The violin is a vital ingredient of the klezmer sound. In this Masterclass from January 2007, Sophie Solomon, founding member of klezmer fusion band Oi Va Voi and artistic director of London’s Jewish Music Institute, explains that embodying a vocal quality in the instrument is the key to performing this highly fluid music
From Chagall’s iconic images of the Fiddler on the Roof to Chekhov’s short story Rothschild’s Violin, Jews and violins have been inextricably linked in the popular consciousness. For several centuries in the Eastern European shtetls – small towns and villages with large Jewish populations, across what is now Poland, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltics – the violin provided the defining, heart-rending sound of Jewish instrumental music. Klezmer comes from the two Hebrew words klei (vessel) and zemer (song) – literally, vessel of song; and thus klezmer was the Yiddish for a professional musician. The term klezmerishe musik was first introduced in 1938 by the Soviet musicologist Moshe Beregovski to describe the traditional instrumental music of the Yiddish speaking people of Eastern Europe.
The klezmorim (musicians) enjoyed a very diverse repertoire of tunes for accompanying and celebrating Jewish festivities, such as the stately Dobri Den that welcomed guests on the morning of the wedding, the tear-jerking improvised solo obbligato taksims or doinas played during the veiling of the bride and the foot-stomping freylekhs that went on late into the night. Given the region’s fluid cultural and musical borders, klezmer violin repertoire and technique incorporate elements shared with other European folk traditions, notably Romanian gypsy lautar. However, although a secular form, klezmer is rooted in devotional music and played in prayer modes (shtaygerim). Key to achieving authentic klezmer performance is the ability to embody the Jewish vocal styles of cantorial chanting, Yiddish song and Chassidic nigunim. Or, as I like to put it, to allow your instrument to speak Yiddish. We imagine the evocative wail of the cantor, and seek to recreate this intonation with the bow on the string.
A word of warning before we begin. Klezmer is fundamentally an oral tradition. Thus the very act of notation is an approximation: a sometimes necessary, always artificial, imposition on the folk form. The tendency for classical players is to want to stick closely to the script. However, there is so much more to klezmer than just playing the notes as written. For example, when equal quavers (♪) are written, it is almost never the intention that they should be played thus. Similarly, written notes suggest that there’s a single ‘correct’ rendition of a tune. In fact, we should throw ourselves into finding new meaning and expression with each performance and – if playing with others – aim for a heterophony of sound, at once together yet independent, mimicking the praying style of a group of Chassidim. As the great klezmer clarinettist Max Epstein said, ‘Never play [a tune] twice the same way – ever!’ As with other folk fiddle styles, this degree of freedom can be astounding and highly liberating for many players used to the strictures of notated music and established techniques.
SINGING THE MELODY
The act of singing and internalising the melody is a key stage in the process of grasping klezmer violin technique. Klezmer melodies are skeletal in structure – that is, there are key notes around which the tune is formed. Phrases should be directional, with intention, shape and meaning. Through repetitive singing of the melody, we can begin to grasp this, and understand where emphasis and emotion should be placed. It is this understanding of a melody that allows a sensitive and authentic use of traditional ornamentation.
The essential klezmer ornament, the krekhts, meaning moan or sob, is a direct mimic of the cantorial ornament of the same name. The krekhts is achieved by rapidly slapping the string with a flicking fourth finger, as you pull fast with the bow. Go for a rapid sweep with the right hand as you make the krekhts with your left hand, and follow with a scooping motion of the bow as you move fluidly through to the next note. You can also try experimenting with a lighter bow pressure at this point, exploring false harmonic-style inflections. The desired effect of the krekhts is midway between a harmonic and a note. The inflection should be brief and transitory. If you are making an actual note sound, then you need to loosen up and not be afraid of making an ‘ugly’ noise! Try some authentic Yiddish moaning ‘oy yoi yoi yoi yoi’ out loud. Then have another go at the krekhts. It is often easiest to achieve on the E string. Start by practising it as in example 1 (where ‘K’ represents the krekhts effect. Then try it within an extract of a Romanian hora melody (example 2).
It’s a common mistake for klezmer music to be played with schmaltzy upward slides into notes. Unlike in gypsy or Eastern European folk traditions, in klezmer we tend only to use a downward slide, which reflects the moan of the cantor, the inflection of spoken Yiddish. The downward slide is a very minimal affair – it’s more a downwards wobble while keeping the finger close to its original position, rather than travelling a great distance with the sliding finger. Apply bow pressure and an accelerated pull of the bow as you begin the note, then gradually release both left- and right-hand pressure as you slide the finger to achieve a really authentic sigh.
As in other non-classical styles, vibrato is regarded in klezmer as an ornament rather than a constant. Klezmer musicians use a fast, tight, trill-like vibrato with a rapid accented pull of the bow on first hitting the note, and then a lightening of pressure towards the end of the note.
Klezmer also includes regular use of the classic mordent – alternating between indicated note, upper mordent and indicated note.
One form of dreydl or trill functions in a similar way to vibrato with similar bow technique and rapid left-hand action. However, the trill can also be executed as a slow sliding back and forth of the finger, with much less speed and intensity than a more classical execution.
Experiment with lightening the pressure of the bow on the string to create the haunting,mournful sound of the false harmonic.
Example 3 is another extract of the Romanian hora melody with some suggestions of ornamentation. Again, this is just one idea for adding colour – I would never play it the same way every time. (VIB = vibrato, S = slide, FH = false harmonic bowing) It’s very exciting to experiment with ornaments but don’t get too carried away. Remember that you are using the ornaments to intensify the meaning of the skeleton tune.
Klezmer never generated highly structured and codified modes like those in Western and Greek Orthodox churches or in Ottoman Arabic music. However, klezmer melodies do follow certain scale patterns. A good starting point is to get your head round two of the key klezmer modes – Ahava Rabo, commonly known as Freygish (example 4) and Misheberakh, or Ukrainian minor (example 5). Play around with these so that your hands begin to fall freely in the mode. This will really help as you improvise and experiment with ornaments.
In klezmer music, phrasing is fundamental to endowing the melody with life and meaning. If we take a simple passage of eight semiquavers (bar 1 of example 6), there are almost endless possibilities for adding Yiddish inflection and no single ‘correct’ approach. However, needless to say, it would be inappropriate to play eight notes of equal length and emphasis. Symmetrical phrasing offers one set of possibilities. For example, in both A and B, there is a definite leaning into the first note of each slurred pattern creating notes of uneven length, so that A might be better notated as C. There is also of course the option to go for a 3+1 or 1+3 phrasing. Asymmetrical phrasing offers another wide range of ideas.Many of you will be familiar with the Bulgar rhythm, popular in klezmer music where an 8/8 rhythm is divided as 3+3+2 in the rhythm section. You can apply this principle to the way you phrase melodic passages too (D, E and F). Try singing the phrases first, then have a go with the violin. Once you’ve got the hang of these phrase groupings, the idea is to mix and match and not to let yourself mechanically repeat the same groupings all the time. Try playing along to some traditional klezmer recordings. Choose one piece from a CD and slowly learn it by ear, mimicking the ornamentation. Then work on your own interpretation. Try to imagine the physicality of the music. How could your use of ornaments enable a dancer to embody the notes?
Klezmer Pioneers: European and American Recordings, 1905–1952 Rounder 1089
Mysteries of the Sabbath: Classic Cantorial Recordings, 1907–47 Yazoo 7002
Alicia Svigals, Fidl: Klezmer Violin, Traditional Crossroads CD 4286
Chicago Klezmer Ensemble, Sweet Home Bukovina, Oriente Musik RIENCD 13
Khevrisa, European Klezmer Music, Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40486