Klezmer music is the traditional instrumental folk music of Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern and Central Europe. Like many forms of folk music, Klezmer is often played to accompany dance. The word Klezmer originated in the 19th century and is a portmanteau of the Hebrew words kley, which means a useful or prepared instrument, tool, or utensil, and zmer, which means music. Klezmer music is a unique cultural blend of Jewish and non-Jewish musical elements, which include synagogue melodies, Hasidic hymns sung in groups called nigunim, medieval German folk dance forms, and modern Greek and Turkish dance music. Klezmer is considered a way of creating joyous prayer and is played in synagogs. It is also played for Jewish weddings and other celebrations.
The music began in the 9th century in the Rhine Valley in Germany, just as Yiddish language was developing. As the Jewish people moved east through Europe to settle in Eastern Europe, the Jewish philosophy first known as Khasidism, and now as Hasidim, helped to spread Klezmer because it promoted the idea that prayer accompanied by music let people spiritually communicate with the most joy. People who played Klezmer music, especially men, began to be referred to as Klezmorim. From the end of the 19th century through the beginning of WWII, Klezmorims, especially those of Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine, helped to make up most of the music and dance of Klezmer. Army bands from the Russian Czarist army during the 19th century added additional members to Klezmer including instruments and players to make up 15 people ensembles. Klezmer bands in Romania added Ottoman Empire, as well as Roma Gypsy, influences to Klezmer music. Because of these diverse influences, Klezmer today can be put into two broad styles: Polish-Ukranian and Romanian-Turkish Klezmer music. Klezmer continued to flourish through Europe in Jewish synagogs until, tragically, many Klezmorim perished in the Holocaust. Those who escaped and emigrated from Europe to America carried the music and traditions with them. Klezmer in the American Jewish community was not very popular until the revival of the music in the 1970s, and has since gained international popularity.
As Klezmer music spread across Europe new instruments were added. But by the middle of the 17th century, Klezmer groups had fixed four to five person ensembles. Groups at this time typically would be led by a violin, accompanied by a tsimbl (a hammered dulcimer), contrasting violins, a bass or cello, and sometimes a flute. In the beginning of the 19th century, the clarinet and frame drum became popular in Klezmer music in certain parts of Europe. Later, when soldiers from the Russian Czarist army played Klezmer music, groups grew as large as 10 to 15 musicians with brass and stringed instruments added. The clarinet, which has become a mainstay in Klezmer music, was introduced at this time. Accordions made their way into Klezmer ensembles in the late 19th century. When Jews emigrated from Europe to America, the piano became a popular instrument in Klezmer as Jewish immigrants became assimilated. Today the large Klezmer ensembles are the norm and a wide variety of instruments can be heard in modern and experimental Klezmer compositions, such as guitars, banjos, saxophones, and even Indian sitars and Australian didgeridoos. American Klezmer has also been highly influenced by Jazz music. Although easily recognizable, Klezmer music actually embraces a wide range of musical tempos, scales, keys, song structures, and rhythms.