The Jewish (klezmer) Doina

The musical development of the "Jewish" (or klezmer) doina is historically and geographically inspired by the Rumanian doina. But the music's purpose is very different: as the Rumanian doina is usually a lonely shepherd's melody, the Jewish doina is mainly played as a forshpil (prelude), used to attract the notice of the audience, and make them concentrate and ready to a faster, danceable tune or suite of melodies, i.e. a triple meter slow (Rumanian) hora, a khosidl, a terkisher, a freylekh or a sher.

If not before a dance set, but during the ritual part of a wedding, a very important role of the Jewish doina is the kale baveynen, i.e. a sad tune that can lead the bride to cry, as the badkhn (master of ceremony) reminds her that she's leaving her childhood to become a woman with all the tasks and sorrows tied to her new position!

Musically, the Jewish doina (as most of the klezmer music before the 20th century) was not written, but improvised by a soloist, usually a violin, a flute or -later- a clarinet, on a free meter, in the tonality of the following pieces. The harmonic instrument(s) and the bass gave the basic chord; the soloist then improvised on it, keeping the tune on the same chord or changing it at his mercy, after his taste, his ability and his mood. If it was not agreed in advance, the accompanists had to listen and to feel the changing in chords required by the improviser's melody.

The klezmorim tended to use conventional rhythmical and melodic figures, but seldom completely new melodies. That's why you can often feel some similarities in various Jewish doina's melodic lines, as interpreted by the same or even by different soloists. Some of these musical figures were particularly significant, suggesting human feelings: ostinato evokes insistence; trills can suggest a kind of mystical trance; the tempo, including accelerandi or rallentendi, regulate the energetical level, from meditation to ecstasy; bending and dissonance induce a tension, etc.

The doina -as klezmer music in general- was closely related to cantorial singing as most of the klezmorim were religiously educated and spend a (long !) time in the shul (synagogue), listening to khazanim (cantors) and singing prayers with the community.

The cantillation of the Torah and of Jewish prayers are based on taamey hamikra (a pool of ~25 signs, used as clues for the interpretation). From these signs and from the various influences of non-Jewish neighborhood, emerged some shteygers (scales or harmonic modes) typically used in Jewish liturgical and later in klezmer music, including doinas.

These shteygers are related to some moods and spiritual states of mind, the same way as, in occidental music, a major scale is traditionally associated with joy and a minor melody evokes sadness. But such a dichotomy is too simple for describing Jewish music, well known for its ability to lakhn mit trern (laugh with tears) !

Listening to a musical sample, we both would certainly be able to say what it makes us feel, but not always to explain why ! And how do the klezmorim know how to appropriate them as key elements of a doina remains for me akin of mystery… let's say it's part of the magic of music !

The best source for Jewish doinas is the cassette of old recordings and the notes transcribed by Kurt Bjorling DuoControverso@muziker.org.

 

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last update: 2007-12-21

 

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