SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Klezmer Music: Roots and Revival

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

This course aims to provide in-depth knowledge and understanding of the Jewish Klezmer music tradition, including its roots in the European Jewish diaspora during the Middle Ages; its development in Eastern Europe over several centuries; and its revival and transformation in the USA, Israel, Europe, and elsewhere, during the twentieth century. Students will understand the musical construction of the core Klezmer repertoire (modes, forms, melodies, performance practice), together with the influences of other musics (Jewish liturgical music, Hassidic music, Ottoman elements) on the Klezmer tradition. This course also seeks to provide knowledge and understanding of the corpus of scholarship relating to Klezmer music, in particular highlighting the different approaches taken by scholars working in different places (Russia and America) and during different periods (early, mid- and late twentieth century). Via this subject matter, the course seeks to develop the student’s music analytical skills, the study of critical thinking and understanding of wider issues and developments in ethnomusicological scholarship as it relates to Klezmer, including the concept of diaspora, the insider/outsider status of performers, and the transformation of functional performance traditions for the “world music” concert stage.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Scope and syllabus

This specialist course is designed for Music students (or non-Music students who have a musical background) whether familiar with, or new to, this subject area and who have some musical background. It is designed to complement and enhance the Department’s provision of courses on musics currently popular on the “world music” scene. It also reflects the well established place of Klezmer music among the performance activities of SOAS students, and will make use of the holdings of the Jewish Music Institute Library, housed at SOAS. Focus will be placed on an analytical understanding of the musical structures and forms of traditional Klezmer music, and upon the exploration of issues of identity, migration, diaspora, and musical change.

Outline of lectures:

1. The Musical Heritage of the Jews: a survey.
MMus seminar: What is Jewish Music?

2. The Early History of Klezmer in the context of Medieval Christian and Jewish Europe: Klezmorim (musicians) and Badchonim (jesters)
MMus seminar: Mediaeval Jewish Music, sacred and secular

3. (i) Yiddish Folk Music in the Shtetl (village) and Ghetto; (ii) the rise of Hassidic Song in the context of Traditional Eastern European Non-Jewish Genres (e.g. Roma music); (iii) Traditional Dance Forms
MMus seminar: Yiddish and “Yinglish”

4. (i) Aspects of Jewish Liturgy, Ritual and Worship; (ii) the “Golden” and “Modern” Ages (respectively before and after World War 2) of the Ashkenazi  Hazzan (cantor).
MMus seminar: The Ashkenazi Prayer-Modes: a commentary on their
development and practice

5. (i) The influence of Synagogue Chant on Klezmer Modality, Improvisation, Ornamentation, and Performance Practice; (ii) Klezmer and the Jewish Wedding Repertoire: Instrumentation, Harmony and Rhythm
MMus seminar: Jewish Religious Music in the Home


6. (i) The History of Klezmer in the USA; (ii) The Klezmer Revival in the USA in the 1980s, with special reference to the Klezmatics: session/workshop led by their current trumpeter and director Frank London (to be confirmed)
MMus seminar: either further discussion with Frank London, or The Music of Tin
Pan Alley and Broadway

7. Klezmer in the UK, with reference to Gregory Schechter Klezmer Band, Klezmer Swingers, London Klezmer Quartet, Merlin Shepherd Klezmer Trio, Oi-Va-Voi, She’Koyoch, Shir, Stewart Curtis’ K-Groove, etc.
MMus seminar:  Jewish Music in the UK

8. Klezmer on the European Continent and Israel, with special reference to the Austrian Band Budowitz: session led by their sometime clarinettist Merlin Shepherd
MMus seminar: Further discussion with Merlin Shepherd

9. “Insider/Outsider” and other social issues: session led by Dr Paul Tkachenko
MMus seminar: Further discussion with Paul Tkachenko

10. (i) Summary of the Course
MMus seminar: Whither Klezmer?

It is intended that several visits to London venues featuring “live” Klezmer performances will be arranged during the term.

Method of assessment

  • One 1 000 words review of core readings (worth 30%)
  • One 1 500 words essay based on sample questions (worth 50%)
  • One in class listening test (worth 20%)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules