Jewish fiddle style is one form of east European fiddle which, like Gypsy
fiddle styles, served to play several repertoires and styles. By the time of
the "klezmer revival" there were very few Jewish fiddlers left to learn from.
The late Leon Schwartz
and his brother Baruch were possibly the last in the classic klezmer style.
Luckily he was well documented by musicians such as Michael Alpert, and was a
living source during the 1980s for fiddlers such as Alicia Svigals. Leon, who
had taken classical violin lessons after growing up as a folk fiddler in the
Bukovina, classified his style to Michael Alpert as "mer kinstlich" (more
artsy) compared to his brothers style ("mer tsigaynish" more
This reflects different approaches to Klezmer fiddle in one
family of musicians. One is the "mer kinstlich" form, more influenced by
classical violin training and technique. The other is a folkier form that, not
surprisingly, was less recorded and never recorded commercially. Both are
characterized by a certain sense of phrasing and ornaments such as the
krekhts, a sort of weeping or hiccoughing combination of backwards slide
and flick of the little finger high above the base note, while the bow does,
well, something - which aptly imitates Jewish liturgical singing style.
The use of krekhts is almost unique to east
European Jewish fiddle styles the only other style where one seems to
find it is Turkish music one friend once heard a Polish fiddler playing
krekhts on a tune, but it turned out he was Polish Tatar.
although essential to all styles of klezmer clarinet gradually
faded out of klezmer violin styles after the 1940s, when less of the fiddlers
in Jewish dance bands were European-born and more had classical violin
training. Today, violinists such as Michael Alpert of Brave Old World, Alicia
Svigals of the Klezmatics, and Steven Gereenman of Khevrisa are probably the
best recorded sources to hear the classical Jewish violin sound in all its
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were
actual "Jewish" music schools in many towns in the Russian pale of settlement.
A Jewish family lacking CD players and such might send one child
to the local music school (the Jewish one, of course) to learn violin or piano
and thus be able to regale the family at home with the latest compositions of
light classical and popular sheet music. Compositions and "studies" were
written for "Jewish violin" at the time as well. The Russian Jewish
ethnomusicologist Vitally Zemtsofsky actually found a Ukrainian Jewish fiddler
who had learned in one such "conservatory" and recorded him in the 1980s. His
recording of a "ksos" on violin confirms a lot of suspicions: high technical
prowess combined with a music that simply does not go anywhere. (How many
Paganini tunes do you whistle every day, hmmmm?) Lots of krekhts, very Jewish
use of modes, but not anything you would remember the next day.
Dreydlakh - Trills
Trills (dreydlakh) in Jewish music are - in
the east European form - slower and less dense than the trills used in
classical or celtic violin. One form of trill is actually a slow sliding back
and forth of the finger primitive wah-wah. In Transylvania and Moldavia
a lot of fiddlers rarely use their little finger when in the first position
some gypsy musicians in village style only use their index and middle
finger to note. This is also typical of violinists in Turkey. If you listen to
the fiddlers in the Belf Orchestra, you can hear a lot of two fingered sliding,
especially on the low G string. Try it it will sound weird at first, but
as you get used to it, it gets easier.
Modern fiddlers with a folk
grounding in Irish or bluegrass styles often have a hard time playing in the
higher positions. Well, you dont have to have classical training to play
high, but it sure helps. This is where learning some Hungarian or Romanian
tunes will help there is usually a repeated pattern, called "apraja"
played high on the neck as a filler between song melodies. Learning these
patterns is great practice for "fiddling" high on the neck. As you fingers get
more used to it, your intonation will fall into place.
A lot of what we use as a sekund style
comes from Michael Alpert and Steve Greenman. Michael, working with Leon
Schwartz, was told to play simple offbeats (the "esztam" of Hungarian music)
but later felt that Leon was simplifying the rhythm "He was a primas, not a
sekund player, after all". The late Polish klezmer musician Ben Bazyler, who,
as a drummer, was familiar with old style recording, once said that the sekund
"could replace the trombone player a good sekund could play all the
rhythm parts of an orchestra". Using this advice and the examples of the sekund
fiddler on the Belf recordings, Alpert reconstructed a dense and syncopated
sekund style for accompaniment.
Recordings of klezmer with a clear
accompanying fiddle are rare you can hear it on the Belf Orchestra
recordings, and a bit on early Naftule Brandwein recordings, but generally it
gets lost in the mix. Similarly, you can rarely hear a clear string bass played
on any recordings of klezmer bands. The closest we get on 78 rpm records are
recordings of old Ukrainian and Polish string bands, which is as close to klez
as it gets. But klezmorim played for weddings, and a wedding dance set can
often last for a half hour or more. The gramophone recordings were limited to
three minutes, and what you get on them is probably a compressed version of all
the flashy rhythm bits. If you are sawing a bow for a half hour, however, you
cant keep up that busy bow style and among east European fiddlers
you never hear it. If this was the klemzer sekund style in the old country, why
didnt Gypsy musicians pick up the style the way they pick up on all the
best musical trends and functions?
I think the old Jewish style of
sekund fiddle was a bit more regular, with bow syncopations present but not as
predominant as they are in "revival" bands. Hosidls, for example, positively
depend on irregular bowing patterns if they are to be danceable, but for faster
dances that may be played for more than ten minutes, a simpler bowing style of
accompaniment is the only physically possible way to play you can get
tired out. Almost all east European second fiddlers hold their fiddles
vertically as well to let gravity do half the bow work.
Although Transylvanian 3 string viola "kontras" are a really wonderful
instrument there is no documentation that they were ever used by Jews.
While some older Gypsy fiddlers in Transylvania refer to the tuning on these
instruments (G-d-A) as the "Jewish tuning" there is no evidence that Jews
themselves ever used them in fact, three string kontras became popular
only around the late nineteenth century. Before that, the second fiddle was a
normal violin or viola. And since kontras have flat bridges, you cant
execute the cross bowing between the lower pairs of strings that helps drive
klezmer sekund fiddling. All the recordings we have of kontras being used are
recordings of Jewish pieces played after the 1970s by Gypsy village musicians
in Transylvania or Maramures
This is again, just a rambling overview
for fiddler who want to get into klezmer fiddle style Please send any comments
or additions to me at <