Chapter 9 The Klezmer Accordion: An Outsider among Outsiders
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9 The Klezmer Accordion An Outsider among Outsiders joshua horowitz TherearemanyJewishmusicalculturesspreadacrosstheworldtoday,yetklezmer, the instrumental music of the Eastern European Jews, enjoys almost universal popularity.1 Itisgenerallyacceptedthatclarinetandviolinaretraditionalklezmer instruments,asdefinedbytheinstrumentalparametersofrecordeddocumentation from the earliest years. The “klezmer revival” has encouraged modern-day klezmer musicians to learn the style of their Old World predecessors by studying thevastcorpusof78rpmdiscsstillavailable.Becausemostoftherecordingsmade in the United States between 1915 and 1942 feature clarinet as the lead instrument ,itisconsidered the most “traditional” instrumentinklezmermusictoday. Whereas only three tunes by two of the early solo accordionists (Yankowitz and Tsiganoff) recorded between 1906 and 1930 are featured on reissues of klezmer recordingsthathavebecomeavailableinthepasttwentyyears,therewereatleast sixty-nine sides of relevant solo-accordion tunes and twenty-eight harmonium solos released during that earlier period. In comparison, the legendary klezmer clarinetistNaftuleBrandwein,whoserecordingshavepracticallydefinedtheolder style of contemporary klezmer music, released only about fifty-three recordings duringthesameperiod;thelessprolificbutnonethelessrefinedclarinetistShloimkeBeckermanrecordedonlyfourteen .TheclarinetistDaveTarrassubsequently recordedmanymore,imprintingthetastesofAmericanklezmermusicianstoday more than any other figure in its history and thereby achieving cult status for himself and the instrument. As valuable as early recordings are for documenting musical history in the twentiethcentury,itshouldbekeptinmindthatU.S.recordingsandtheircatalogs 179 The Klezmer Accordion areanincompletecertificateofmusicalhistory—anoftenmisleadingsourceupon which to make conclusions. For instance, in tracing the use of the accordion in the klezmer ensemble through early recordings and catalogs, single instruments are often not listed in the ensembles. This is especially true when the ensemble features more than fourteen instruments; but since as early as 1912, klezmer ensembles have also simply been listed as “orchestras” of seven-, nine-, twelve-, or thirteen-men groupings. The accordion appears in the ensemble listings only when the ensemble was small enough to allow mention in the label catalogs, or when the label decided to be diligent enough to list all the instruments. In the larger orchestras, only the names of conductor and soloist appear. In short, it is only possible to trace the accordion’s first entry into the klezmer ensemble via recordings when the ensemble was blessed with a detailed discographiccatalog .Asaresultofdrawingononlythispartialevidenceofrecordings, scholarshavesometimesmisunderstoodtheaccordion’sroleandhaveconcluded thattheinstrumentisamorerecentaccessory.AsOttensandRubinhavewritten: The “neo-traditionalists” among the revivalists propagate a newly fabricated standardizedstyle,whichisputtogetheroutofonlyafew“traditional”elements. . . . The inclusion of the accordion as an historical instrument of the East European Klezmer tradition belongs to this “newly fabricated tradition”; in fact, it was first used by klezmer ensembles in the 1930s. The resulting traditions that have come out of these standardizations and mythifications have transformed musicintoasymbol,andwithitaromanticreplacementforJudaism,thereality and history of which the revival generation willingly closes its eyes to.2 Even a cursory survey of the recordings and performance documents from the era of early 78 rpm through the modern revival show that the accordion, far from being a peripheral outsider to the klezmer genre, as it is sometimes portrayed in theliterature,hasbeenanintegralmember.Theimportantrolethattheaccordion playsanditspowerintransmitting,defining,andchangingtraditioninthegenre is evident from its earliest incursions into klezmer music in the late nineteenth century. Thus one might conceive the honorary title of “klezmer accordion” for the instrument that has been a favored member of the ensemble even among the earliest-dated recordings of klezmer music. The Solo and Duo Recording Era (ca. 1899–1929) The earliest known klezmer accordion recordings cataloged in the United States arethosebyA.GreenberginNewYork,madefortheUnitedHebrewDiscandCylinder Record Company. Greenberg recorded the Jewish “Breiges Tanz”3 in 1906, along with a Russian “Walse,” Natalka Poltavka “Kamarinskaja,” and a “Troika.” 180 joshua horowitz In 1907 he again recorded the “Kamarinskaja” and “Breigas Tanz,” this time on organ. Although nothing is known about Greenberg’s personal history, his style was typically accordionistic, with simply ornamented melody lines, occasional thirdsorchordmelodiesintherighthandsupportedbyoffbeatleft-handchords, and a straightforward rhythmic delivery.4 Pioneering Virtuoso: Grigori Matusewitch One of the first outstanding Jewish accordionists to make recordings was Grigori Matusewitch. Grigori was one of the nine sons of Hyman Matusevicz, who owned a large house-furnishing shop in Belorussia; he studied violin as a child with a privateteacherinMinsk.5 Asateenager,hehappeneduponMulka,aninebriated Tartar who appeared in Minsk playing the English concertina. Matusewitch was so fascinated by the instrument that he bought Mulka a bottle of vodka, to which thedrunkrepliedbyhandingoverhisconcertinaingratitude.Matusewitchtaught himself to play the instrument and developed a rich career, which included playing for the czar’s family. In 1920, Matusewitch moved with his family to the free city of Danzig, Germany, where he gave frequent concerts and was able to obtain a League of Nations passport, which enabled him to play concerts on both sides of the Atlantic until 1923. AlthoughonlythreerecordingsofMatusewitch’sYiddish-styleconcertinaplaying exist,6 he deserves to be considered as one of the finest of the early Yiddishmusic “accordionists.” He was primarily a classical concertinist...


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