Josef Gusikov is a unavoidable milestone in the klezmer history, he is the
first klezmer musician who crossed the bridge between the Ghetto and the Gentile upper class salons. He brought the
klezmer music to the European concert audiences with his famous "straw fiddle" a wood and straw
He was a true virtuoso, an innovator, a musical prodigy, a phenomenon, the equal of such musicians like
Paganini, Chopin or Liszt as a performer. He (together with Jakubowski, Josef's teacher) was the inventor of this
unique instrument, the shtroyfidl, which is an hybrid of dulcimer (tsimbl) and xylophone, made of wooden staves
resting on a bed of straw and played with small wooden sticks.
He had a lung disease and his life was very short, he died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty one, he was a
shooting star in the firmament of music.
Gusikov was born on September 2,1806, in Shklov, a little Polish (now Belorussian) town on the
Dnieper. His family was Hasidic, Joseph's father, a professional musician played the flute and the tympani.
Naturally, he learned from his father to play the same instruments to entertain weddings and Jewish celebrations.
Although he couldn't read music his talent was obvious and his vast repertoire included not only traditional Jewish
music but also melodies from Poland, Russia, Ukraine, France, Germany, Lithuania as well as some classical
He instilled in his interpretations an unknown inspiration of deep melancholy and profound emotion. He and his
father began touring while gaining a solid reputation in Russia up to Moscow.
The tuberculosis was merciless and his lungs had begun to fail preventing him to blowing the flute, so he
switched to play the strawfidl.
In fact, the Shtroyfidl is a primitive instrument originated in China and India. It came along
to the West with the Barbarian invasion of the Tartars and Cossacks. Originally it was constructed after the major
Chinese scale. Gusikov improved the instrument by adding two and an half chromatic octaves, not in the traditional
half tones order but in a specific way which facilitate the performance. To increase the sound intensity and make
the resonance more powerful he thought of putting the wooden cylinders on light sewed straw rolls.
From the age of seventeen he played the shtroyfidl constantly improving his skill to reach perfection. His
virtuosity was phenomenal and he managed to express such emotional and passionated feelings with this quite
peculiar instrument that the audience was overwhelmed with admiration.
In 1834 he played in Kiev and Odessa; among the enthusiastic audience were the Polish violinist Karol Lipinski
and two renowned French poets, Lamartine and Michaux who invited him to play in Paris. During his concert tour he
conquered, with his unique musical talent, Odessa, Kiev, Moscow, Lvov, Krakow, Prague, Frankfurt and of course
Vienna, the musical center of Europe.
The genuine interest to Gusikov was not only in his prodigious talent but also inhis "otherness". His appearance
was of a practicing Hasidic, with sidecurls, beard, yarmulke and traditional coat.
He was so popular, that his sidecurls (payos) instigated a new fashion hairstyle among Parisian women. It was
called "coiffure a la Gusikov".
He played improvisation on Jewish and klezmer melodies and also on popular and classical pieces like opera tunes
of the time. He was generally accompanied by musicians members of his family.
Many Jewish musicians of this time were deeply impressed by the talent of Gusikov, Ferdinand Hiller, the German
composer, wrote him a letter of recommendation to Giacomo Meyerbeer, the composer and producer of opera, who
decided to help him by opening the doors of the Paris Opera House.
Felix Mendelssohn, the great composer, wrote in a letter to his family those eulogic words about Gusikov:
"I am curious to know whether you liked Gusikov as much as I did- he is quite a
phenomenon; a devil whose skill and adaptedness is second to no virtuoso in the world and who for the reason
delight me more on his wooden and straw instrument than many with their pianos because it is so thankless... By the
way I haven't been so entertained at a concert for such a long time as at this one because he is really a true
The journey of Joseph Gusikov through the first half of the nineteenth century and the musical sphere of this
time is really unique, thanks to his talent and genius, this poor Jewish musician, born in a little Polish town
enchanted the concert halls of Europe, from a wandering klezmer he became a respected guest of upper class salon.
He introduced the Jewish and klezmer repertoire to the Western European audience. He demonstrated almost 200 years
ago that the musical language is universal and that what's important is the sincerity and the talent of the
Extenuated by the numerous travels and concerts, undermined by the recurrent tuberculosis, he died in Aachen,
Germany, in 1837.
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