TUNE OF THE MONTH: Mlody Bortnik

This month's tune is something a little bit different.  For one thing, there are no other recordings of it for comparison.  It's not even, strictly speaking, part of the Yiddish repertoire. But I think it will be very interesting for a number of reasons.

Let me begin by admitting that I have a certain fondness for polkas. When I was nine years old and wanting to sign up for band, my mother's cousin Seymour, who had played clarinet in an army band in WWII, took out his horn and played the Clarinet Polka for me, and I was mesmerized. It sounded like water splashing down a waterfall, and I knew I needed to be able to play like that.

"The Clarinet Polka" actually does have a Yiddish connection. Under one of its Polish titles, "Dyadushka,", Dave Tarras recorded it in the late 1950s with Murray Lehrer on volume 3 of Freilachs in Hi-Fi. The text on the sleeve says about this tune:

"The Clarinet Polka is a showpiece for Tarras' very live licorice stick. He has played it often under its original -- Dyadushka Polka (Grandfather's Polka).  If the granddads to whom it is dedicated can dance this breath-snatcher, more power to them and to Dave Tarras too, who though a granddad himself, can blow down many a younger man.  The trumpet's darker tones outline the Pierrot-like agility of the clarinet...."

That description of Tarras's playing applies equally to this month's tune, a polka that he wrote and recorded in 1920 called "Mlody Bortnik" (the Young Boarder). This was an exclusively Polish release on the Victor label. Tarras made a number of Polish releases, all billed as Instr. Kwartet Tarasiewicza.

What is special about this polka, and the reason that I chose to highlight it here, is that unlike most such tunes, its melody is modal rather than major in tonality, and it moves in very interesting ways between C freygish and F harmonic minor.

The polka begins with a four-bar intro that sounds like someone took a typical dance hall intro and klezmerized it.  

The cadence at the end of this intro, C maj - Bb minor - C major, is classic freygish, but when the actual tune begins, it is clearly in F harmonic minor.  It is an amazing, virtuosic melody that is pure Tarras, and classic F harmonic minor.  And he plays it purely, his notes clean and articulate, as befits a good polka.  Interestingly, despite the modal nature of the tune, Tarras's style includes none of the ornaments that give his Jewish playing its yidishn tam (Jewish flavor)

The second section again rests briefly in C freygish before moving back squarely into F minor.  The third section, a typical "trio" in F minor's relative major, Ab, offers no surprises but provides a nice contrast to the Eastern European modality of the main polka melody.

Tarras's exceptional playing contrasts rather dramatically with that of the the accordion player, who tends to express a somewhat simplified version of the melody and at times fumbles some of the modal runs.

 All in all, Mlody Bortnik would make a fine addition to any klezmer repertoire.

Downloadable versions of the complete chart and the Tarras recording can be found in the Resources section.

TUNE OF THE MONTH: Bardichiver Nigun

September's tune will bring back memories of the early days of KlezKamp for those who were there.  The long-running Yiddish Folk Arts program, which began in 1985 as a project of the YIVO institute in New York, was the first event to bring together, annually, those who were passionate about Yiddish culture.  I first attended in 1987, knowing almost nothing except how much I wanted to learn.  


In those early years, participants had the good fortune to hear and learn from the few remaining old masters of klezmer, Yiddish song and Yiddish theater, and first among those treasured elders was Sid Beckerman.  The son of Shloimke Beckerman, a clarinet player who had recorded a number of 78 rpm discs for Emerson in the early 1920s, Sid was an incredibly sweet man who had lips of steel; especially in those early years, he would sometimes play for well over an hour without pause.


When I walked into the tantszal  (ballroom) for the dance party on that very first Sunday night, I was blown away by the music.  It was endless, it was exciting, and I knew I had found my place in the universe.  One of the tunes that was being played that evening, among the first I heard and frequently repeated throughout the week, was a simple, two-part tune that seemed to hold within its 32 bars everything I already loved about the music.  Here is a recording that I made that night using a portable cassette recorder.

I never learned the name of the tune or where it had come from; unlike many of the other freylekhs and bulgars I heard and played that week and in subsequent years, no one ever provided an original source recording.  As far as I knew, it was just one of the tunes in Sid's repertoire.


Last week I was doing some systematic listening to the digital transfers of recordings in my collection, and imagine my delight when I came upon a soundfile of this very tune!  It was Victor 25-5030, recorded in 1940 by Abe Ellstein's orchestra with Dave Tarras, and it was called "Bardichiver Nigun."  The recording is interesting for a number of reasons.  First, Tarras begins playing the first A section in the low register, something which, I can say from my own experience, is much more challenging to do expressively than playing in the usual clarinet register two octaves above.  The second time through the tune, the trumpet, which has been almost a commentator on the melody,  takes the lead for the second time through the A section.

It is, however, the melody itself which is most interesting.  While both versions are clearly playing the same basic tune, they differ in some significant ways.  


In the first half of the A section, the Beckerman version, notated in black, ends the first phrase at the third tone of the mode, while the Tarras version, in blue, stays at the tonic.

This pattern is repeated in the second phrase, in which the two versions end on the fifth and the third, respectively:

The second half of the section diverges more dramatically, with the Beckerman version (top staff) continuing for an additional two bars:

The B section exhibits similar disparity.   In the Beckerman version, the first phrase is two bars long, with the second two bars representing a kind of elaboration upward, while the Tarras version again stays rooted firmly below, with the second phrase essentially restating the first:

And in the second half of the section, the lengths again do not match up, though in this case it is the Tarras version which extends the phrase, by repeating the cadence used at the end of the A section.  This variation also involves a significant change in the harmony, with the Beckerman version going to the Fm cadence chord in the penultimate measure of the tune, while Tarras moves to Fm at the beginning of this section of the melody.

While I'm very happy to have heard the Tarras version of this tune and thrilled finally to know what it is called, the Beckerman version, heard at so many KlezKamps, is the one that I will always think of as the "original."  I have, however, provided charts for both versions, along with the sound files, in the Resources section.

TUNE OF THE MONTH: Taniec Rabina/Der Chosid Tantzt/Flaskadriga/Dem Rebens Tanz

This series begins with what I consider one of the most interesting tunes in the klezmer repertoire.  The earliest recording of it that I have heard is “Taniec Rabina” (Rabbi’s Dance) by the Belf Orchestra, recorded in Roumenia in 1912.  

In this iteration it is a simple, two section tune in which the second section is essentially the first section raised up a third:

The Belf performance is of particular note because they take this very simple tune and play it entirely over the root chord – in the version notated here, that would be D major.  There is no cadence chord, which is extremely unusual.  Instead, the piano player employs a huge vocabulary of rhythmic variation to keep things interesting.  The net effect is to conjure up the hypnotic, almost mystical image of a Chassidic rebbe dancing.

In 1920. Lt. Joseph Frankel recorded an intriguing version of this tune on Emerson under the title, "Der Chosid Tantzt part 1."  Unlike the main body of his commercial recordings, which feature a large band, both sides of this disc feature Frankel himself on clarinet and an unknown accordion player.  In Frankel's version, the A and B sections are virtually identical to those of "Taniec Rabina," with a few small rhythmic variations.  The accordionist does change chords, but his choices appear to be a bit random, as was often the case during these early years of recording. Then there is an added C section:

chosid tantzt C.png

Alert readers will perhaps recognize this melody.  The first four bars are virtually identical to the first four bars of the C section of another Belf tune, "Nakhes fun Kinder,"  

while the last four bars are absolutely identical to the end of the C section of a tune Frankel had recorded with his band the previous year, "Dem Rebin's Nigun, Oj Tate."

While it might seem that this is a random mish-mosh that proves the claim that all klezmer tunes sound alike, the connections among these melodic segments are actually strong.  The rhythmic change in the first four bars alters the Belf melody to reflect the thematic rhythm pattern of the A and B sections, the recurring four sixteenths followed by an eight note.  The part of the melody borrowed from "Oj Tate" shares that same recurring pattern.  The net result is a cohesive, organic tune.

In 1921, Harry Kandel recorded another version of this melody for the Victor label under the title “Flaskadriga”.  In this rendition the A and B sections are identical to the previous two versions, and like the Frankel, there is an added C section:

After the shout chorus, which is deceptive in that unlike the usual shout chorus, it neither establishes a new tonal center for the time (Gm would be what you might expect, based on the first four bars of the section) nor modulates into a new mode (F major, as indicated by the second four bars).  Instead, the shout chorus is just an interesting interlude that snaps immediately back to the starting tonality, while the melody itself echoes the very distinctive rhythmic figures of the first two sections of the tune.

The last iteration of this tune, "Dem Reben's Tanz," was recorded by Art Shryer in 1929. This recording is particularly interesting because of the spoken introduction, which sets the stage for the joyous spectacle of the Rebbe dancing.  In addition, every time it comes around, the A section includes a large chorus of voices singing the tune in the style of a Chassidic nign, which references the title in a much more literal way than the hypnotic playing of the Belf orchestra.

 The first half of the A section is identical to that of the previous three versions, but then, although it maintains the same rhythmic figure, the tune goes off in a completely different direction: 

 The next section of the tune, while evolving organically from the A section, bears much less resemblance to the original.  The only hint is a rhythmic echo in the sixth measure:

The C section returns to the rhythmic figures of the A section (and of the original tune) but resolves into very new territory:

 The final section of “Dem Rebens Tanz” slows the rhythm to eighth notes but builds dramatically to a fitting resolution:

Lead sheets for these four tunes can be found here:

Taniec Rabina

Der Chosid Tantzt pt 1


Dem Rebens Tants

They are also accessible from the Resources section of this web site, as are downloadable versions of the complete audio for each.