New York Klezmer in the Early Twentieth Century

Joel E. Rubin’s new book New York Klezmer Music in the Early Twentieth Century takes a look at the iconic recordings of clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras and presents a case study of the inner workings of this vibrant and expressive music tradition. Thank you to Dr. Rubin for speaking about his own background in klezmer music and for sharing a number of his own recordings with us!

I first became interested in this music shortly after completing my clarinet studies at California Institute of the Arts and State University of New York College at Purchase with Richard Stoltzman and Kalmen Opperman. After sixteen years of classical study, I was looking to broaden my musical horizons and was introduced to klezmer music in the winter of 1979–80, first to the late recordings of clarinetist Dave Tarras (1897–1989) from the 1950s–70s, and then shortly thereafter to a host of performers on 78 rpm recordings made between ca. 1908 and 1937 in Europe and the United States. What especially stood out to me was the expressive power of the recordings of clarinetist Naftule Brandwein (1984–1963) and of Tarras, and I began to learn and perform their repertoire.

Naftule Brandwein band at a family celebration, ca. late 1930s. Left to right: Lou Levinn, Mookie Brandwein, Abe Brandwein, Chester Brandwynne, Naftule Brandwein, Berish Katz (courtesy Dorothea Goldys-Bass)
Bulgar dance at Rose Tarras’s wedding celebration, ca. 1950. Left to right: Irving Gratz, Dave Tarras, Sylvia Gratz, Sam Musiker (Center for Traditional Music and Dance, New York)

It wasn’t just me—the entire generation of klezmer revivalists who began performing in the 1970s and 1980s based in large part our style and repertoire on the legacy of these two legendary performers. I became increasingly interested in scholarship and ethnomusicology from the mid-1980s onwards, and when I decided to pursue graduate studies in the mid-1990s, I decided to focus my primary research on their music. In the mid-1990s I also began exploring other repertoires as a performer, especially those documented by Moyshe Beregovski (1892–1961) and other scholars in the late Russian Empire and early Soviet Union. My research, too, went in other directions, as I turned my lens to the contemporary klezmer and Yiddish music revival, especially in Germany. My return to the music of Brandwein and Tarras after a more than fifteen-year hiatus has been enriched by my own scholarship and teaching in the intervening years as well as by a plethora of new research by other scholars that emerged in the meantime.

Joel Rubin in concert at the University of Virginia, December 2018. Photo by Lloyd Wolf
Joel Rubin in concert at Yiddish Summer Weimar, Summer 2015. Photo by Yulia Kabakova

In New York Klezmer in the Early Twentieth Century, I trace the arc of the development of Jewish instrumental klezmer music in Europe—especially since the nineteenth century—to the United States. Focusing then on New York City in the early twentieth century, at the time the largest concentration of Jews in history, I look at the musical milieu of the predominately Yiddish-speaking immigrant community from the Russian Empire, Romania, and Austria-Hungary. My work draws significantly on my ethnographic work with the last generations of American-born klezmer musicians, who began learning and performing when klezmer was still an ongoing (pre-revival) tradition, thoroughly embedded in Jewish communal life, yet with offshoots reaching far into American popular and classical music culture. I then look at the early commercial recording industry that generated the dozens of recordings of Brandwein and Tarras, followed by an investigation of the modal-compositional framework and the ornamental-improvisational performance style that is so central to the music. Finally, I look at new developments in New York klezmer music after the 1930s, leading up to the present day with the influence of this music on two generations of klezmer revivalists. I dedicate this work to my interview partners and friends, especially to Max Epstein, Sid Beckerman, Marty Levitt, and Pete Sokolow, without whom I could not have carried out this research.

Listen to the music!

Music from Dave Tarras tribute performance at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, 2010
Music from the repertoire of Brandwein, from the recording Bessarabian Symphony by Rubin & Horowitz. Schott Wergo, SM 1606-2, 1994
Music from the repertoire of Tarras, From the recording Bessarabian Symphony by Rubin & Horowitz. Schott Wergo, SM 1606-2, 1994

This guest post was written by Joel E. Rubin, Associate Professor of Music at the University of Virginia and an acclaimed performer of traditional klezmer music

New York Klezmer in the Early Twentieth Century
By Joel E. Rubin
9781580465984, Hardcover, £48.75 or $61.75