Jewish Strings – An Introduction to the Klezmer Tsimbl
by Pete Rushefsky
When North American Jews think of klezmer music, jazzy brass bands led by clarinets usually come to mind. But in earlier times, the klezmer kapelyes (ensembles) in Eastern Europe were string bands led by violins and often accompanied by the tsimbl (cimbalom), or hammered dulcimer.
The tsimbl is played like a xylophone but employs strings instead of wood or metal blocks. The player strikes the strings with mallets often padded with cotton or leather. As with a piano, each note struck on the instrument resonates a course of four or five strings that have been placed closely together and tuned to the same pitch. The multiple strings provide the tsimbl with a rich and often haunting sonority. Of course, the downside to this construction is the large number of strings to keep in tune– most tsimbls have over twenty courses and more than one hundred strings which must be checked and adjusted prior to performance.
Tsimbls evolved from a medieval German instrument called the hackbrett (literally translating to “chopping board”). The first record of a Jewish player of the instrument comes from Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine) where Abus Cymbalista was approved by the musicianís guild to play for Catholic banquets in 1629. Migrating Jewish musicians were henceforth central to the spread of the tsimbl through Eastern Eurpoe and the Balkans over the next three centuries. Several noteworthy figures are worth mentioning.
Adam Mickiewitz, considered the Shakespeare of Polish literature, reputedly based his character Jankiel the tavern tsimblist (from Mickiewitzís masterpiece epic Pan Tadeusz) on real-life klezmorim Mordkho Feyorman of Warsaw and Yankel Liberman of St. Petersberg.
The most famous klezmer musician of all time was possibly Mikhail Guzikov (1806-1837). Born in Shklov (now in Belarus), Guzikov played tsimbl and flute, but gained notoriety as a player of the shtroyfidel, which though literally translates as “straw violin” was really a primitive xylophone.
An incredible virtuoso with a flair for entertainment, Guzikov toured the great opera houses of Europe from Odessa to Paris. And what shtick– though not an exceedingly observant Jew (several reports of him concertizing on Shabbos survive), Guzikov would arrive on stage dressed in Hasidic garb, then carefully assemble his xylophone block by block on a bed of straw. The audienceís laughter soon broke into a hushed awe as Guzikov would launch into dazzling solos on Jewish and classical themes.
As testament to his popularity, French society women adopted the virtuosoís payos (sidelocks) as a popular coiffe termed (not surprisingly) “Guzikovs.”
The Jewish tsimbl even made occassional appearances outside of the Pale of Settlement. Isaac Isaacs was a German born dulcimer player who made his living playing the taverns and theaters of 18th century Dublin, later becoming employed as the personal entertainer of a well-known brothel madam.
Much later, at the beginning of the twentieth century, a Kiev-born tsimbler was featured in a vaudeville tour of North America and Australia as “Uncle Sam and His Magic Strings.” Sitting at what looked to be a piano, he would play the opening bars of Beethovenís Fifth, at which point the prop would collapse revealing the dulcimer.
The last of the great Jewish tsimblists was Joseph Moskowitz. Born in Galatsi, Romania in the 1870s, Moskowitz, whose father was also a tsimbl player, toured Europe as a child prodigy. Emigrating to New York, he became co-owner (and chief entertainer) at Moskowitz and Lupowitzís wine cellar on the Lower East Side, a popular gathering place for the cityís Yiddish intelligentsia.
With Moskowitzís death in the 1950s, the Jewish tsimbl might have passed into oblivion but, luckily, aspects of this great tradition have survived. The instrument is still quite popular in parts of Eastern Europe and Balkans, often associated with Rom (gypsy) musicians. The Jewish surnames Zimbler and Zimbalist– actress Stephanie Zimbalist of Remington Steele fame and her famous musical family come to mind– serve as testament to ancestors who played the instrument.
Most promisingly, a small number of klezmer musicians have worked to revive the instrument since the 1970s– interest in the tsimbl has grown along with exploration of the older European klezmer repertoire and styles. It seems the art of Jewish tsimbl will live on as long as there are musicians with the patience to tune.
W. Z. Feldman. Liner notes to the Khevrisa CD European Klezmer Music (Smithsonian Folkways, 2000).
P. Gifford. The Hammered Dulcimer: A History. (Scarecorw Press, 2001).
J. Horowitz. The Klezmer Tsimbl (article not yet published, 2000).
Pete Rushefsky is a tsimblist. His CD with Elie Rosenblatt entitled “Tsimbl un Fidl: Klezmer Music for Hammered Dulcimer & Violin” is available from www.hatikvahmusic.com and www.amazon.com.