The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania

History Today, July 1993 | Go to article overview

The Lost Jewish Music of Transylvania


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 t e 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 Maramaros area.

Simon gave the group some of his transcriptions (which have never been published). He had transcribed only the melody and indicated nothing mo 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 Maramaros 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. …

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