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Sounds of Sensibility

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

Appeared in "Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought"; Issue No. 185. Vol. 47, no. 1 (Winter 1998), special issues on klezmer music, pp. 49-788.

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Incipient Heritage

Albums produced in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies not only feature the performances of active wedding musicians, but also reveal an incipient heritage orientation to the instrumental tradition. Wedding Dances, featuring clarinetist Marty Levitt and his orchestra, promises listeners "authentic WEDDING DANCES" and assures them that the music on this album will be as good "as when he performs in person at a traditional wedding"-- hopefully listeners would hire him and his orchestra for their simkhes.85 Rudy Tepel's 1962 album, Chasidic Wedding: Rudy Tepel and His Orchestra Play Dance Melodies of Vizhnitz, Lubavich, Modzitz, Satmar, Skulen, Mea Shearim also features the performances of an active musician.86 Tepel claimed a repertory of over six hundred Hasidic melodies and estimated that he had played close to five thousand weddings in a twenty-year period.

The liner notes, however, also suggest an emerging preservationist sensibility. They were prepared not by Tepel, but by the producers of the album, the husband and wife team B.-H. Stambler, who "have been active for the past fifteen years [i.e., since 1947] in gathering, preserving and creating Jewish music. They have pioneered in recording Hasidic and Sephardic music, and in the restoration of historic cantorial discs." Accordingly, the notes tell the listener little about the musical numbers or the Hasidic dynasties and rebbes with whom they are identified, but a lot about each stage of the wedding festivities, information that insiders to the tradition would not need. Records targeted to Hasidic communities are more likely to focus on the history of a dynasty, its rebbe, and his melodies, and to carry the admonition "Please do not play this record on the Sabbath or holidays."87

The note for the first number on Tepel's album, "Shpilt, Klezmorim!," uses the opportunity to offer a little disquisition on klezmorim. After describing the sorry state of part-time amateurs in the old country, the note continues, "Life in the United States has made a tremendous change: today's klezmer is a successful, well- trained musician who devotes his full time to weddings; these in turn have become elaborately catered affairs." Rudy Tepel and his orchestra are characterized, not as klezmorim, but as "one of today's best-known wedding bands." Consistent with this characterization, Tepel's biographical note refers to him as a musician, not a klezmer. Tepel expresses ambivalence in his careful distinction between the Old World amateurs (klezmer) he disavows and the American professionals (musicians) with whom he identifies, the noble heritage intentions of the Stamblers notwithstanding.

The liner notes for Rejoice: Torah in Song/Wedding in the Old Country, a collaboration of Israeli, American, and Canadian artists, most of them classically trained, describe Dave Tarras as "the greatest clarinet virtuoso of Jewish folk music," a designation that already suggests a shift of consciousness--neither Levitt nor Tepel described what they played as folk music, though Levitt did promise the "authentic" wedding dances that he plays at "traditional" weddings.88 Tarras himself signaled the shift, as Mark Slobin has noted, when he titled one of his doinas "Wedding on Second Avenue," a reference to the Yiddish theater, which often included wedding scenes.89 The wedding and its music were literally staged for the album.

A heritage orientation is even more explicit on Adele Margolin's album Pages of History, which featured "Living Torah" on one side and "A Wedding in the Old Tradition" on the other.90 Margolin, a mezzo-soprano and product of the Yiddish Folk Schools and Jewish Teachers Seminary, hosted a Jewish music program on WLIB and WEVD. The arrangement on Pages of History, played by the Hebrew Folk Ensemble, was intended to make the music "sound like the 'Kappelia' (Miniature orchestra) which was the major part of the entertainment at these small town weddings. His [Amitai Ne'man, arranger/conductor] successful handling of the subject met with the approval of Folklorists who have been fortunate to hear a true Kappelia in the old country." We see here the hallmarks of "heritage music." The music is not only performed but also exhibited, glossed, translated, and authenticated by "folklorists."

These recordings circulated in Jewish circles. So did reissues of great cantorial performances and artistic reworkings of Yiddish folk songs by cantors, luminaries of the Yiddish stage, and concert artists such as Jan Peerce, Herschel Bernardi, Sidor Belarsky and Masha Benya, Seymour Rechzeit and Miriam Kressyn. Their approach grows out of earlier efforts in Europe, Palestine, and the United States to create art music based on Jewish sources. Lazar Weiner was a living link to the East European concertizing tradition. Born in Kiev in 1897, Weiner came to New York when he was seventeen.91 His settings of Yiddish folk song, whether he arranged them for chorus or accompanied them on piano, elevated these songs to the level of classical music. His approach was consistent with the efforts of Jewish composers in St. Petersburg at the turn of the century to use Yiddish folk song as the basis for creating a Jewish national music.

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