That which is called the black soul is a white construction: A Response to Ars Longa de Habana’s “Gulumbá Gulumbé

by Peter Tracy

Ars longa vita brevis on a mural n Gottingen Germany scaled
Ars longa vita brevis on a mural n Gottingen Germany scaled  

Vīta brevis,
ars longa,
occāsiō praeceps,
experīmentum perīculōsum,
iūdicium difficile.

Life is short,
and art long,
opportunity fleeting,
experimentations perilous,
and judgment difficult.

– Hippocrates (460 – 370 BCE), Aphorismi[1]

Hippocrates’ Aphorismi have inspired numerous interpretations in the millennia since their composition. Translation between languages and cultures being notoriously difficult, divergent readings of Latin and English translations have lead to significant changes in this verse’s popular meaning. While the phrase “life is short, art is long” has become an accepted trope, the Greek word commonly rendered as “ars” or “art” is in fact τέχνη (tékhnē), a word closer in meaning to “technique” or “craftsmanship”. As one of the earliest physicians on record, Hippocrates was unlikely to have dwelt overly long on questions of Art and Beauty. Rather, he seems to have wanted to express his frustration with the fact that, no matter how good one’s intentions or how disciplined one’s work ethic, one will never have enough time to perfect one’s skills or understanding. Hippocrates was also cautioning the uninitiated: in a medical context, experimentation on the job is perilous indeed, and an improper judgment can mean the difference between life and death. Many of us take comfort in the fact that, in the world of music, the stakes appear much lower.

Still, there are consequences to our musical judgments, and only so many opportunities to address them in full. As the example of a recent concert might help me to express, the broader effects of our musical choices can be far from clear even in the present (a time in which we more or less know our way around), to say nothing of the past (a foreign culture in and of itself).

This Sunday, Ars Longa de Habana, a Cuban ensemble specializing in Latin American music of the Spanish colonial period, performed a program at Town Hall Seattle consisting of a set of villancicos stemming from the cathedrals of 17th and 18th century New Spain. The musicians, who tackled a demanding series of pieces mixing the polyphonic rigor of Renaissance madrigals with the theater and slap-stick comedy of light opera, were in full command of their chosen repertoire, conveying a light-hearted, festive tone with plenty of humor. They gave a compelling and enjoyable performance, bringing an ease and sense of fun to the stage that is rare in performances of Baroque repertoire.

Still, it is not hard to imagine a range of different responses to Sunday’s concert. Among other points of concern, one might highlight the lyrics of these villancicos, which include many purposeful linguistic errors and passages of meaningless onomatopoeia meant to mimic the dialects of the newly enslaved. As Tyrone Clinton opines in his article “Black in the Baroque: Racism in the Spanish Villancico de Negro”, the language of this particular sub-genre of villancicos

“is a transcription by the slaveholding class of the varieties of Spanish spoken by Africans kidnapped into slavery. Like literary versions of slave dialect in the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these linguistic variations are transcribed into the language of the ruling class as a series of errors: aphaeresis, phoneme modification by accent, and added or shortened syllables are recorded on the page as misspellings, mispronunciations, and gender pronoun errors in a way that strikes the intended audience as lazy or comical.”[1]

The lyrics on Sunday’s concert positioned the vocalists as a recurring cast of Black characters, each with variants of common names like Anton, Flacica, or Gacipá (itself a variant of “Caspar”, the biblical magi who was popularly thought of as an African king in the late middle-ages). Throughout the performance, these characters constantly threaten to burst into song and dance about the infant Jesus or the Virgin Mary, all while wielding percussion instruments meant to mimic those found in African musical traditions. The lyrics depict these archetypal Africans as coming from only two places: Guinea and Angola, both mythical kingdoms to which the enslaved long to return with triumphant song and dance. Obviously, this is a genre full of caricature and parody, with characters who want nothing more than to help their white masters celebrate the Christmas season (and to drink and dance the night away). Labor is rarely mentioned, and when it is, someone is usually too lazy or frightened to do it.

Villancicos de negro are a sub-genre of what was the popular artistic form of the Spanish colonial era: the villancico. Originally more of a literary phenomenon, the villancico would gradually transform into a musical form that mixed the sacred and the profane in an immensely popular blend. Although villancicos originally included a wider range of lyrical subject matter dealing with the experiences of everyday village-dwellers, they eventually took on a sacred aspect as part of Catholic feast day celebrations. Today, they are most closely associated with the season of Advent, having taken on a role similar to Christmas plays and carols in many parts of the Spanish-speaking world. As evidenced by the title of Clinton’s piece, this particular sub-genre of villancicos is interpreted by many as a racist and offensive form of minstrelsy depicting enslaved Black people as their masters wished them to be.

There are many well-intentioned performers and scholars who have given defenses of this repertoire and who continue to advocate for its performance. In a disclaimer attached to Les Routes de L’esclavage, a 2016 album which includes several villancicos de negro, the renowned conductor and viol player Jordi Savall claims that:

“…the advantage of being aware of the past enables us to be more responsible and therefore   morally obliges us to take a stand against these inhuman practices. The music in this program represents the true living history of that long and painful past…We also want to draw attention to the fact that, at the beginning of the third millennium, this tragedy is still ongoing for more than 30 million human beings. We need to speak out in indignation and say that humanity is not doing what it should to put an end to slavery and other related forms of exploitation.”[2]

 According to Savall, villancicos de negro represent important historical documents, testaments to the enduring humanity of the enslaved that can even be used to draw attention to the endurance of slavery today. In support of this argument, Savall might also have pointed to the divergent cultures and histories of the Spanish-speaking world as evidence that a one-size-fits-all solution to such problems would be ineffectual and inappropriate. After all, conceptions of race, faith, comedy, and propriety vary greatly even between the closely-related societies of Latin America. To further support Savall’s argument, one could point to lyrics from other villancicos of the time which parody the language and behavior of other groups such as Galicians, French, Portugeuse, and indigenous peoples, arguing that all of the diverse cultures which made up the multi-cultural society of New Spain shared the burden of such merry-making. The strongest argument of all could stem from the critical or even subversive elements which have found their way into a few villancico texts, such as the passage from Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s(1651-1695) “Tumba, tumba, la la la” in which the singer exclaims: “…where Pilico goes, no slave will remain!”[3]

In program notes written for Sunday’s concert, Dr. Sebastian Zubieta takes the argument for the rehabilitation of villancicos de negro a stepfurther, claiming that

“…at their most basic level these pieces are subversive because they reclaim for their actors the right to establish their own relationship with Jesus and Mary, bypassing the indignities visited upon them by the slaveholders, and making fun of them. They also establish a connection with the figures of their newly acquired faith that involves food and music (and a few items of clothing to alleviate the cold).”[4]

While I am far from an accredited expert on the music of colonial Spain, I find this particular search for subversion within the villancico de negro tradition to be more than a little misguided. First and foremost, it is important to remind ourselves that these pieces were not written by or for the people which they depict, nor did enslaved Africans regularly take part in their performance. As a result, the extent to which they reflect the real views, attitudes, and experiences of the enslaved is highly suspect, and the oft-celebrated “African influence” that many see in these pieces is more a simplistic parody than a sign of true cross-cultural exchange. To claim that these extra-liturgical pieces of light entertainment sincerely promoted an individual relationship with God among the underclasses of colonial society is to accept that the stereotypes embedded within this sub-genre are true: newly kidnapped black slaves really were happy to accept the new religion forced upon them by their masters (even if they had some naive questions about how it functioned); they really were in awe of the new God foisted upon them (even when their masters weren’t watching); they really did want nothing more than to adopt the culture and worldview of their oppressors (although they weren’t quite smart enough to figure out how).

Comedy, like music, can allow people to feel and internalize alternative perspectives without consciously articulating these perspectives to themselves, thereby bypassing the knee-jerk responses with which we often meet foreign ideas. Art’s ability to change patterns of thought and understanding is perhaps the greatest argument for its utility. Yet if a joke is funny or a piece of music beautiful, one can also find oneself agreeing with (or at least tolerating) a sentiment that would otherwise seem inappropriate or offensive. It could be argued that, more than any other tool of artistic expression, humor requires a mountain of cultural context to be effectively implemented or simply to be understood at all. At Sunday’s concert, many in the audience neither spoke Spanish nor read the limited program notes available. Given the absence of any statement of purpose from the artists, the audience was largely left to encounter villancicos de negro as they would any other music from the Baroque era and were tasked with coming to their own conclusions as to what motivated these artists to perform this repertoire. My first recommendation, then, would be to ensure that these works, if performed at all, are undertaken in a context that makes the historical role of this repertoire in the perpetuation of slavery abundantly clear.

This is not an argument for the barring of villancicos de negro from the concert stage, nor an attempt to argue that this important aspect of the New World’s cultural heritage should be erased from historical memory. Quite the contrary. Not every artistic performance needs to take a grand moral stance on the issues of the day, and no pamphlet of program notes can give the listener a sense of what it would be like to inhabit another culture. Yet to my mind, productive and respectful commemorations of historical tragedies do not often involve light entertainment and off-color comedy.

While decisions concerning what to perform, who to include, and how to tell the various possible histories of Western music cannot be made by any individual, ensemble, or organization alone, the potential consequences of our music-making require us to take these issues into serious and collective consideration. As a movement takes shape which reevaluates the historical legacies of Western concert music, certain questions concerning equity, inclusion, tradition, and the role of the arts in society take on an increasing significance for artists and audiences alike. How can the members of different cultures responsibly preserve their heritage without blindly perpetuating its errors? Who gets to decide what these errors are? Can the cultural tools, tactics, and techniques of one era and class be turned towards different aims today? By what process should we make decisions concerning the performance of historical music, and who gets to make these decisions?

Art is long, and judgment difficult. Yet I believe that it is possible to make moral judgments for ourselves while allowing a certain amount of space for others to do the same. For my part, I’d like to fall back on a simple thought experiment: if asked to take part in a performance of a villancico de negro, would I participate? I find myself answering with a resounding no.

[1]     From the Introduction to Frantz Fanon’s highly influential 1952 work Black Skin, White Masks: Fanon, Frantz, Richard Philcox, and Anthony Appiah. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. First edition, New edition. New York: Grove Press, 2008, pp.  xviii, https://archive.org/details/blackskinwhitema0000fano_j7u6/page/n19/mode/2up. Here I use a slightly different formulation of the same quote by Deborah Singer as used in “Inclusion Politics/Subalternization Practices: The Construction of Ethnicity in Villancicos De Negros of the Cathedral of Santiago De Guatemala (16th-18th Centuries)”. Revista De Historia, no. 80 (July), 33-53.

[2]     There are many, many different editions and translations of Hippocrates aphorisms, and I cannot pretend to be the best judge of their accuracy. Here, I partake in the long and storied tradition of using quotations from the classics to suit my own ends. The English translation provided is from: Hippocrates. The Genuine Works of Hippocrates; Tr. from the Greek, with a Preliminary Discourse and Annotations, by Francis Adams. New York (State): W. Wood, 1886, 1886.

[3]     Clinton, Tyrone. “Black in the Baroque: Racism in the Spanish Villancico de Negro.” The Choral Journal 61, no. 4 (2020): 36. For more scholarship from this perspective, see Deborah Singer’s excellent 2019 study, “Inclusion Politics/Subalternization Practices: The Construction of Ethnicity in Villancicos De Negros of the Cathedral of Santiago De Guatemala (16th-18th Centuries)”. Revista De Historia, no. 80 (July), 33-53.

[4]     Jordi Savall, trans. by Jacqueline Minett, “Les Routes De L’Esclavage,” https://www.alia-vox.com/en/catalogue/les-rutes-de-lesclavatge/. Quoted from Clinton, 46.

[5]     Transcription and translation by Omar Morales Abril and Bárbara Pérez Ruíz, as featured in the concert program to “Gulumbá Gulumbé”.

[6]     From the program notes to “Gulumbá Gulumbé” written by Dr. Sebastian Zubieta for Early Music Seattle.

william byrd (c.1540-1623), Brittanicæ Musicæ Parens

by Peter Seibert

William Byrd

In the 400th anniversary year of the death of Byrd, who is called by some the “father of British music,” Seibert takes a look at the late Renaissance composer’s life and music.

Read complete article PDF

“This article by Peter Seibert originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of American Recorder magazine, with some material also appearing in the ARS’s March 2023 ARS NOVA e-newsletter. Used with the kind permission of Peter Seibert and the American Recorder Society, https://americanrecorder.org.”

Peter Seibert

Peter Seibert is a former EMS Board President who served 16 years and is currently a member of the Finance Committee. Peter has many academic credentials, skill as a composer and educator, and years of service to organizations like Early Music Seattle.

On the confluence of Klezmer and Moldovan music: a short review of some of the writings of dr. Walter Zev Feldman

by Peter Lippman

A synagogue in Chișinău, the capital of Moldova – photo: Peter Lippman

In a relatively recent period of the development of klezmer music, the klezmer genre came under the influence of Moldovan music. This is just one corner of klezmer history, but one that’s very important to the last couple centuries of its trajectory.

The following writing draws extensively on the decades of work by Professor Walter Zev Feldman. This is a condensation of relevant points from his body of work. People can read the same sources I have read, and I encourage that (see citations below).

My goal is to provide a digest of information about what happened when Jewish musicians interacted with local ones in Moldova. I will start with a very brief background on klezmer music. I will then outline some history of Moldova, which is very important to the development of klezmer music in that region. Finally, I will describe how Moldovan/Jewish music, as it arose in the 19th century, influenced the American stream of klezmer toward the end of that century and beyond.

Klezmer music: a very brief historical description[1]

Klezmer is the professional instrumental music of the East European Jews of the shtetls (market towns) and cities of Poland, the Russian-controlled Pale of Settlement, and eastern parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, particularly Galicia. Ashkenazi musicians formed professional klezmer guilds in Prague and in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as early as the late 16th century. This guild formation was a social step upward from the professional situation of Jews in the German territories, where skilled work was forbidden to Jews.[2]

Elements of the klezmer genre included dance music of the European Renaissance; European Baroque; the modalities of Ashkenazi prayer, and Greek and Ottoman music.[3] Over the centuries these elements fused into a single musical style of composition and performance, which was largely unified over a very wide geographical area.[4]

By the 18th century klezmer music became a hereditary profession, and the musicians involved even constituted a caste. In a sense, klezmer in the shtetls resembled Romani music in the Balkans, in that it constituted a different repertoire from that of the dominant ethnicities around them.[5] This is consistent with the overall independence of Eastern European Jewish musical repertoires.[6]

The fact that there was a large, concentrated Jewish population in the areas in question, and that they were segregated in various ways from the mainstream (mostly Christian) population, contributed to this development of a separate, klezmer repertoire. In addition, the hereditary aspect of the profession helped a specific repertoire to be passed on from one generation to the next. In some of the areas where they were active, klezmorim (the plural of “klezmer”) constituted the dominant or only class of professional musicians. There were Hasidic dynasties that retained their own klezmer ensembles.

String ensembles built around tsimbl (hammered dulcimer) and violin were dominant from the beginning of klezmer music until the 1870s, when brass and woodwinds were added, leading to the development of larger orchestras.[7] The wedding was the centerpiece of klezmer creativity in manifold expressions,[8] but other events on and off the Jewish calendar were also occasions for music. And dance music was only one part of the repertoire; there were also varieties of ritual and listening pieces.

In his writings, Professor Feldman provides an important breakdown of the total repertoire of klezmorim into four categories:

Co-territorial music: Local non-Jewish dances were played by klezmorim for non-Jewish and for some Jewish communities. This material was almost never composed by klezmorim. For example, they would play mazurkas in a major key for the Poles, and in a minor key for Jews.[9]

Cosmopolitan: This repertoire contained western and central European couple dances such as quadrilles, polkas, and waltzes, played (but not composed) by klezmorim for Jews and non-Jews.[10]

The above two repertoires should not be considered as “klezmer music,” as they were almost never composed by the klezmorim themselves.

Core music: Music played and composed for Jews by Jews. It included dances, ritual music, and listening music at weddings and other simkhes (celebrations).[11]

Transitional: This category contains dance and non-dance repertoire including zhok, volekhl, sirba, ange or honga (from Romanian “hangu”), doina, and bulgarish. These forms are adapted from Moldavian genres, and this is the only significant group of melodies with non-Jewish names in the klezmer repertoire.

The difference between this transitional repertoire and the co-territorial material is that with the transitional material, klezmorim assimilated Moldavian elements into their more old-fashioned (core) genres.[12] Not only were the Romanian genre names retained, but also the choreographic forms. From the 19th century on, this kind of fusion had no other similar example in Jewish music in Eastern Europe.[13]

For most of its history, the word “klezmer” referred only to the musician, and not the music. The semantic crossover took place in the mid-1970s during the beginning of the revitalization of klezmer music among the post-WWII generation.

Some historical background on Moldova

Present-day Moldova, a former Soviet republic, is the area where much of the action relevant to this story took place. You hear the terms “Moldova” and “Moldavia,” variably,[14] as the two are sometimes used interchangeably. Today, “Moldova,” usually refers to the former Soviet republic, and “Moldavia” refers to the adjacent region in eastern Romania.

During the medieval period there were two Danubian Romanian principalities, Wallachia and Moldavia.[15] Wallachia came under Ottoman domination in the 1400s, and Moldavia in 1511.[16] By this time Romanians had settled in the previously Slavic- and Turkish-dominated region between the Prut and Dniester rivers, much of which comprised the region known as Bessarabia after a Kumanic nobleman named Besarab.[17]

During Ottoman rule Bessarabia was part of Moldavia. This changed in 1812, when the Russian Empire took control of the part of Moldavia east of the Prut River (leaving the larger portion of Moldavia still under the Ottomans). After the Russian revolution a century later, the Soviet Republic of Moldavia was formed in 1924. This contained only the Tiraspol region and a small area from adjacent Ukraine, with Bessarabia absorbed back into Romania. After World War II most of Bessarabia was joined to the Moldavian Soviet Republic, but with parts of its northern and southern ends given to Ukraine. When this republic gained independence in 1992 it took its original name, Moldova.

A memorial in Chișinău to the victims of the World War II ghetto in that city – photo: Peter Lippman

What happened in Moldova

Ashkenazi Jews, and some Sephardim, were already well-settled in Ottoman-controlled Bessarabia/Moldova by the early 18th century, where they lived among Romanian speakers, Greeks, Turks, Tatars, Gagauz, and other ethnicities.[18] After the Russian annexation, a significant influx of Jews from Ukraine and Galicia took place. Jews became a substantial component of the urban population. By the end of the 19th century they constituted 50% of the urban population of Moldova, and as much as 80% in some towns.[19] In this period Bulgarians migrated into the southern part of Moldova as well.

Klezmorim were active in Ottoman-controlled Moldova at least a century before the Russian annexation of the eastern portion of that territory.[20] The musicians’ guild under the Ottomans was non-denominational, so Jews joined the dominant Romanian-speaking musicians known as lăutari—mostly Roma—and developed a lively and enduring collaboration that included local Greeks as well.

It was not unusual for lăutari to play in Jewish bands, and sometimes vice-versa. Feldman mentions one klezmer band that was run by a Romani musician.[21] It came to the point that many klezmer and lăutarmusicians were “bi- or tri-lingual,” speaking Yiddish, Romanian, and Greek.[22]

The growing, close musical associations between Jewish klezmorim and the Romani lăutari had implications pertaining to social status. On one hand, in the 17th and 18th centuries Jews came as free people to Ottoman-ruled Moldova. And even in the first half of the 19th century after Russia took over, there was less discrimination against them in that region than in other parts of the Russian Empire. Meanwhile, for centuries the Roma had been enslaved in Ottoman Moldova, and then in Russian-controlled Moldova, well into the 19th century. Some of the lăutari held slave status. So their association with free Jews was felt to be a social step upward.[23]

In the 18th and 19th centuries the musical collaboration included not only Greeks, Jews, and Romanian speakers, but also Turks. Turkish influence was certainly present in Moldova, but there was ongoing trade—including cattle exportation to Istanbul—between Moldova and the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Feldman provides an intriguing account from the early 17th century of the travels of the Moldovan “cowboys” and their music-infused celebrations upon arriving to Istanbul with their herds.[24] Along with commercial goods, melodies, modes, and rhythms traveled back and forth between Istanbul and Moldova, shared among the four ethnicities.

The interaction of Turks, Greeks, Moldovan lăutari, and klezmorim in this context led to a vibrant mix of tunes and dances, prominent among them the butchers’ hasapiko (Greek, from the Turkish “kasap,” for “butcher”). This interchange took place well before the klezmer/lăutar transitional genre developed, but the material stemming from it constituted an important influence on the genre. [25] If you hear similarities between Greek and klezmer music, chances are it is because of this development.

It is in Moldova, in this time, that the dynamic of the transitional repertoire in klezmer music is well illustrated. The doina, replacing the earlier Ottoman-derived taksim, is a non-dance contribution to the transitional repertoire.[26] One of the best examples of crossover from the music of the lăutari into klezmer is the south Bessarabian genre originally known as “bulgărească,” which was called “bulgarish” in Yiddish, and later shortened to “bulgar.”

The term “bulgărească” implies a Bulgarian influence, and documentation of the existence of the genre dates back to the early 19th century, predominantly in Bessarabia. This suggests a musical crossover resulting from the influx of Bulgarians into that region after the Russian annexation. The bulgărească/bulgar is related to another transitional genre, the sirbe. Both contain triplets against a 2/4 meter, reminiscent of the Bulgarian pravo. The sirbe employs straight triplets, while the bulgar adds a well-known syncopated rhythm.[27]

In the course of the 19th century, the bulgar became integrated into the regional klezmer repertoire. Melodies containing triplets were rare in the core klezmer repertoire, so this element, and the bulgar dance itself, were parts of a new transitional repertoire. Feldman explains that a genre is “transitional” rather than “co-territorial” when it has taken further steps toward adoption into the core repertoire, creating a new hybrid. This is demonstrated by the fact that klezmorim so thoroughly assimilated elements of the bulgărească that they were composing bulgars of their own, with limited melodic input from the music of the lăutari—while other klezmer compositions remained quite close to the Moldovan originals.[28]

Furthermore, unlike the co-territorial material, the transitional material came to be known among Jewish communities quite a distance from Moldova.

Based on research by the Moldovan ethnomusicologist Vasile Chiseliță, Feldman also points out that the transition was a two-way phenomenon, with Jewish musical forms migrating into the lăutari repertoire as well; he writes of a “mixed…lăutar instrumental repertoire with two distinct branches – Judaized Moldavian dance genres for the Jews, and Moldavianized Jewish genres for the Moldavian Christians.”[29] Among the Jewish core dances that made the transition into the lăutari repertoire were freylekhs, khosidl, and sher.[30]

In his discussion of the transitional repertoire, Feldman quotes a fellow musicologist as saying that “the most important non-Jewish source for klezmer music was Moldavian music.”[31] He attributes the richness of the Moldavian contribution to the region’s geographic proximity to the Balkans, and Crimea, and of course to the earlier Greek and Ottoman factors mentioned above.

The transitional repertoire that developed in Moldova gradually spread among klezmorim to other areas of Jewish settlement, especially into Galicia and parts of Ukraine.[32] In this scenario I find a parallel with the rich culture of New Orleans, with its diverse contributing elements, which had an explosive effect on mainstream American music, and thereby on worldwide music. It is hard to imagine what music in North America would be like without that influence, and the same could be said for the influence of Moldovan music on klezmer in the 19th century and beyond.

A traditional market in Chișinău – photo: Peter Lippman

What happened in North America

With the great immigration of Ashkenazi Jews to North America, from 1881 on, came many klezmorim. They came from klezmer dynasties in the old country, and they carried on their family-based musical functions abroad in the newly located Jewish communities. They brought their repertoires with them, but as new conditions greeted them in the new home, the repertoire changed as well.

For one, the faster pace of life shortened the wedding cycle, gradually erasing the non-dance repertoire. Secondly, by the mid-20th century, if not earlier, the bulgar became the dominant dance, outstripping the majority of dances in the core repertoire.[33] The freylekhs and shers remained, but the khosidl all but disappeared. The solo and competitive dances, which had not been part of the now dominant transitional material, vanished.[34] Feldman states that the distinction between the core klezmer repertoire and the transitional one “collapsed between 1930 and 1950.”[35] Through this process of simplification, the historic body of Ashkenazi dance became impoverished in North America.

Even before World War I, bulgars were dominant in the documentation of klezmer in the US. Kostakowsky’s 1916 collection, the International Hebrew Wedding Music, overwhelmingly presents bulgars. In contrast, while these dances were not unknown in European klezmer sources, they were not so prominent. The renowned musicologist Moshe Beregovsky, working in Ukraine in the early Soviet period, was evidently ambivalent about the bulgar and other transitional klezmer dances. He chose to include in his klezmer anthology only a small portion of the transitional repertoire that was available to him from local klezmer manuscripts. [36]

However, in America the popularity of bulgars grew to the point that musicians in the US were composing new bulgars by the dozen. Not only Moldovan klezmorim were playing bulgars; musicians from all the way to Belarus were caught up in the trend.

Dave Tarras, one of the foremost klezmorim of all time in the US, was born in Podolia, Ukraine, to a well-regarded klezmer dynasty. Before his arrival in the US in 1921, he received training from musicians in the northern Bessarabian city of Edineţ.[37] For decades during his professional life in the US, he created new bulgars that became classics and helped shape the sound of klezmer in its 20th-century heyday. Together with other musicians, Tarras incorporated non-bulgar modes, chord structures, and rhythms into what continued to be called bulgar, creating a new hybrid genre.[38]

Meanwhile, back in Europe

With the unification of an independent Romania in 1878, after separation from the waning Ottoman Empire, there was a growing official promotion of Romanian village folklore as a national expression. Rural Romanian genres became more present in the repertoire of Moldovan Jews and Christians alike—a development that has very little evidence of taking place before the last one-third of the 19th century.[39]

Later, after the fall of the Russian Empire, the new Soviet regime abolished many anti-Semitic restrictions on Jewish life, allowing the opening of opportunities for Jewish musicians in the Soviet Union. A similar thing took place with new freedoms for Jews in North America, and it was not unusual for younger members of a klezmer dynasty to branch out into jazz, classical, and pop music, leaving klezmer behind. This, together with the aging of the immigrant generation of klezmorim—and the Holocaust—contributed to the waning of klezmer as a genre in the post-WWII period both in Europe and North America.

In Moldova itself, other factors contributed to changes in the mainstream of folk music. Given that klezmorim had been influential musicians in the region for at least a couple of centuries, the influence of their music on that of the lăutari in that region was so strong that Jewish forms were clearly present in Moldovan music. In the period of Soviet domination of Moldova, anti-Semitic attitudes of the cultural arbiters at the top of the Moldovan regime were such that performance of native Moldovan music, with its evident Jewish content, was discouraged in favor of Romanian music coming from Bucharest. Feldman has observed that this prejudice and suppression of local Jewish-tinged material even extended to the repertoire of the Moldovan folkdance ensembles.[40] Furthermore, with the continuing post-1970s emigration of Jews and increasing influence of musical styles from Romania, by the late 20th century Romanian Romani material also contributed to the eclipse of the earlier Moldovan klezmer/lăutarifusion.[41]

Peter Lippman is active in Klezmer and Balkan music in Seattle. He founded Seattle’s first klezmer group, The Mazl Tov Klezmer Band, in 1980. He visited Moldova in 2005, and he currently plays with Lox Stork & Bugle. Mr. Lippman wishes to thank Professor Feldman for his lifetime of contribution to knowledge about klezmer as well as his close reading and assistance with the present article.


American Klezmer: Its Roots and Offshoots, Ed. Mark Slobin 2002, UC California
Chapter 6, re-publication of “Bulgărească /Bulgarish/Bulgar,” by Walter Zev Feldman, 1994

Klezmer: Music, History and Memory, Oxford University Press, 2016
by Walter Zev Feldman

“Klezmer Tunes for the Christian Bride: The Interface of Jewish and Romanian
Expressive Cultures in the Wedding Table Repertoire from Northern Bessarabia,” by Walter Zev Feldman, 2020. https://klezmerinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Feldman_Jewish-Tunes-for-the-Christian-Bride_REF_2-5-35.pdf

“Klezmorim Between East ​and West,” Walter Zev Feldman
Witty Partition Issue 15, Vol. II Autumn/Winter, 2021-22

“Ethnogenesis and the Interrelationship of Musical Repertoires Among the Jews of Eastern Europe,” by Walter Zev Feldman
Shofar Volume 40, Number 2, 2022, pp. 1-12

“Musical Fusion and Allusion in the Core and the Transitional Klezmer Repertoires”
Walter Zev Feldman
Shofar Volume 40, Number 2, 2022, pp. 143-166
Published by Purdue University Press

“Klezmer Music,” by Peter Lippman, 2021

A couple of links about Yiddish dance:
Although Yiddish dance is beyond the scope of this article, it is entirely relevant. The preponderance of the core and transitional pieces named are dances. Given the reader’s presumed interest in the meaning of klezmer music, becoming familiar with the dances behind the names is integral to understanding—and feeling—the music. See the following:

“Bulgars at Yiddish Summer Weimar 2015 Dance Ball”

View dancers at this annual festival of Yidishkayt dancing the bulgar, led by Professor Feldman.

“Zev Feldman. Khosidl (instructional video) || Зев Фелдман. Хосидл”

This is a 2017 class and interview given by Professor Feldman in Moscow, where he discusses the connection of solo movement, gesture and musical phrasing.


Old Jewish Folk Music: The Collections and Writings of Moshe Beregovsky (Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music, and Art), by Mark Slobin, University of Pennsylvania Press 2000

Jewish Instrumental Folk Music, Second Edition (edited by Mark Slobin, Robert Rothstein, Michael Alpert, revised by Kurt Bjorling) www.muziker.org musical services, Evanston IL USA, 2015

See also the web site “Moisei Beregovsky and His Archive of Jewish Music” here.

The Klezmer Institute: Advances the study, preservation, and performance of Ashkenazic Jewish expressive culture through research, teaching, publishing and programming: https://klezmerinstitute.org/

“The art of the klezmer: improvisation and ornamentation in the commercial recordings of New York clarinetists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras 1922-1929”
Doctoral thesis, Joel E. Rubin, City University of London, 2001

New York Klezmer in the Early Twentieth Century: The Music of Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras, by Joel Rubin. University of Rochester Press, 2020

Ivan Lipaev’s 1904 essay “On Jewish Orchestras”

“The Senescu Family: Their Musical Path from Moldavia to America”
by Paul Gifford https://klezmerinstitute.org/senescu-family-orchestra/

[1] For a somewhat fuller (but still brief) history of klezmer music, see “Klezmer Music,” Peter Lippman, 2021. https://earlymusicseattle.org/klezmer/
[2] Personal correspondence with Professor Feldman, January 2, 2023.
[3] “Klezmorim Between East ​and West,” Feldman, p.1.
[4]  Personal correspondence with Professor Feldman, January 2, 2023. See also “Bulgărească /Bulgarish/Bulgar” in American Klezmer, Feldman, p. 84.
[5] “Bulgărească /Bulgarish/Bulgar” in American Klezmer, Feldman, p. 88.
[6] “Musical Fusion and Allusion in the Core and the Transitional Klezmer Repertoires,” Feldman, p. 142.
[7] Klezmer: Music, History and Memory, Oxford University Press, 2016, by Walter Zev Feldman, p. 22.
[8] Ibid.; detailed descriptions of Jewish wedding practices and the involvement of the klezmorim abound in this book, for example, in Chapter 5: “The Jewish Wedding and Its Musical Repertoire,” p. 137-161.
[9] Ibid., p. 208.
[10] “Bulgărească /Bulgarish/Bulgar” in American Klezmer, Feldman, p. 96.
[11] Ibid., p. 209.
[12] Ibid. p. 92-95. Feldman calls this process “nativization” or “hybridization”—see “Musical Fusion and Allusion in the Core and the Transitional Klezmer Repertoires,” Feldman, p. 158.
[13] Personal correspondence with Professor Feldman, January 2, 2023.
[14] Feldman writes that “Moldova” is the Romanian term, and “Moldavia” is the Russianized variant. “Bulgărească /Bulgarish/Bulgar” in American Klezmer, Feldman, p. 84.
[15] See map: https://romaniatourism.com/romania-maps/wallachia-moldavia-transylvania-map.html.
[16] Klezmer: Music, History and Memory, Feldman, p. 9.
[17] “Bulgărească /Bulgarish/Bulgar” in American Klezmer, Feldman, p. 84.
[18] In the 18th century an important factor drawing Jews into Moldova was the establishment in 1711, on the authority of the Ottoman government, of the rule of the “Phanariot” Greek princes (an Ottoman Christian elite) over the Danubian Principalities. In an attempt to build up the economy of Moldova, these new rulers encouraged the immigration of Jews and Greeks—Personal correspondence with Professor Feldman, January 2, 2023. See also  “Klezmer Tunes for the Christian Bride,” Feldman, p. 7.
[19] “Klezmer Tunes for the Christian Bride,” Feldman, p. 3
[20] “Musical Fusion and Allusion in the Core and the Transitional Klezmer Repertoires,” Feldman, p. 153.
21] “Bulgărească /Bulgarish/Bulgar” in American Klezmer, Feldman, p. 98.
[22] “Klezmer Tunes for the Christian Bride,” Feldman, p. 4.
[23] Correspondence with Professor Feldman, January 3, 2023.
[24] Ibid., p. 9-10
[25] Personal correspondence with Professor Feldman. See also Klezmer: Music, History and Memory, Feldman, p. 357.
[26] “Klezmer Tunes for the Christian Bride,” Feldman, p. 12.
[27] Ibid., p. 98-99.
[28] Ibid., p. 94. Further analysis of the Kiselgoff klezmer manuscripts—currently being undertaken through the Klezmer Institute—will reveal both types of transitional material: those very close to the original Moldovan, and those with fresh melodic content.
[29] Ibid., p. 11.
[30] Ibid., p. 12-13.
[31] “Bulgărească /Bulgarish/Bulgar” in American Klezmer, Feldman, p. 95
[32] “Musical Fusion and Allusion in the Core and the Transitional Klezmer Repertoires,” Feldman, p. 143.
[33] Ibid., p. 96
[34] Ibid., also personal correspondence with Professor Feldman, January 2, 2023.
[35] Ibid., p. 87.
[36] Ibid., p. 96-97. As Feldman has noted, “The largest available corpus of bulgar melodies from Eastern Europe are the klezmer manuscripts collected in late Tsarist Ukraine by Z. Kisselgoff.” (Personal correspondence, January 2, 2023.)
[37] “Klezmer Tunes for the Christian Bride,” Feldman, p. 11.
[38] “Bulgărească /Bulgarish/Bulgar” in American Klezmer, Feldman, p. 106-110.
[39] “Musical Fusion and Allusion in the Core and the Transitional Klezmer Repertoires,” Feldman, p. 153.
[40] “Klezmer Tunes for the Christian Bride,” Feldman, p. 32.
[41] “Klezmer Tunes for the Christian Bride,” Feldman, p. 6.

University of Washington creates 45-year archive of Early Music Seattle

by Aly Gardner-Shelby

January 2023: University of Washington Libraries’ Special Collections department is creating a public collection of materials spanning Early Music Seattle’s 45 years of history, to help preserve the history and impact of EMS (formerly Early Music Guild), and to make the materials accessible for public research. The archiving project, including gathering, sorting and cataloging of the materials was managed hands-on by board president Aly Gardner-Shelby, who said, “I am finally getting to use my archaeology degree!”

Twelve people contributed either digital or paper-based materials, totaling 226MB in 781 digital files, and 10 banker’s boxes of paper-based materials! The collection includes ephemera; musical, educational and affiliate program materials, board and organizational documents; published articles; materials from Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and materials from EMG/EMS community programs – in particular the Sine Nomine Choir and the New Baroque Orchestra.

Our great thanks to contributors Byron Schenkman, Gus Denhard, John Gibbs, JoLynn Edwards, Laurel Sercombe, Margaret (Peggy) Monroe, Molly Warner, Naomi Shiff, Pamela Silimperi, Peter Seibert, Richard Ginnis, and Theodore Deacon. A special word of thanks to UW archivist John Bolcer who helped us get started, to Anne Jenner, Curator of the Pacific Northwest Collection, to Diane Grover whose librarian’s instincts helped to inspire the archival project, to Naomi Shiff who kindled Aly’s interest in creating this collection, and to Maria Coldwell who gave important pointers along the way.

Byron Schenkman

“I am happy to have had a small part in this amazing project! I first heard about the project from Naomi Shiff, and it reminded me of sitting at Naomi’s dining room table thirty years ago, poring over her files full of past programs and concert publicity materials.

I had just moved to Seattle and Naomi’s mentoring and guidance (as well as all those materials she had collected) were invaluable in getting me started presenting my own concerts, often through the EMG Concert Assistance Program, co-founding the Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and ultimately launching my own chamber music series, Byron Schenkman & Friends.”

From a program contributed to the collection by Byron Schenkman, for the “Queer Baroque” concert on June 27th, 1996

JoLynn Edwards

“I served on the EMS board for 10 years (2007-17), the last two years as president. When looking back, I was astonished to see all the accumulated documents related to organizational changes:  the SBO merger, the hiring of Alex Weimann as Music Director, two separate strategic plans, the hiring of a development officer, a re-branding for the organization, the successful application for the Murdoch Trust grant, yearly galas and donor events, not to mention the usual business of the organization including budgets, concert planning, and participation of local musicians in the Education Program and chamber ensembles.  I kept all the paperwork.

It was a challenge and a pleasure to contribute to the early music community. The board worked so hard to achieve only one goal:  to present inspiring early music by local, national, and international performers to delight and educate our audiences of adults and children alike.”

From a program contributed to the collection by JoLynn Edwards, for EMG’s 40th season, 2016-2017

Margaret (Peggy) Monroe

“My major at university was creative writing. I also played drums (from age 10) in marching and symphonic bands and went on from age 18 to age 53 to play in the percussion sections of community orchestras in Texas, Chicago, Philadelphia and Seattle, Washington. I discovered the recorder and began playing it with great enjoyment. I also studied and read everything I could find about the Middle Ages.

With that background of interests, it was natural that the sudden interest in Early Music captivated me and many other recorder-playing friends in Seattle. I also realized that percussion instruments were widely pictured throughout the medieval times and I began exploring Historical Percussion. Soon, many of us in Seattle formed consorts, put together costumes and began performing in public and also for schools.

And then, in 1976, a group of us began to realize that professional Early Music Groups were performing in Vancouver, B. C., and then performing in San Francisco, California and decided that if we had some kind of sponsoring organization here in Seattle that we would be a natural rung of the Early Music ladder. Slowly we put together an organization (named the Early Music Guild), had a Board of Directors, did fund-raising and then achieved 501-C-3 status.

I’m very pleased that EMS has undertaken this archiving project to preserve and share our important history”

Molly Warner

“I have played with the New Baroque Orchestra since its beginnings a couple of decades ago. This is a wonderful opportunity for amateur instrumental musicians to play baroque music under the direction of local professionals well versed in early music styles and techniques.

Over the years we have been led by Claire Garabedian, Ingrid Matthews, Linda Melsted, Christine Wilkinson Beckman, Linda Melsted again, Caroline Nicolas, and currently John Lenti. We present fall and spring concerts with a couple of months of rehearsals before each one. Such a great learning experience!

I saved and donated to the archiving project the programs from all but two of the New Baroque Orchestra concerts over the years. They document the players, the directors, and the music we prepared for our audiences. I am happy that this information will be accessible. The sponsorship of the Early Music Guild/Early Music Seattle made this orchestra possible – so many thanks!”

Naomi Shiff

“In my collection were treasured programs for the very first Early Music Guild concert, by James Bowman and Robert Spencer on May 30th, 1978, and for such luminaries as Gustav Leonhardt, Ton Koopman, and Frans Brüggen. I’m so happy and relieved it has found a good home.”

Poster contributed to the collection by Naomi Shiff, for Early Music Guild’s very first concert on May 30th, 1978

Pamela Silimperi

“On behalf of Sine Nomine: Renaissance Choir, my contributions to the EMS archiving project as Managing Director include a general description of the choir with photos, all concert posters and programs, a summary document of concert data and repertoire, concert statistics, a short history from 2008-2015, and data from our Director search in 2015-16.

I recall the beginnings of Sine Nomine: In the spring of 2008 Gus Denhard approached me at an Early Music Guild workshop for singers and instrumentalists, saying he thought the time might be right to start an early music choir to offer amateur singers in the community an opportunity to develop their skills focusing on Renaissance and baroque singing styles – and in fall 2008, Sine Nomine: Renaissance Choir was born.

I find it humbling, gratifying, and exciting that Sine Nomine is now being honored with EMS in this manner, where our history is available to all who may be interested – and I am proud to play an important role in the choir’s existence, offering opportunities to singers and audiences, past and present, who harbor a passion for Renaissance polyphony.”

The photo above shows Artistic Director Anne Lyman, Managing Director Pam Silimperi, and Founding Director Gary Cannon cutting cake at Sine Nomine’s Tenth Anniversary Celebration on March 25, 2018, at Trinity Parish Church, Seattle

Poster for Sine Nomine’s Tenth Anniversary concert

Peter Seibert

“I was a board member for 16 years, serving as an officer and as a member of the search committees that brought both Gus Denhard and Alexander Weimann to Seattle.  Early music was part of my life prior to the existence of the EMG, has enriched my life since it was founded, and will continue to intrigue me as our understanding of it evolves.

The Early Music Guild of Seattle has done nothing less than change the way sophisticated music lovers hear music.  They now expect to listen to music from the pre-symphonic era rendered on period musical instruments using historically informed performance practices. To have the EMG/EMS materials from these nearly five decades archived is a significant addition to the historical record of Seattle.”

Lifetime award given to Peter Seibert by the Board of EMG, in 2015. Peter is still serving EMS, as a member of the Finance committee

A 2022 luncheon at The Lakeside School, marking the creation of the Peter Seibert Endowment for Music Education, with the honoree and several alumni donors to the endowment

Richard Ginnis

“I started as Treasurer and Board Member of the Seattle Baroque Orchestra (SBO) in the mid-1990’s. I produced the financial reports for SBO and continue to produce financial reports for Early Music Seattle.

Although not everyone understands or takes an interest in accounting reports, the financials provide important insights into the organization’s operations, such as its financial strength, the ability to make its budgets, the scope of its activities, the number of staff required. Financial reporting also serves as a basis for the organization’s tax return filings.

When SBO considered merging with the Early Music Guild (now, Early Music Seattle), it was necessary to review each other’s financial statements to be reassured that each organization had the financial resources to engage in the merger.

I am proud of my contribution to important financial information. In the long run, I believe no organization can survive without good accounting. Early Music Seattle has now survived 45 years.”

Theodore Deacon

“During the time I was director of opera at the University of Washington I produced very fine student performances of period music dramas by Monteverdi, Bach, Handel, Purcell, and Hildegard of Bingen. Later, when I was invited onto the board of Early Music Seattle to develop such productions with top local and international and vocal artists, a personal dream of so many decades became a wonderful reality.

My proudest moment with Early Music Seattle was as stage director of our 2007 presentation of Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” a superb production worthy of that magnificent score. That so many world-class artists came together in Seattle to create these beautiful and compelling performances is a testament to the Early Music Seattle’s vision and stature.”

From “Love’s Lessons,” a booklet created by James Middleton, designer and director of Baroque Opera “Venus & Adonis.” The booklet was distributed to audience members by the little Cupids during the opera’s instruction scene

A little history of Early Music Seattle

Early Music Guild was founded by keen amateur musicians John Gibbs, Jerome Kohl and Randall Jay McCarty, who incorporated the organization with the State of Washington in 1978 under the name “Early Music Guild” (EMG). Many of the contributors to this collection were founding or early members of the organization. 

The original purpose of EMG was to bring to Seattle some international artists who were performing in other west coast cities such as Vancouver and San Francisco, and also to support the many really good early music ensembles that existed in Seattle. At that time there was a passion for early music in the Pacific Northwest. In the early days, EMG was entirely volunteer run.

EMG merged with Seattle Baroque Orchestra (SBO) on 29th June 2010, and in spring of 2017 the combined organization went through a rebranding process, followed in June 2017 by the launch of the organization’s new name, “Early Music Seattle” (EMS). 

EMS is a presenter of early music, including the Music for the Ages Series, Global Connections, and Seattle Baroque Orchestra. EMS also provides educational programs serving 2,400 students in Seattle Public Schools annually, and more than 100 adult amateur musicians.

In 2022 Early Music Seattle has an accumulation of forty-five years of experience in presenting excellent international performers, and it has been an incubator in the development of a number of other local early music ensembles – including Seattle Baroque Orchestra, Gallery Concerts and the Medieval Women’s Choir. 

EMS frequently partners with local venues and artists to program innovative and multidisciplinary projects. Artistic partners include Meany Center for the Performing Arts, ACT, Seattle Theatre Group, Spectrum Dance Company, and Seattle Early Dance. Collaborations include Early Music Vancouver, Portland Baroque Orchestra, and Victoria, B.C.’s Early Music Society of the Islands – creating large-scale works performed in Seattle, Portland, Victoria, and Vancouver, B.C. 

Lorri Falterman was the first paid staff person at EMG, serving as General Manager from 1986 until 1991, when Maria Coldwell became Executive Director. Maria served until 1999, followed by August (Gus) Denhard in 2000. EMS is hiring a new Executive Director in early 2023, and Gus will be transitioning from Executive Director to Artistic Director of EMS. 

Quote from “Classical Seattle” by Melinda Bargreen, University of Washington Press, 2016

“The significance of Seattle’s Early Music Guild, founded in 1977, was profound. The group not only presents concerts by the finest international practitioners of historically informed music but also has served as the “mother ship” nurturing a wide span of groups such as the Seattle Baroque Orchestra and the Gallery Concerts.”

A little history of Seattle Baroque Orchestra

Seattle Baroque Orchestra (SBO) was founded in 1994 by violinist Ingrid Matthews and harpsichordist Byron Schenkman. The first performance by SBO was on March 11th 1994, at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Seattle, under the auspices of Early Music Guild. SBO was one of the first “professional affiliates” of Early Music Guild, receiving support services from EMG such as fundraising and ticketing. This was followed by a period of operating as an independent organization, before the orchestra was merged into Early Music Guild in 2010. 

Harpsichordist, conductor and composer Alexander Weimann served as Artistic Director of SBO starting in 2015. He is retiring at the conclusion of the 2022-2023 season.

Related links

Related news about EMS and SBO:

Seattle Times articles that reference “Early Music Guild”

The Sounding of Trumpets: Ritual, Signal, Warfare, and the Hunt in the Music of Early Brass Instruments

by Peter Tracy

Illustration of 13th century Spanish military trumpeters

In his recent survey, Music: A Subversive History, Ted Gioia zeroes in on the origin point of all musical instruments. In a chapter titled “Carnivores at the Philharmonic”, Gioia explores early human music-making and attempts to understand musical instruments as products of the human material environment. “We cannot begin to grasp the first stirrings of human music without placing it within its ecosystem”, he writes, since “the instruments themselves began as part of the food chain.”[1]

Horn and hide, gut and bone: these were the ingredients of the first musical instruments, materials harvested from the spoils of the hunt. The bow, as Gioia points out, was a tool for such killings, as were, presumably, the ancestors of modern harps, early examples of which resemble bows with extra strings. Gioia argues that the control over sound which musical instruments offered allowed our human ancestors to frighten predators and enemies while controlling the movements of prey. Whether in warfare or the hunt, he argues, music’s origins have much to do with violence.

The instruments of today’s symphony orchestras retain little of their original materials – strings are made of steel instead of gut, horns are made of brass instead of ivory – yet the association between music and violence lives on. “Are we wrong,” asks Gioia, “to hear this history in the music itself, in the formidable aggression and awe-inspiring assertiveness of those monumental symphonies that remain the core repertoire of the world’s leading orchestras?” Of the many instrumental groups of Western concert music, it is the brass section which most lends a full orchestra this overwhelming, confrontational power, and it is also the inter-related family of brass instruments which have most clearly retained their associations with warfare and the hunt throughout the centuries. In music from Brahms to that of the Italian Trecento, the hunt has occupied a prominent place in Western music, and the corno da caccia, or hunting horn, has remained a fixation of composers for hundreds of years.

Tibetan monks playing the dungchen from a 1938 German expedition

The origins of lip-blown instruments like the trumpet, however, are incredibly diffuse. From Australian didgeridoos to the Tibetan dungchen to the Swiss alphorn, lip-blown instruments can be found across the world since before recorded history. The conch shell trumpet, for instance, was a staple of cultures throughout the Pacific Islands from a very early period. “As might be expected from an instrument that has been around since neolithic times” writes Margaret Sarkissian, “conch-shell trumpets are found almost everywhere, including inland areas like Tibet and Central Europe, where they prove the existence of early trade routes. Particularly common throughout Oceania, both end- and side-blown conch-shell trumpets were formerly associated with religious, ceremonial, military and signaling functions.” [2]

This bundle of associations seems to follow lip-blown instruments no matter the culture, time period, or material of construction. Far from the isolated islands of Polynesia, the Jewish shofar is a ram’s horn trumpet similar to the bugle in that it has no means of varying the pitch of the instrument besides the players embouchure. Still used today to mark ceremonial occasions such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the shofar is both a signal of sanctity and ritual and an integral part of bringing this atmosphere of timeless awe into being. Throughout the Old Testament, trumpets are associated with the power of God, and the shofar, too, participates in this lineage: in the book of Exodus, a shofar sounds from a thick, mysterious cloud on Mount Sinai, causing the Israelites to become overwhelmed with fear.

This association between lip-blown, trumpet-like instruments and power, status, and ceremony manifests itself differently in different regions and cultures, yet it often has a strongly gendered aspect. “Both the wooden ndumbu of south-eastern Angola and the giant bark buburé of the Amazonian rain forest,writes Sarkissian, “are hidden under water to keep them away from prying female eyes.”[3] In the case of the BaMbuti of Zaire, Sarkissian explains, “a trumpet called molimo is hidden in the forest until the village is afflicted by disaster and the world needs to be set to rights by means of a molimo ceremony.”[4] As in Angola and the Amazon, it is up to the men to gather up this hidden ritual instrument and to publicly set the ceremony in motion, a ceremony which women are forbidden to even witness. “Trumpets”, writes Sarkissian, “are frequently associated with regalia, signaling, and ritual, all of which mediate with the outside world in one form or another and thus fall into the public domain controlled, in most cultures, by men.”[5]

A 14th Century Olifant

More familiar to the Western ear, metal, trumpet-style instruments have a long and storied history as symbols of power across the ancient world: Tutankhamun, the Egyptian boy-king from the second millennium B.C.E., was found, in 1922, to have been interred alongside bronze and silver trumpets. The Crusades, during which Europeans came in contact with the military trumpets of the Saracens world, are often cited as the origin point for a revival of interest in brass instruments throughout Europe. Yet much of the continued association between brass instruments and military signaling in Europe can be traced back to the use of trumpets and other lip-blown instruments by the Romans, who employed a complex military signaling system which utilized instruments like the tuba, a straight trumpet bearing only a passing resemblance to its contemporary namesake.

As scholar Kieth Polk points out, “the role of brass instruments in the Middle Ages… remains murky”, yet it is nevertheless clear that “throughout the time span, brass instruments maintained their associations with ritual and function.”[6] It is only in the late middle ages that one can see evidence of the trumpet assuming “an unquestionable central role in ritual music in Europe, becoming on the one hand a virtual aural trademark of high station, and on the other an essential component of any large-scale military operation.”[7] By the late fourteenth century, technological advances allowed metal workers to more skillfully bend brass tubing, allowing trumpets to take on new shapes and a new stability. Trumpet ensembles (around 1350 only a pair of long, straight trumpets) expanded to include fanfares blasted out by up to ten or twelve players. Players began to specialize in playing in the upper register in the 15th century, vastly expanding the trumpet’s range, and instruments like the slide trumpet and the cornett began to gain a foothold in ceremonial wind bands. Their repertoire, Polk explains, consisted of “dance tunes, items of a more local character, and many pieces from the international secular repertory”, yet in the early 15th century these bands were set distinctly apart from other instrumentalists, never crossing paths with strings or singers. This began to change in the late fifteenth century, when, for instance, trombone players began to be more commonly included alongside singers in sacred contexts.

Hunting horn man blowing hunting horn with dog woodcut (c 1570)

It was in the Baroque and Classical periods that the horn in a form in which one would likely recognize it today enjoyed more widespread use in art music, and its association with the thrill of the chase was exploited by generations of composers. Thomas Hiebert points to numerous early examples of the horn being employed in fanfares for hunting scenes, including Michelangelo Rossi’s Erminia sul Giordano (Rome, 1633), Francesco Cavalli’s Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo (Venice, 1639) and Jean-Baptiste Lully’s La Princesse d’Elide (Versailles, 1664).[8] Even earlier, the hunt had embedded itself into European music in the form of the fourteenth century caccia (hunt), a musical form which consists mainly of two voices in a unison canon. “It is certainly possible”, writes Lucia Marchi, “that the audience of musical cacce was the same one that took part in court hunting; thus, the aural experience would have reminded the listeners of the actual hunt.”[9] This lineage and its metaphorical aspects (including resonances with the “chase” or the “hunt” of courtly love) formed part of the foundations for later references to the hunt in concert music.

It is only in the late seventeenth century that the larger cor de chasse (hunting horn), a French innovation, was introduced to the German-speaking world by Count Franz Anton Sporck (1662-1738) of Bohemia, who saw it in Paris around 1680. This was the instrument which became known in England as the French horn, and its expanded use in the early eighteenth century signaled the beginning of a change in the realm of brass instruments. The crude, single-key natural horns of the past began to be built with crooks, allowing for performance in several different keys. Hiebert, for instance, cites a 1713 article by Johann Mattheson, who “states that the horn had become very popular in ‘church, theatre, and chamber music’ precisely because it represented a different aesthetic from the trumpet.”[10] According to Hiebert, “Carlo Agostino Badia’s (1672-1738) opera Diana rappacificata (Vienna, 1700) contains the earliest known use of the horn as an integral member of the orchestra”[11], and by this time the transformation of lip-blown and early brass instruments from signals of violence and power to respected members of formalized concert music was nearing completion. Still, echoes of brass instrument’s origins as the repurposed spoils of the hunt continue to resonate to this day: one need think only of the raucous, assertive, domineering aspect of the natural horns employed in the Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s (1923 – 2006) Hamburg Concerto (which includes a section titled “Signale”) to see that the horn and, by extension, all brass instruments retain their age-old associations.

In different parts of the world, lip-blown instruments manifested themselves in a wide variety of different ways, from the horagai of Japanese Buddhist ritual and military signaling to the olifant, a medieval European hunting horn made from elephant tusk. Yet their association with the solemnity of ritualized power and formalized violence remained strong enough to transcend boundaries of culture, time, and space. Even today, militaries around the world employ brass instruments in military parades and signaling: as Gioia points out, “The United States supports 130 military bands, spending three times as much on military music as on the National Endowment for the Arts. This makes military music the single largest commitment to artistic performance in the entire government.”[12]

Five hunting horns by Wenceslas Hollar 17th century

Still, it is well worth remembering that, despite their origins, the sound of lip-blown instruments such as the horn and the trumpet has no intrinsic relationship to the extra-musical contexts with which it is associated.  “Can a musical sound be ‘aggressive’?”, asks Sarkissian, “or is it the context in which sound is made and the way a listener chooses to interpret it?” Across cultures, fanfares and horn calls have served as declarations of power and markers of ceremonial occasions, yet these associations can and have been subverted. As Trevor Herbert and John Wallace write: “In the twentieth century, brass instruments have been prominent in both art and popular music. They have been used conservatively, radically, symbolically and, at times, trivially.”[13] At the forefront of this change has been Jazz, a musical style which, while at times partaking in the aggression and assertiveness traditionally associated with brass instruments, has also brought the delicate, melancholy trumpet stylings of Miles Davis and the celebratory joy of Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans big bands to a worldwide audience. By expanding the melodic and timbral repertoire of brass instruments, Jazz musicians have managed, not to erase the associations which these instruments have with violence and ritual, but to channel this angst and excitement into new emotional territory. While the fog of early human history and its many hunts retains its pull, then, the present day offers its own opportunities for renewal and reinvention.

An exploration of classical music’s enduring fascination with the hunt, from Renaissance caccias to baroque hunting horns and beyond.


  • Ahrens, Christian., and Steven E. Plank. Valved Brass : the History of an Invention. Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2008.
  • Baines, Anthony. Brass Instruments : Their History and Development. London: Faber, 1976.
  • Baines, Anthony, ed. Musical Instruments through the Ages. New ed. New York: Walker, 1976.
  • Herbert, Trevor, and John Wallace. The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Koehler, Elisa. Fanfares and Finesse: A Performer’s Guide to Trumpet History and Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.
  • Marchi, Lucia. “Chasing Voices, Hunting Love: The Meaning of the Italian Caccia.” Essays in Medieval Studies 27 (2011): 13-31.

[1]     Gioia, Ted. Music : a Subversive History. First edition. New York: Basic Books, 2019, 21.

[2]     Sarkissian, Margaret. “Lip-Vibrated Instruments of the Ancient and Non-Western World.” Chapter. In The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, edited by Trevor Herbert and John Wallace, 5–18. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 12.

[3]     Sarkissian, 16.

[4]     Sarkissian, 16.

[5]     Sarkissian, 16.

[6]     Polk, Keith. “Brass Instruments in Art Music in the Middle Ages.” Chapter. In The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments, edited by Trevor Herbert and John Wallace, 38–50. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 38.

[7]     Polk, 41.

[8]     Hiebert, Thomas. “The Horn in the Baroque and Classical Periods.” Chapter. In The Cambridge Companion to Brass             Instruments, edited by Trevor Herbert and John Wallace, 103–14. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997, 103.

[9]     Marchi, Lucia. “Chasing Voices, Hunting Love: The Meaning of the Italian Caccia.” Essays in Medieval Studies 27 (2011): 13-31.

[10]   Hiebert, 104.

[11]   Hiebert, 104.

[12]   Gioia, 25.

[13]   Herbert, Trevor, and John Wallace. The Cambridge Companion to Brass Instruments. Cambridge University Press, 1997, 2.