The Music That Speaks
Klezmer music is distinguished by melodies that bring to mind a human voice in its fullest range of expression: begging, laughing, and weeping. The humanity of klezmer is no coincidence—there's a conscious striving to mimic the range and sound of cantorial music. Klezmer musicians accomplish this through the techniques they use, but most of all, through their choice of musical instruments.
Ukrainian restrictions on loud music meant that wind instruments were out of bounds for klezmer musicians until Alexander II lifted the ban in 1855. Because of the ban, the violin was the favored lead instrument for many long years. In addition to the violin, other string instruments were popular as was the tsimbl or cymbalon, a hammered dulcimer, for percussion.
Josef Gusikov, the first klezmer musician to be embraced by the wider European audience, specialized in playing an early xylophone of his own invention, known as the shtroifidl. The shtroifidl was made of wood and straw. Felix Mendelssohn admired both the instrument and the musician, while Franz Liszt gave them the thumbs down.
After the Ukrainian ban on loud music was lifted, the clarinet replaced the violin as the major voice in a klezmer ensemble. The trumpet and tuba also entered the assemblage of klezmer instruments at this time. The klezmer influence was felt in the military at this time, as the klezmorim began to be conscripted into military bands. The typical military ensemble of the time consisted of the violin, flute, bass, drum, and tsimbl.
Modern examples of klezmer clarinet can be found in the opening melody of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, or in the melodious clarinet style of Big Band's Benny Goodman. But the first Eastern European klezmer musicians to hit the shores of the United States of America were still using the violin as the lead instrument, though many of them took up trumpet, hoping this skill would assist them in avoiding combat during a military stint.
Other klezmer musicians brought over the tsimbl, the schrammel—a kind of small accordion, and the valve trombone. By the 1920's, most of these quaint instruments fell by the way in favor of those in use by vaudeville musicians.
A transcription of the 1927 song Lebedik un Freylekh, a Yiddish theatre tune recorded by the Abe Schwartz orchestra in New York gives a good idea of the popular instrumentation of 20th century klezmer music. The melody is carried by the cornet, clarinet, and violin, while the rhythm is accomplished through valve trombone, alto horn, and piano. The American touch is woven in through the use of the slide-trombone, banjo, and drums. The bass line is played in the lower registers of the piano, contrabass, and brass saxophone.
By the mid 20th century the clarinet had all but taken over from the violin as the lead instrument and several of the klezmer clarinetists achieved renown. Naftule Brandwein (1897-1963) was known for the expressiveness, color, and subtleties of his playing as well as his ability to draw on a wide repertoire of rhythms. Dave Tarras (1897-1991) was considered the technical master of klezmer clarinet. His playing was quick and gymnastic and was thought to outdo any classical clarinetist on the concert circuit. Shloimke Beckerman (1889-1974) played in a decorous style and with a pulsing rhythm, while Itzikil Kramtweiss, date unknown, but a player on the Philadelphia circuit in the late 1920's, played the E flat clarinet with a sharp nasal quality.