestrian streets in Oxford which often have buskers, who are usually music students so play rather well. First I heard a clarinet playing what I took to be jazz, and then I spotted a tall man in a long black coat. I dropped him some money as he was playing rather well, and walked on. Then it clicked where I had heard the music before and what it was.
I had made a long weekend trip to Cracow three or four years ago in February. Wandering round the Wavel Castle in the snow I had heard the same sort of music coming from the small music shop in the grounds. I went in to investigate and came out with an assortment of classical and folk music which included the Trio Galicyskie, clarinet, accordion and double bass playing sad Jewish folk music, from that corner of Eastern Europe, but not without a certain jazz influence, on a CD called Di Galitzyaner Klezmorim.
And that's exactly what the Oxford student was playing. I remembered the CD was on my iPod so I turned it on to check. But when I came back to chat to the musician he had vanished. So I was left once again wanting to be somewhere else, nostalgic for something I'm not sure I've ever known, just knowing there's a missing life somewhere in Eastern Europe.
Back home I looked out the CD and googled Klezmorim I learned (from wikipedia) that:
klezmer is easily identifiable by its characteristic expressive melodies, reminiscent of the human voice, complete with laughing and weeping
It seems that klezmer is related to Jewish songful prayer in the same way as orchestral music is related to original church choral music.
The style and structure of klezmer as we know it today is thought to have come largely from 19th century Bessarabia, where the bulk of today's traditional repertoire was written. Like other professional musicians, klezmorim were often limited by authorities. Ukrainian restrictions lasting into the 19th century banned them from playing loud instruments. Hence musicians took up the violin, tsimbl (or cymbalom), and other string instruments. Later, around 1855 under the reign of Alexander II of Russia, Ukraine permitted loud instruments. The clarinet started to replace the violin as the instrument of choice. Also, a shift towards brass and percussion happened when klezmorim were conscripted into military bands.
As Jews left Eastern Europe and the shtetls, klezmer has spread throughout the globe, especially to the United States. Initially, not much of the klezmer tradition was maintained by U.S. Jews, there were only a few Yiddish folk singers. In the 1920s the clarinetists Dave Tarrasand Naftule Brandwein caused a brief, influential revival. But as U.S. Jews began to adopt mainstream culture, the popularity of klezmer slowly waned, and Jewish celebrations were increasingly accompanied by non-Jewish music. At the same time, non-Jewish composers were also turning to klezmer for a prolific source of fascinating thematic material. Dmitri Shostakovich, in particular, admired klezmer music for embracing both the ecstasy and the despair of human life and quoted several melodies in his chamber masterpieces, the Piano Quintet in G minor, op. 57 (1940), the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, op. 67 (1944), and the String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, op. 110 (1960).
In the 1970s there was a klezmer revival in the United States and Europe, led by Giora Feidman, Zev Feldman, Andy Statman, The Klezmorim, and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. They drew their repertoire from recordings and surviving musicians of U.S. klezmer. In 1985 Henry Sapoznik founded KlezKamp to teach klezmer and other Yiddish music.
Shortly thereafter in the 1980s, the was a second revival as interest grew in more traditionally-inspired performances with string instruments, largely in non-Jews of the United States and Germany. Musicians began to track down older European klezmer, by listening to recordings, finding transcriptions, and making field recordings of the few klezmorim left in Eastern Europe. Key performers in this style are Joel Rubin, Budowitz, Khevrisa, Di Naye Kapelye, The Chicago Klezmer Ensemble, the violinists Alicia Svigals, Steven Greenman and Cookie Segelstein, the flutist Adrianne Greenbaum, and the tsimbl player Pete Rushefsky.
Interest in klezmer has developed in avant-garde jazz musicians like John Zorn and Don Byron, who sometimes blend klezmer with jazz.
Apart from dances for Jewish weddings, there are Hungarian, Moldovan, Bulgar, Ukrainian dances, mazurkas and polkas and even tangos now. Not all are dances, there is the doina. Doina is poetic and often melancholic, sometimes compared to the blues for that reason. Doinas are often played with a slow, free rhythm melody against a fast accompaniment pattern in fixed tempo, giving an overall feeling of rhythmic tension. Melodies are sometimes repeated in differing songs, and typically follow a descending pattern.
So I was partly right about the jazz, and partly right about the Jewish folk tunes, and though I had only played the CD once or twice since I bought it, something lingered so I could immediately recognise the music. And that's without any Jewish upbringing.
After several months, I spotted the musician again and went for a chat. It seemed he was a music student but was neither Jewish nor had any link with Eastern Europe, he just liked the music. He told me he was off to Bulgaria and Romania in the summer to find more about the music. Haven't seen him since to find out how he got on.