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The klezmorim of Prague

About a Jewish musicians' guild
[originally published in Dutch in: Groniek. Historisch Tijdschrift 143/32 (december 1998) 223-230]

by Gerben Zaagsma

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Gerben Zaagsma,, is a Dutch historian. He wrote his master's thesis on klezmer history in 1996 and currently works for a historical research bureau that's part of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen, as well as a local synagogue foundation.

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Jewish folk music occupied a special place in 17th and 18th century Prague. A professional organisation of klezmorim existed in the city. Using some preserved sources Gerben Zaagsma describes some aspects of the life and work of these klezmorim in 17th and 18th century Prague.

"Friday, 22 Siwan 5428 (1668). Here rests the 'Mannaflasche'. the musician Abraham, son of the grey Hirsch Rubia: he was also a member of the musicians guild, that always appears in the synagogue at the beginning of the Sabbath."1

This text is an epitaph with a special content. Within a few sentences some important facts are mentioned about the life of a Jewish musician in 17th century Prague, and thus about the existence and the work of a special professional group in the Jewish community of a large Central European city. As in all Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe musicians were present. These musicians, often called klezmorim in Central and Eastern Europe, and usually itinerant, earned a living by playing at private events like a bar mitzvah and especially weddings, and (semi-) religious feasts like Purim and Chanuka.2 Being professional musicians they also played outside their own communities at peasant weddings, in taverns, on marketplaces and even diners of the local nobility and big farmers.

In the past years this Jewish folk music, usually called klezmer3, has become very popular and can be heard regularly at concert halls. The so-called 'klezmer-revival' also generated a modest amount of publications, but a lack of source material makes it difficult to conduct local studies. The situation in Prague is unique because some important source materials have been preserved and published, which makes it possible to study the life of the above mentioned Abraham and his colleagues. In this article I want to highlight some parts of this part of the cultural history of Prague Jewry.

Earliest history

As it says in the epitaph: Abraham was a member of an Orchesterverein, a guild of Jewish musicians that was founded in the 16th century. Prague was among the few places where such a professional organisation was founded, along with the Polish and Russian cities of Lublin, Lwow, Rzeszow, Leszno and Kepno. This was possible in part because of the relatively large cultural freedom the Bohemian Jews enjoyed. The Jews in the ghetto of Prague had a certain degree of autonomy that reminds of the Polish situation, with their own administrative system and their own cityhall. Regarding their economic situation the large number of guilds was remarkable.4 But as said before, guilds of Jewish musicians were rare.5 The foundation year of the Prague guild is said to be 1558.6 This is however relatively early compared to the first craftmen's guilds that developed only in the beginning of the 17th century. Little is known about the earliest history of the klezmorim of Prague. Three accounts are known, relating to appearances at a procession in honour of Louis II in 15127, a diner of a certain Herr Slavata in 15338 and the wedding of the nobleman Peter Wok von Rosenberg in 1580. The following description exists of the wedding: "For such merriment [was] need of the trombonists of Prague's Old Town, and with them Gregr Samper, the old gentleman trumpet player; a Jewish band from Prague was also ordered and played very sweetly for the dances."9 From the above mentioned appearances one can conclude that Jewish musicians performed in the middle and upper class, non-Jewish, circles in and around Prague and apparently were well-liked.

Organisation and competition

The existence of the guild is mentioned for the first time in the first half of the 17th century, when a fierce competetive struggle broke loose between the Jewish and christian musicians in Prague, due to a new privilege that arch-bishop Harrach had given the Jews in 1641: they were given the right to play at christian weddings, at baptismal feasts, and on sun- and festive days. Not quite surprisingly the christian musicians undertook action. Petition followed petition, leading also to the involvement of the city council and emperor Ferdinand III. Although the privilege was withdrawn at a certain moment, it was restored again in 1651. As the sources show that didn't end the rivalry10, but in the mean time Ferdinand III had issued a new edict for the Jews in Bohemia and the legal position of the Jewish guilds had become stronger11, a situation the klezmorim of Prague also benefitted from.

In the decisions in favor of the Jewish musicians their good reputation appears to have played a role, although their christian competitors did everything to make their musical skills seem poor. As opposed to the mainly economical arguments of the Jewish musicians, that they "poor people had nothing to live from except our learned art, and want to feed our wives and children in an honest way"12, the christian musicians claimed their music and their playing was too unorthodox: the Jews thus spoiled the level of music. The strict guild regulations issued by the government in 1695 appear to be intended mainly to prevent problems between musicians, not so surprising in the light of the above mentioned problems.13

Strengthening one's position in the competition with other guilds was not the only advantage of organising in a guild. Although protecting the economic interests of the profession and individual members was their main function, the guilds were also involved, for example, in the religious education of their members, a factor that enhanced the status of the profession. In general the status of folk musicians, mostly 'Fahrenden', was very low: they were at the lowest ranks of society and their profession was not regarded as a serious way of making a living. Besides that, their 'elusiveness' (they often didn't have a regular home) made them a suitable subject for the projection of all kinds of social taboos and fears. One of those was the supposed threat emanating from the folk musician for the virtue of young women, a theme by the way that was described in a beautiful and humoristic way by the famous yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem in his novel Stempenju.

The religious education the guild members received can help to explain why they also played in the synagogues of Prague, as was already clear from the epitaph of Abraham, which states he played in the synagogue at the beginning of the sabbath.

Another factor was the relatively tolerant attitude of the Prague rabbis towards instrumental music, which can be concluded from the fact that organs were used in the synagogue already in the 17th century.14 Despite this however, the klezmorim of Prague certainly did not lose the image of their profession, that of frivolous and profane 'Bierfiedler'. An interesting source in this respect is the 'Anti-Luxusgesetz' of the Jewish community around 1770, which includes a number of regulations relating to musicians.15 Music was allowed only rarely, even at festivities: the regulations show that musicians were only allowed to play at weddings, and not more than four of them. Their is also an interesting regulation that stipulates servants and musicians were not supposed to get any kind of tip and neither were allowed to ask for that: "Also all other payments that the servants and musicians claim as taxes, and for a variety of reasons, have to stop completely and one should not give them anything except their regular wages."16 Here, it becomes particularly clear how the behaviour of the klezmorim clashed with the values and virtues as advocated by the council of the Jewish community.

The sober tone of the regulations, very strict about manifestations of festiveness, corresponds with another source in which it says that "Theatre, concerts, groups, promenades were not there for the Jews in the third quarter of the 18th century. Balls were simply unthinkable, the maximum that was allowed with respect to that was the dancing of girls and women at weddings on the occasion of Bedecken (when the hair of the bride is covered before the wedding, on which occasion she is given a blessing): and because of this the main interest was almost necessarily directed at the synagogue."17

This attitude must, among other factors, have been inspired by the wish not to attract any unneccesary attention: the Jews of Prague were in a difficult position under the rule of Maria Theresa (1740-80) and had even been expelled from the city between 1745 and 1748. The expulsion believed to have had something to do with an impressive procession that was held by the Jewish population of Prague in 1741 on the occasion of the birth of Josef II: the musicians' guild also took part in that procession. There are various accounts of the happening, however it is supposed to have "contributed to a great extent to the expulsion of the Jews from Prague because of its display of splendour."18

Town - country side

Till now the main focus has been the life and work of guild members in Prague itself. Put in a broader context Prague also symbolizes the 'city' as opposed to the country side regarding the history of klezmorim: the guild was the most important distinctive factor here, with its protecting, regulating and educational functions, and a lot of the work was in Prague or its direct vicinity. At first sight this is in great contrast with the life of those klezmorim that mostly travelled in search of work and had no clear home. But the distinction was not that strong and the Jewish musicians of Prague could also be found elsewhere in the German lands. They were for example present in Dresden in 1695 to enliven the carnaval. And a comparison of the signers of the guild regulations of 1695, as mentioned earlier, and a list of Jewish musicians that visited Leipzig makes it clear that they were also present at the Leipzig annual fairs at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century.19 Also interesting is the fact that groups of Bohemian musicians in the 18th and 19th century were well known as competitors to their Northern and Middle German colleagues, which even led to the nickname 'die Prager' [the ones from Prague].20 Although it is unclear whether this relates to christian or Jewish musicians it is not unlikely that Jews were among them: after all they were well known in the German lands and they had a good reputation.

Mentioning the regional travelling of the Prague klezmorim brings about the connection with the history of their mostly fulltime travelling colleagues. Their history also displays a lot of similarities with that of the klezmorim of Prague that comes to the fore from the sources: they were loved but at the same time held in low esteem, always competing with other musicians and playing whereever they were hired. Only rarely one of them received the simple but clear recognition that can be found on the epitaph of another Prague klezmer:

"Wednesday. 3 Tischri 5509 (1748); here lies an honest man, who pleased adults and children, Baruch, son of Jokle Pitzkler."21


1 Moritz Popper, 'Aus Inschriften des alten prager Judenfriedhofes. Culturhistorisches und historisches', Zeitschrift für die Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland 5 (1892) 348-375, 369. [back to article]

2 Bar Mitzvah: ceremony at which a Jewish boy officially becomes an adult according to Jewish law (at the age of 13). Purim or the Feast of Lots centers around the Esther-legend: Esther, the Jewish wife of the Persian king Ahasverus succeeded in preventing her husband to pursue the plans of his first minister Haman and kill the Jews in the empire. Chanukah is the Feast of Light during which the victory of the Maccabees on the Seleucides in 167 BC is celebrated, and with that the recapture and re-inauguration of the Temple. [back to article]

3 The word klezmer (plur. klezmorim) is a contraction of the Hebrew words keley (tool, instrument) and zemer (to make music, sing). Klezmer literally means 'tool to make music' and more freely musical instrument, it can also denote the player of an instrument, a musician. [back to article]

4 For an elaborate account see: Tobias Jakobovits, 'Die jüdischen Zünfte in Prag', Jahrbuch der Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Juden in der Cechoslovakischen Republik 8 (1936) 57-145. [back to article]

5 The standard work in this field, Mark Wischnitzer's History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds (New York 1965) does not mention such guilds. [back to article]

6 As is stated by Walter Salmen in his Denn die Fiedel macht das Fest. Jüdische Musikanten und Tänzer vom 13.bis 20.Jahrhundert (Innsbruck 1991) 58. This year cannot be found in the sources. [back to article]

7 Alfred Sendrey, The music of the Jews in the Diaspora (up to 1800). A contribution to the social and cultural history of the Jews (New York 1970) 350. [back to article]

8 Ignát Herrmann, Jos. Teige en Zikm. Winter, Das Prager Ghetto (Praag 1903) 82. [back to article]

9 Gottlieb Bondy and Franz Dworsky, Zur Geschichte der Juden in Boehmen, Maehren und Schlesien von 906 bis 1620 (Praag 1906) vol. II, 1042. Translation from the Czech source by Michael Grant. [back to article]

10 See the supplement to: Paul Nettl, Alte Jüdische Spielleute und Musiker (Prague 1923) 49-55 and Nettl, 'Die Prager Juden-Spielleutezunft' in: Paul Nettl, Beiträge zur böhmischen und mährischen Musikgeschichte (Brünn 1927) 70-92. Part of this material was also published in: Salmen, Denn die Fiedel ... , 156-175. [back to article]

11 Jakobovits, 'Zünfte', 72-74. [back to article]

12 Salmen, Denn die Fiedel ... , 157. [back to article]

13 Salmen, Denn die Fiedel... , 166-175. [back to article]

14 This is a remarkable fact because instrumental music has played a minor role in Jewish tradition for a long time and was forbidden by a lot of rabbis (with the exception of festivities such as weddings and Purim and Chanukah), because of the mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Sporadically however music could be heard in the synagogue and particularly with the emancipation in Western and Middle Europe, this became increasingly normal. See: Amnon Shiloah, 'The attitude towards music of Jewish religious authorities' in: Amnon Shiloah, The dimension of music in Islamic and Jewish culture (Aldershot 1993) en Karl Erich Grözinger, Musik und Gesang in der Theologie der frühen Jüdischen Literatur (Tübingen 1982). [back to article]

15 'Ein Anti-Luxusgesetz der Prager Judengemeinde vor hundert Jahren' in: Wilma Iggers ed., Die Juden in Böhmen und Mähren. Ein historisches Lesebuch (München 1986) 44-46 [back to article]

16 Iggers, Juden, 45. [back to article]

17 See the story '"Durch Trauer zum Glück". Erzählung aus dem dritten Viertel des vorigen Jahrhunderts' in: S. Kohn, Prager Ghettobilder (Leipzig 1825-26) 56-57. [back to article]

18 Jakobovits, 'Zünfte', 133, note 32. [back to article]

19 See: Salmen, 'Denn die Fiedel...' 175 and J. Lifschitz, 'Yidishe farwayler oyf di Leipziger yaridn' in: J. Schatzky ed., Arkhiv far di geshikhte fun idishn teater un drame I (Vilna 1930) 450-452. [back to article]

20 Walter Salmen, Geschichte der Musik in Westfalen II (Kassel 1967) 188. [back to article]

21 Popper, 'Aus Inschriften', 370. [back to article]

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Contents and translation from Dutch copyright © 1998 by Gerben Zaagsma. Used with permission. All rights reserved. Page last revised 11 June, 2007.