The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania

An article about a project in exploring Jewish instrumental music

A new release on cassette and compact disc by the well-known Hungarian folk group, Muzsikas (under the Hannibal label and produced by the record company Rykodisc), can only be described as 'aural' history in its attempt to reconstruct Jewish instrumental music from the Maramaros region of northern Transylvania (now Romanian Maramures). For, in Hungary, unlike in Russia, Lithuania, Moldavia and the Ukraine, in spite of evidence of the existence of musicians known as the klezmorim, no recording or notation of pre-Second World War Jewish folkmusic survived the decimation of the Holocaust.

The project began in 1988 when Muzsikas became interested in exploring Jewish instrumental music and were introduced to Zoltan Simon, a Hungarian Jew, from the rural area, Mako. While studying composition at the Academy of' Music in Budapest in the 1940s, Simon was encouraged by the Hungarian composer and collector of folk music, Zoltan Kodaly, to collect Jewish folk music from Hungarian villages. This he did in 1946, concentrating his research on the Miramaros area.

Simon gave the group some of his transcriptions (which have never been published). He had transcribed only the melody and indicated nothing more than the names of the villages where the pieces came from. Having arranged them in accordance with what they knew to be the style of the Hungarian village music of the region, the Muzsikas performed the transcripts to Simon. However, the group decided to investigate further the links between Hungarian and Jewish folk music and the possibilities of reconstructing the latter.

To help them with their task, Muzsikas found two Gypsy musicians from the Maramaras region who had played for the Jews before the war (just as Jewish orchestras had played at Hungarian gatherings) and whose repertoires still included many of these tunes. These were Gheorghe Covaci, a primas (lead violinist) and Arpad Toni, a cimbalom player.

As a child, Covaci had accompanied his father as second violin, entertaining Jewish families at weddings and parties and especially at the festival, Purim. Toni had also often played at Jewish gatherings before the war, particularly for the Szaszregen community. 'The Lost Music of Transylvania', as the resulting new album is called, is the outcome of Muzsikas meeting with these two musicians and of their own research in the villages of Maramaros.

Gheorghe Covaci and Arpad Toni play on many of the tracks on the disc and their recollections of the Jewish gatherings have been central in the piecing together of some kind of picture of the Transylvanian Jewish folk tradition. For example, Covaci recalled that at Jewish weddings the hiring of musicians would be solely the bridegroom's responsibility. Instead of the groom paying them a deposit, the band would pay him some money to ensure they would turn up on the day. Every piece of music commanded a certain fee and the songs would be marked down on a blackboard to keep track of the tally. If the same song was requested by several people, Covaci explained, and if he was lucky, he could make all of them pay for it. Only the bridegroom did not have to pay for a request.

Toni Arpad was able to tell the group that a Jewish dance from Szaszregen (track 8) was a favourite at Jewish dance parties and was always played as the opening number when men and women danced it together. The melody belongs to a well-known melodic type of Jewish song, based on the famous Yiddish song 'Belz' and is played in different variations throughout Eastern Europe.

In a brief essay that accompanies the compact disc, Judit Frigyesi, of Princeton University says of it, 'this material alone makes us reconsider the issue of Hungarian klezmer music. We can say now with all certainty that there existed a specific Hungarian-Jewish instrumental repertoire ... related to the klezmer music of the further Eastern Jewish territories ...'. But she also questions any assumptions that the Gypsies performing style would be identical to that of a Jewish ensemble, pointing out that 'when an unidentified recording of Jewish music was played to Covaci, he immediately recognised it as Jewish ... but when he played Jewish pieces, he performed them in a style different to what he himself recognised as Jewish'.

The music on the Muzsikas new album invokes both a sense of celebration and of sorrow. Covaci and Toni's contribution is authentic in that they were invited and paid by the Jews to perform their requests for them and had retained music from this era in their repertoire.

Track 5 of the album is called 'Ane Maamin'. The words of this song are the twelfth section of Maimonides' text, the title being the opening words of Maimonides' thirteen principles of faith, part of the prayers in the daily morning service (Shaharit). Covaci, who did not know the text, remembers the Jews who returned from Auschwitz singing this song and weeping. He knows the title of the piece as 'My Dear Mother'.

If the real Jewish music of Transylvania is gone, this disc makes sure it will not be forgotten.

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