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Posts Tagged chazzan

What IS Klezmer?

Michael Paul Levin as George Gershwin

Michael Paul Levin as George Gershwin

The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer will be on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from December 2 to 31. I certainly know the name Gershwin, but I’m unfamiliar with the term klezmer. Perhaps you are, too.

As Vincent Hannam mentioned in his recent blog post “The Heart and Soul of Gershwin,” klezmer is a Yiddish word that means instrument of music (derived from klay, which means instrument; and zemer, music). Klezmer came from Ashkenazi Jews, who originated in Eastern Europe, and was intended to, via the violin, imitate the human voice, including the cries, wails and laughter, of the chazzan (cantor) in synagogue. The first klezmer tunes actually came from Hebrew chants in Jewish services.

Played by professional musicians called klezmorim, klezmer originally consisted mainly of spirited dance melodies as well as some plaintive, reflective tunes for celebratory communal events, such as weddings. Klezmorim (and entertainers in general) were not highly regarded in Jewish society due to their secular nomadic, unconventional lifestyle, but they were respected for their virtuosity and diverse repertoire. A band usually included at least two violinists, with the most accomplished one serving as bandleader, backed by a bass or cello and other typical instruments, such as clarinet, drum, hammered dulcimers, trumpet, trombone and accordion.

As with other aspects of European Jewish culture, the Holocaust nearly decimated the tradition of klezmer music since it was passed down aurally through the generations. Surviving musicians helped revitalize the music, and musicologists worked to record their repertoires.

Traditional klezmer was influenced mainly by Romanian music but also present were Greek, Ukranian, Polish, Hungarian and Turkish influences. When European Jews immigrated to the United States, they brought klezmer with them, but it’s popularity steadily waned as Jews adopted mainstream culture. However, American klezmer grew in stature with hits from Jewish composers, such as Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers and, yes, George Gershwin, who incorporated jazz and even gospel into their sound.

The cast and musicians of Park Square Theatre’s The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer, besides performing some truly terrific American classics, will also impart a slice of musical history that you may not already have known. My whole family and I plan to kick back, perhaps can’t help but move some body parts while seated and otherwise enjoy the ride when we see the show in December.

Hope to see you there!

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Sources: Klezmer from en.m.wikipedia.org; Klezmer music by Mark S. Slobin from www.britannica.com; Klezmer Music 101 by Megan Romer from worldmusic.about.com; What is Klezmer Music? by Becky Weitzman from tepel.org

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