“Old Klezmorim”. Musical circulations and migrations of professional musicians between Europe and the United States of America.

Jean-Sébastien Noël, University of La Rochelle, France.


My research focuses on a history of old klezmorim, from the late 19th century to the late 1950s within the Atlantic space. If the term « klezmorim » (wandering musicians), built on two yiddish words meaning « musical instrument », has been used since the late Middle Ages, the notion of klezmer music is much more recent. It was forged by Soviet musicologist Moshe Beregovsky in 1938. This notion, describing a repertoire rather than musical sociabilities, was a milestone of the klezmer revivalism of the 1970s in North America and in Argentina.Many studies have been written on the first generations of immigrated klezmorim (by musicologists Mark Slobin, Walter Zev Feldman) but this project’s purpose is to write a page of the trans-Atlantic history of a socioprofessional group emigrating from Eastern and Central Europe in waves between the late 19th century and the 1950s to resettle in the United States of America, in Canada or in Argentina. These people brought with them their values, their feelings of social belonging, their musical abilities but they had to adapt quickly to new societies which were themselves going through a process of modernisation.

The « Roaring twenties » represent a real milestone in this history because of the development (and first crisis) of the recording industry and the rise of the radio era. In this context, if these musicians’ Jewishness was a key element in their social position, they cannot be entirely defined by it.

            Klezmeray is the term for describing the professional organization of European klezmorim. Musicians used to play into typical ensemble called kapelyesor kompanyes. Klezmeray functionned as a corporative organization. Nevertheless, their social position was paradoxical : both socially unconsidered (badly observant) and cultural mediators betweens differents groups in Ashkeanzy sociabilities : hassidimand orthodox Jews, atheist groups (bundists, left wing zionists). They were often hired by non-Jewish patrons (christian families, wealthy peasantry and landed gentry) and shared playing technics and repertoires with non-Jewish musicians, especially with Gipsy musicians. So, klezmeray was a coherent professional organisation, rooted in Ashkenazy traditions but European klezmorimwere obviously connected to other sociocultural groups.


Every criterion of this generic definition should of course be adapted to the different spaces and places of music performance and production. Chronology is obviously a significant aspect of our analysis, as the evolution of the sources shows. So we can determine a first decisive turn in the material history of klezmorim, distinguishing a proto-historical period (oral tradition) and a historical period (time of written and recorded music). If during the proto-historical period, oral tradition prevailed, the rise of photography has made it possible for researchers to document the life of klezmorim bands in a more precise way.

Even though the American recordings of the 20s by the Columbia or Victor firms were much more widely distributed, the first records by klezmorim were made in European studios. They’re very interesting to listen to and analyse. Most of the musicians back then belonged to great klezmer families : the Gold, the Petersbursky, the Shpilman (I mentioned a few seconds ago). If they played traditional wedding dances and nigunim (hassidic melodies), they also recorded tangos performed in Warsaw’s cabarets. These European recordings already tell the story of a transatlantic countertransfer : this repertoire of yiddish tangos from Warsaw, Berlin or Vienna was to be a strong source of inspiration for the Buenos Aires tango players and composers in the next decades.


This phono-discographical turn implied anew professional status for professional musicians (with contracts, fees, copyright system). The revolution of recording studios, especially after 1925 (when the microphone became more and more popular), studio musicians get the opportunity to multiply takes, paying attention to the way they played. One of the consequences of this turn is the fixation of styles and technics on the records. Furthermore, home phonograph and domestic radio created new listening habits. Domestic context substituted the social contexts of listening music (weddings, theater, synagogue). Development of radiobroadcasting during the 1920s corresponds to the appearence of first radio musical programs, first in a religious context (liturgical musical programs of conservative Judaism just before the holy days of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah) and then yiddish radio shows with entertainment music in which klezmorim were hired.

In this context, klezmorimgained a new legitimacy and socioeconomic statues. They diversified their professional activites, playing in Yiddish Theater orchestras, entertainment ensembles (cabarets, café-concert, hotels), played or even composed movies’ soundtracks and scores. A period of big change for traditional klezmeray, the 1920s corresponds to a new marketing paradigm. As musicologist Joshua S. Walden noticed, the length of 78rpm records (3 to 4 minutes) implied commercial choices among repertoires, musical directors looking for a bankable hit. These evolutions also had social impacts : after World War II, a new generation of American-born musicians progressively forget the European traditions. In America, from the early 1930s, the consequence is an aweakening of the musical role of associations of immigrated Jews, the landsmanshaftn, an aweakening of the traditional system of solidarity : then, Jewish musicians belonged to Trade Unions.  

During the 1920s and the 30s, klezmorim diversified their activities, as musicians and/or as composers. There stories highlight the complexity of the adaptation process of these European klezmorim: in Europe and in America, the experience of the economy of entertainment, the stakes of the recording industry and of the radiobroadcasting deeply transformed their traditional sociabilities (and by that I mean social ties and relations). In this perspective, the Atlantic experience has to be thought of as a moment of deep redefinition resulting from the exposure to new values, new standards and new trends.




I am an associate professor in contemporary history in La Rochelle University (France), I work on a cultural history of music in the Atlantic space and I am interested in the impact of musical repertoires, archives and practices on memorial processes. In my PhD, I studied how mourning and rememorizing pogroms and the genocide in the Ashkenazy sociabilities, was expressed through music from the late 19thcentury to the 1980s (Eastern and Central Europe, United States of America). My first book is the edited version of this work : Le silence s’essouffle. Mort, deuil et mémoire chez les compositeurs ashkénazes. Europe centrale et orientale, États-Unis(Nancy, PUN, 2016).

I develop my current research in two main directions, inspired by the Sound Studies dynamics. On the one hand, I focus on a transatlantic history of klezmorim, these Ashkenazy families of musicians who migrated from Europe to North and South America, as well as Palestine then Israel, between the 1860s and the 1950s. On the other hand, I work on the networks of avant-gardes composers, especially those that played a role in the International Contemporary Art Festival of Royan (1964-1977) and in the International Contemporary Art Meetings of La Rochelle (1973-1984).

I am a member of the editorial board of the Transatlantic Culturesproject (Transatlantic Cultures. A Digital Platform for Transatlantic Cultural History. 1700 to now).


Selected publications since 2015 


NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « Le silence s’essouffle ». Mort, deuil et mémoire chez les compositeurs ashkénazes. Europe centrale et orientale, États-Unis (1880-1980), Nancy, PUN – Éditions Universitaires de Lorraine, 2016.     

Chapters in collective books and handbooks

  • FLECHET, Anaïs, NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « Chéreau soundscapes. Musiques, silences et sons dans les longs métrages de Patrice Chéreau », in LEVY, Marie-Françoise, GOETSCHEL, Pascale, TSIKOUNAS, Miriam, Chéreau en son temps, Paris, Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2018, pp.271-292. [à paraître]
  • NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « 1975-1991 – Cultures, médias et pouvoirs dans un monde en cours d’intégration », inFRANCFORT, Didier, EL GAMMAL, Jean (dir.), Culture, médias, pouvoirs aux États-Unis et en Europe occidentale, 1945-1991, Paris, Ellipses éditions, 2018, pp. 55-69.
  • NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « Musique(s) : réseaux, circulations et médiatisations (fin des années 1940-fin des années 1970) », inFRANCFORT, Didier, EL GAMMAL, Jean (dir.), Culture, médias, pouvoirs aux États-Unis et en Europe occidentale, 1945-1991, Paris, Ellipses éditions, 2018, pp. 145-158.
  • NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « Le vidéo-clip, objet d’histoire culturelle et médiatique », inFRANCFORT, Didier, EL GAMMAL, Jean (dir.), Culture, médias, pouvoirs aux États-Unis et en Europe occidentale, 1945-1991, Paris, Ellipses éditions, 2018, pp. 261-266.
  • NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « La Radical Jewish Culture : une forme esthétique, politique et communautaire du revivalisme des musiques juives traditionnelles », in TARTAKOWSKY, Ewa, DIMENSTEIN, Marcelo (dir.), Juifs d’Europe. Identités plurielles et mixité, Tours, PUFR, 2017, pp.167-178.
  • FLECHET, Anaïs, NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « Du cinéma au théâtre : la musique dans l’œuvre de Patrice Chéreau. Entretien avec Eric Neveux », in LEVY, Marie-Françoise et TSIKOUNAS, Myriam (dir.), Patrice Chéreau à l’œuvre, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2016, pp. 289-291. FLECHET, Anaïs, NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « Musiche du guerra e musiche della guerra », in Aglan, Alya, Franck, Robert, dir., La guerra mondo. 1937-1947. Tomo secondo, Torino, Giulio Einaudi editore, 2016, pp. 1685-1723.
  • FLECHET, Anaïs, NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « Musiques de guerre, musiques de la guerre », inAglan, Alya, Franck, Robert, dir., 1937-1947. La Guerre Monde, tome 2, Paris, Gallimard, 2015, pp. 2150-2197.
  • NOËL, Jean-Sébastien, « Musiques israéliennes ou musiques juives ? Processus d’identifications et mobilités musicales », inFléchet, Anaïs, Lévy, Marie-Françoise, dir., Littératures et musiques dans lamondialisation, XXe-XXIe siècles, Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2015.