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.

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