The Lost Jewish Music of transylvania

At our fieldtrips, we encountered pieces which were known as "Jewish csardas" and had also heard of "Jewish tuning" but paid no special attention to these phenomena. Later we became involved with Jewish instrumental music. 

 We found encouragement and guidance in the teachings of Zoltan Simon. Simon came from a Jewish family in Mako, one of the most important rural centers of Jewish life in Hungary. While studying composition at the Academy of Music in Budapest, Simon was encouraged by Zoltan Kodaly to collect Jewish folk music at Hungarian villages. He carried out fieldwork at Maramaros in 1946, and later at some other places in Hungary, and the fruits of this research he shared with us.

Simon gave us some of his so far unpublished transcriptions. He transcribed only the melody and indicated nothing but the name of the village where the piece came from. But he also sang the pieces, so that we had an idea of the tempo, and he explained the accompanying rhythm. When we asked him about the performing style, he explained that it was no different from the style of the Hungarian ensembles of the same region, since the same group of musicians played for both Jewish and non-Jewish communites. He told us, for instance that the Jewish orchestras from Maramaros often played at Hungarian weddings, they were even invited to as far as to the Mezoseg and Kalotaszeg of Transylvania. Simon suggested us to try to arrange the tunes to our best knowledge according to the style of the Hungarian peasant music of the region. In a few weeks we performed for him the pieces as we reconstructed them on the basis of our experience with Transylvanian music. Hearing our performance, Simon was deeply moved. "The dead notes are alive again. Only if Szabolcsi could have heard this!" he said remembering Bence Szabolcsi, the founder of Hungarian musicology, who was never able to realize his cherished plan to document the music of the Hungarian Jews.

Simon also encouraged us to continue to search for the remnants of Jewish instrumental music. He supposed that musicians who used to play for Jews before the war still could be found. "Your task is to find the link between Hungarian and Jewish folk music," he said to us. That is how we started our journey in the search of Jewish folk music. The fruit of this search is this record.

In our fieldtrips we indeed found two excellent Gypsy musicians who regularly played for Jews before the War: Gheorghe Covaci (known as Cioata), a "primas" (leading violinist) from Farkasrev (Vadu Izei, Rumania), and Arpad Toni, a cimbalom player from Vajdaszentivany (Voivodeni, Rumania).

As a child, Covaci used to play with his father who was a fine violinist. His father was the "primas", while Gheorghe Covaci, then as a child, accompanied him as a "kontras" (second violinist). They were invited to play at weddings and at dance parties. At Purim they went from house to house to entertain Jewish families with their performance. After the war, Covaci continued to play to those who returned from deportation.

Arpad Toni is the best known cimbalom player of the Maros region, a real virtuoso who is capable to play with ease in various styles and therefore is often called to play for different communities. He may provide the accompaniment for the melody but he often performes in solo in his inventive, improvizative style. Before the war, he was often invited to play at Jewish dance parties, especially for the Jewish community of Szaszregen.

We recorded and talked with both Covaci and Toni several times and recorded their playing. Later we learned the pieces with them, in their style, following their instructions. The pieces of our Jewish program are mostly

Covaci's usual accompaniment consists of a drum and the so called "zongura". They use something like a snare drum, only somewhat larger which is either placed on the ground vertically or hung by stripes around the neck. A stick with relatively large head is used. The jingling sound is produced by a cymbal fastened to the top of the drum and struck by a thin metal stick. The zongura is a guitar type of plucked instrument, tuned to D. Our ensemble consists of leading and accompanying violins, three-stringed viola, bass and a small cimbalom.

Some Songs

According to Gheorghe Covaci, this is a "huset" dance that he often played with his father at weddings. He told us that, at Jewish weddings, the bridegroom personally was in charge of the musicians. There was no advance money paid to the musician; on the contrary, the musician paid a sort of deposit to the bridegroom. In this was they were sure he would show up at the wedding, for he did not want to loose his money.
"I earned as much as I played. There was a certain fee for each song. At the wedding, we used to count the songs by marking them on a chalkboard. It often happened that the same song was requested by several people. I was lucky, I could make all of them pay for it. Only the bridegroom did not have to pay, he could request a song free."
This song is mentioned as the favorite tune of Gabor Bethlen in the trilogy "Erdely" by Zsigmond Moricz. Gabor Bethlen, Prince of the Transylvania was an unusually enlightened nobleman of his time whose tolerant politics allowed that all religions and ethnic groups, including the Jews, could prosper and develop in the Transylvanian Principality.
According to legend, this was the melody of Reib Eizik, the Tsaddik of Nagykalló. Bence Szabolcsi summarized the legend as follows:
"The Tsaddik who loved nature and had a poetic vein, once set out for a walk to the nearby the meadow. On his way he heard a song from a shepherd boy. He was immediately captured by its beauty and felt as if an inner voice were forcing him to learn it. He approached the shepherd boy and offered him two pennies for his song. At the moment the deal was made, the rabbi possessed the knowledge of the song. The shepherd boy, however, forgot it forever."
This song is known all over Hungary and can be considered as the most popular folk song among Hungarian Jews, usually performed in Hungarian with insertions of Hebrew lines. We play a short piece as an instrumental prelude and postlude to the song. This is based on one of Covavi's rubato pieces which he used to play with his father at Purim.
This piece is an example of the 'rubato' genre which makes up a substantial part of Covaci's Jewish repertoire. When we played to him the piece entitled "Haneros Halelu" (see No. 13. of this record), he remembered similar pieces that he used to play for Jews. He called them "Keserves", for this is the name of a genre of improvisative rubato pieces in Transylvania. He told us how he, as a child, accompanied his father on the violin while they played these "Keserves" pieces going from house to house at Purim. His sensitive, rubato playing with the tension created by the drum accompaniment was a unique experience for us.
Covaci knows this piece as "My dear mother" and, according to him, those who sing it think of their mothers. He remembers that Jews who returned from Auschwitz used to sing this song weeping. He did not know the text but recalled that the same text was also performed with another melody before the War.
In reality, the title of this piece is the beginning words of the ....., part of the prayers in the daily morning service (Shararit).
The performing style of this piece (slow, sensitive unornamented playing with percussion accompaniment) is unique and suggest the existence in Hungary of a hitherto unknown Jewish instrumental type. (See more detailed description in the musical analysis.)
Marta Sebestyen was shown this song by Zoltan Simon who encouraged and helped her to learn it. She performs this song following the singing style of Simon.
Although the song has a liturgical text, it is not liturgical music "per se". Women were not allowed to lead the service--to be precentors or hazzans--nevertheless, they also prayed with melody at the synagoue and sang devotional songs at home. Simon did not explain us the origin and the exact function of this song but it is likely to be a devotinal song for women. Both the melodic and the rhythmic style are related to liturgical recitative, the motives are entirely consistent with the main motive of the "Ahavo rabbo" mode. (See the musical analysis.) Nevertheless, the strophic, symmetrical form indicates that this was rather a para-liturgical song than part of the liturgy.
This piece was remembered by Árpad Toni as a favorite of the Jewish community of Szaszregen. According to him, the Jewish dance parties always started with this number. Men and women danced it together, forming a closed circle.
The melody of this song belongs to a Jewish song type, the variants of which can be found all over Eastern-Europe. This version is virtually identical with the famous Jiddish song "Belz...." The rhythmic shape of the melody and especially the the rhythm of the accompaniment, however, reminds one of the rhythmic performance of the Tango.
This is one of the most popular songs among the Jews of Eastern Europe and supposedly was played in Hungary wherever Jews lived. Toni Árpad performed this song to us as he remembered having performed it to the Jews of Szaszregen. The title of the piece is known by him as "Ite-ite babele."
Szek (Sic, Rumania) is a traditional Hungarian village of the Mezöség in Rumania. It has called the attention of several Hungarian ethnomusicologists and musicians already since the 1950s; we have also learned a lot from the musicians of Szek.
According to the local custom, the "primas" (leading violinist) does not perform "pieces" as it were. Rather, he playes a variety of different melodies, appropriate for the given dance, creating thus new cyclic forms at each occasion. The individual melodies (which hence cannot be regarded as complete pieces) are related to the person who considers it as his or her favorite melody. In this way, the tunes are known as, for instance, the csardas of Zsuki, or the csardas of Lebedi. Some tunes of the Szek repertoire are known as "Jewish csardas".
The pieces played here were collected by Bela Halmos in 1973. They were performed by Istvan Ádam (known as Icsan, born in 1908) who was one of the best "primas" of the village. We know from the communication of Istvan Ádam that Jewish families of Szek had their own special dance parties and weddings. Their dances were similar to those of the non-Jews of Szek except that the men and women did not hold hands, but established contact during the dance through holding a handkerchief. These melodies were played exclusively for Jews and never to Hungarians. One of them was called "orosz" meaning Russion, and is a tune known with Ukranian (Russin) text form Karpathia:
Hey koma ne zhurisya, Tayna mene po de visya!.
We have encountered this piece on the record "Klezmer music, Early Yiddish Instrumental Music, The First Recordings: 1910-1717" (Folklyric Records 9094). It is a re-edition of an early recording (from ca. 1910) made in Europe (Romania?) with the violinist, H. Steiner. The title means "Bless ye the candles," and is the first line of the blessing used for the lightening of the candles during Hanukah. There is little known about the custum of instrument playing in liturgical or para-liturgical context. We know, nevertheless, that in some regions Jewish musicians played before the lit candles on the first night of Hanukkah.
Although, this item is not part of the Hungarian Jewish instrumental tradition, it was essential for our work and for the creation of this record. It was this piece that we played for Gheorghe Covaci asking him whether he knew similar ones. By hearing this piece, he was able to recall the "Keserves" pieces which can be heard on this record.
In our performance, we use the duo of the violin and the cymbalom which is without doubt one of the most traditional performing ensembles of Jewish instrumental music. (On Steiner's recording, harpsichord substitues for the cymbalom.) This type of Jewish ensemble had been long known in Hungary among the Jews: Mihaly Csokonai, the famous Hungarian poet of the 18th century mentions the violin and cymbalom ensemble of the Jewish musicians of Toponar in his poem "Dorottya." 

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(c) Copyright Daniel Hamar, Muzsikás