Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 20 (1989)
Who is Klesmer? He is not - as Gordon Haight points out - Franz Uszt; he may be Anton Rubinstein (2). Has anyone, I wonder, thought about the possibility that he may be just what his name proclaims: Klesmer? A klesmer, that is.
Klesmermeans 'a musician'. It is Yiddish and derives from 'k'lejsemer' - (3) musical instrument. The 'Klesmorim' were wandering Jewish musicians who played at weddings or on holidays like Purim, later also in public houses or on fair-grounds. They could play everything their audience demanded, from sentimental pieces to wild dancing tunes. Throughout the middle ages they had hard times avoiding the distressing restrictions of Christian administration like high taxes, persecution and prohibition. With the development of the cities some klesmorim settled down permanently - there have been some famous groups in Prague, Frankfort and Berlin. The instruments they used varied - a description of a group in about 1800 mentions two fiddles, a clarinet, a cello and a dulcimer. Although Klesmerim will sometimes use elements of song, Klesmer music generally means instrumental music.
After the progress of Jewish emancipation throughout Western Europe the tradition of Klesmer music continued in the Eastern areas. The ancient musical elements of Jewish music (4) - already brought to a high standard by the Chassidic movement (5) - mingled with styles from many countries and developed the special Jewish-Chassidic sound that is so characteristic for Klesmer music.
Jewish emigrants brought Klesmer music to America, where it easily mixed with styles like Jazz. Modem Klesmer groups often present a happy mixture of Jazz and European folk traditions. Among the instruments used are clarinets, banjo and piano, saxophones, trombone and percussion. They preserve that special Jewish sound, and above all this music often conveys a certain spirit of fun. It is true that Chassidic or Yiddish melodies can be extremely sad and melancholic, but there also is a strong element of wit, irony and satire. And the dancing tunes just carry you away!
Did George Eliot know about Klesmer music, and did she choose Herr Klesmer's name deliberately, as a kind of inside joke? (Where are those who main lain that her later novels lack a sense of humour?!)