Jewish Fiddle

By Bob Cohen

The 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 brother’s style ("mer tsigaynish" – more gypsy).

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.

krekhts – 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 glory.

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 don’t 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.

Sekund, or accompaniment fiddling

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 can’t 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 didn’t 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 can’t 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 <>.

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