Some Characteristic Musical Elements




What makes a work "sound Jewish"?  The term "Jewish musical elements" needs some clarification in the context of this chapter. The aim here is to exemplify such musical elements which appear in the performed clarinet compositions discussed in this chapter. These elements either originate from Jewish traditional music or are typically associated with traditional Jewish music. The intention is neither to reduce these works to their “Jewishness” only, nor to stereotype them, but rather to point out some common characteristics which justify treating these clarinet compositions as one entity here. Special attention goes to the idiomatic use of the clarinet and particular playing techniques. Several of the compositions examined in this study contain Jewish musical elements, such as works by Prokofiev, Veprik, Stillman, G. Krein, Weinberg, Senderey and Dorfman (see 4.2–4.9). This part is reduced to a very concise overview of the elements of scales/modes, ornamentation and cantillation, melody, rhythm, accompaniment and harmony.

In all above mentioned compositions, specific scales or modes appear. In traditional Klezmer music, these modes are called Shteygers or Shteygerim (Strom 2002, 122). These modes are not exclusively used in Jewish music; they are, for example, also used in some Balkan or Caucasian folk music, and are more commonly called oriental scales. Especially recognizable are the flattened and augmented seconds. The first most frequently used mode is Ahava Rabbah, also called altered Phrygian mode or Freygish in Klezmer music. The other most encountered mode is the so-called Ukrainian Dorian mode, or Mishbeyrakh (Strom 2002, 122). Here are two examples from clarinet compositions featuring these modes. The first example is from the Three Pieces by Samuil Senderey, using the Ahava Rabbah mode (music examples 1, 2). 


Music example 1: Ahava Rabbah mode

Music example 2: Senderey Three Pieces, mvt 3, clarinet in Bb


The other example is from Esquisses Hébraïques No1 by Aleksandr Krein in the Ukraininan Dorian mode (music examples 3, 4).

Music example 3: Ukrainian Dorian mode / Mishbeyrakh


Music example 4: A. Krein Esquisses Hébraïques No1, mvt 1, clarinet in Bb


One of the most outstanding characteristics is the ornamentation. Trills, grace notes, vibrato, glissando and tone bending are used widely in the above-mentioned compositions, and they are an important characteristic of Jewish clarinet music. They originate mostly from Klezmer music, where this type of ornamentation is called Dreydlech (Strom 2002, p.138). In contrast to the traditional Klezmer music, the ornaments in the classical clarinet compositions here are notated precisely in the score. The ornamentation is no longer left freely up to the taste of the performer, as is the habit in Klezmer music. Most first performances of the clarinet compositions were played by classically-trained clarinetists, not by Klezmorim; this might be one reason why the ornamentation is notated thoroughly, along with the intention to pass on traditional performance elements in a classically-notated form. Here is an example of notated grace notes in the work of Mitya Stillman, imitating the Klezmer idiom of Krekhtsn in the music example 5 (Strom 2002, 121).


Music example 5: Stillman Fantasy, clarinet in Bb


Another unique element is inspired by the technique of Cantillation. Cantillation is originally the term for the Jewish liturgical tradition of singing the Torah. In some clarinet compositions, this element appears as a free, melismatic elaboration of the melody. In fact, cantillation is one particular form of ornamentation. But to make a clear difference, cantillation has its roots in liturgical music, whereas other common ornamentations originate from folk music playing traditions. Aleksandr Veprik uses a form of Cantillation in his Chant Rigoureux op.9 (Nemtsov 2008, 282–283):


Music example 6: Veprik Chant Rigoureux, clarinet in A


Special attention goes to the origin and characteristics of the melody. The melodies in the examined clarinet compositions can be divided into two groups: first, traditional folk melodies and secondly, such melodies which the composers have written imitating the style of traditional music. The traditional melodies are in Klezmer called Nigunim (hebr. Melodies). Aleksandr Krein, for example, used traditional melodies in the Esquisses Hebraïques which were passed to him from his father, who played the violin in a Klezmer ensemble (Levik 1934, 40).


Music example 7: A. Krein Esquisses Hébraïques No1, mvt 2, clarinet in Bb

Even Prokofiev used a traditional melody in the Overture on Hebrew Themes: the Jewish wedding song called Zayt gezunterheyt mayne libe eltern (Farewell, my dear parents). This is the second theme; the first theme was composed by Prokofiev in the style of a ritual circle dance, like an up-tempo Freylech. To enhance the “Jewish” folkloristic tone, Prokofiev doubled the second bar with the earmarked half-step tone movement. An original Freylekh melody would consist of 4 bars only (Kravets 2006, 277).  

We can find traditional rhythmical structures in numerous clarinet compositions with Jewish themes. These rhythms often originate from Klezmer dances, such as Freylekh, Hora, Bulgar, Sher, Khosidl and Waltzes. Even in the accompaniment, we can find characteristic elements:  The beginning of the Prokofiev Overture, for example, is a clear allusion to a traditional accompaniment with a strong beat followed by a light after-beat, also described as sounding like “oom-pah”.