Klezmer & Eastern European music and the violin
Is time for a story. It's a hell of a story, about a violin. The bass player in my barn dance and ceilidh band often makes up stories about violins and violinists (which is what I am), but most them aren't publishable, so here is a quaint old story from Eastern Europe. In a village in Transylvania lived a young woman. All the peasants knew she must be bewitched because, despite her beauty and rich dowry, no man would ask her to marry. She loved a young farmer but he was indifferent. At last she prayed to the Devil, who promised to help. 'But first,' he said, 'you must give me your father, your mother and your four brothers.' From the father's body the Devil fashioned a violin, from the mother's white hair he made a bow and from the four brothers the fiddle strings. 'Play this violin to your beloved/ he told her, 'and he'll follow you to the ends of the earth.' When she played the fiddle the farmer fell in love with her. Arm in arm the lovers were walking through the forest one day when the Devil stepped into their path. 'I have come to collect my dues,' he said. 'You have listened to the Devil's music. Now you must come with me to Hell.' And he instantly spirited them away. As for the fiddle, it lay on the ground until a ragged Gypsy happened to find it. The Gypsy is playing it to this day. Men and women still go crazy when they hear it, but only the Gypsy knows its secret.
Well, if you believe that you believe anything, but it gives a good background to the sort of feel and mystery of Eastern European folk music. The traditional music of central and eastern Europe is incredibly varied in its range of dance rhythms, its scales and modes, its regional repertoires. There exists no one generic 'east European' style, of course, even if the use of irregular rhythms in one tradition, or 'up-the-neck' playing in others and 'exotic' scales and tonality more widely may strike the newcomer with a general sense of 'otherness'. For some, the idea of east European fiddling conjures up an image of a violin virtuoso performing Monti's Csardas (an exhibition piece of salon music, and not a folk peace at all, but certainly in the style of certain types of Eastern European folk music), or a restaurant fiddler playing a song on music version of Dark Eyes or The Lark.
As you would expect of music encompassing numerous countries and ethnic groups that are even more different from the Scots and Irish who had developed very different musical forms, numerous regional traditions and styles of music and instrument play had developed. While culturally and regionally distinct, most have absorbed neighbouring influences as tunes have migrated, even across the barriers of nation and language. Some of the playing, from a technical point of view, is highly evolved, not least because of the centuries-old tradition of professional folk music performance by semi-itinerant Jewish klezmorim (i.e. the musicians who play klezmer music, rather like saying Irish ceilidh band), Rom (Gypsy) Idutari and others. What these vernacular fiddle styles tend to have in common is a significant repertoire of dance tunes, to be played functionally, often at weddings which traditionally could last as long as a week. While the contrasts between a Polish mazurka, a Hungarian csardas, a Bulgarian kopanitsa and an Irish jig is obvious and extreme, they do share the same formal structure of short repeated sections, usually four or eight bars in length, which is fundamentally different to the music played by a classical ensemble such as string quartet, where the music that may start off as a short stands much like the folk tune, gets developed and manipulated and repeated and turned backwards and upside down slowed up slowed down, to produce a work that can last half an hour. Even with a performer capable of improvising on variations, it's unlikely that a single folk peace would be enjoyed for half an hour, although in Indian classical music Raga might be based on just a dozen notes, but with this improvisation is may go on for an hour or more.
If, as a British born and bred musician, one is to learn to play Eastern European music, you have to listen to bands from the relevant countries. The styles of music can be followed by following an geographical sweep southwards along the Carpathians. This mountain range is in southern Poland and the Ukraine and the whole length of Rumania in 1000 mile long curve that ends in the lower Danube. Klezmer tunes tend to come from the area between'Poland and Ukraine' and 'Hungary' and from there spread into north America in the twentieth century. The separation of Hungarian and Romanian music is cultural rather than geographical given, meeting in Transylvania
Dance forms like the polka, mazurka and waltz will be familiar to folk musicians all around Europe and north America. Less familiar perhaps to the 'folk' player will be the left-hand position slides off some of the Hungarian, Romanian and Klezmer tunes, which is found in simplified form in a lot of American folk music. But I don't think it is used for such range of effect is achieved in eastern European folk music. The American stuff is all about excitement and speed, where's Eastern European music is about anguish and sopping as well. The historic collision, or exchange, of eastern and western scales (and rhythms) makes eastern European tunes rich in musical possibilities. The Ottoman Empire extended over much of south-eastern Europe for five centuries (peaking territorially in the 1600s, ending in 1918), bringing the modes, or makams, of Turkish courtly music to bear on European classical and folk scales. In terms of form, too, the improvised taksim of Turkish classical music, for example, are said to have inspired the free-rhythm doina of Romanian and klezmer music - see tune 31 Prelude.
Klezmer modes display and eastern influence. As an example, one of the scale forms, the 'freygish' mode, is often used in dance tunes, but also known in a Jewish liturgical context as Ahava Raba ('Great Love'), after the opening words of a prayer sung to it by the cantor.
I don't personally know many Polish musicians, but one that I do now, who was in fact classically trained, and did a couple of gigs with me in my ceilidh and barn dance band, said when asked what Polish folk music was like, he said "boring. Deadly boring!" I think he was wrong. Whether in a Polish mountain stringband, an old-style klezmer kapelye or a village band in Transylvania, the traditional 'second fiddle' role is to play chords and rhythm behind the lead fiddle. In Transylvanian traditions, both Hungarian andPoland and the Ukraine.
The violin there is evidence that the violin was played as early as the 1500s by peasant fiddlers in the multi-ethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then the largest state in Europe. The soundpost is called the dusza ('doo-sha' - 'soul'), because without it the violin sounds dead, and it was once believed that the soul of a dead person dwells inside every fiddle. That's rather alarming thought. Think about that next time I'm practising! As well as a strong fiddle (and bagpipe) culture today, particularly in the south-east, Poland has a long history of creating and exporting dance-forms, notably the mazurka (mazurek), polonaise and cracovienne. The polonez gave rise to the Swedish polska, and the krakowiak (arguably) to the polka. The sztajer ('shty-er'), named after the Steiermark region of Austria where Polish troops were stationed in the days of Habsburg rule, and the faster oberek are different forms of mazurka. With a typical band line-up of lead fiddle, second fiddles, a three-stringed cello called basy and voices, the gorale ('highlander') musicians in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains perform special 'brigands' dances'. Further east and south along the Carpathians lies Western Ukraine, birthplace of 'King of the Ukrainian fiddlers' Pawlo Humeniuk (1884-1965), who emigrated to America around 1902. He made over 250 recordings, including waltzes and kolomyikas, the latter linked to the town of Kolomyia. When I've been out to Eastern Europe, mostly on holiday, I've tried to collect much music and recordings as possible. Unfortunately, folk music in these countries is a bit like Scottish folk music was some years ago, when I lived between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Scottish folk music in Scottish ceilidh is, kilts and haggis, bagpipes and sporrans were all viewed as a great cultural embarrassment. Nobody wanted to know. At that time, I played Scottish dances at international folk festivals, but they were all English. The Scots didn't want to know. Fortunately, things have changed, and Scottish folk bands, ceilidhs and the like are going great guns up in Scotland, but perhaps will change little modernised, with many of the bands doing a set of pop music at the end, or putting on a disco, but nevertheless the folk music and dance is authentic, albeit a little jazzed up.
In recent times there has been a tremendous resurgence of klezmer music, initially in America where the music is in effect a part of the American folk tradition and has influence of the folk music, so that you get to which are a combination of Irish and klezmer or Scottish and klezmer. Originally, klezmer was the folk instrumental music of East European Jews, performed at weddings and other family or community cele tions. It is tremendously versatile as it can be used for dancing or listening to, and is 'one part of a rich totality of East European Jewish music that includes liturgical Hasidic music, folksong traditions, Yiddish theatre music, art music, and popular song. Everyone knows the musical 'Fiddler on the Roof' (I had the pleasure of playing fiddle for a performance of this musical, where it was just piano and fiddle. I even got dress up and get on stage. Great fun), and in cities like Prague, Warsaw and Odessa, it was a fiddle player who traditionally led with cymbalon, second fiddle, string bass and, later in the 19th century, brass and reed instruments.
Perhaps because of its being cut off from the rest the world during the years of the communist dictator, Ceausescu, the peasant culture survives strongly in parts of Romania. ( I remember going out to the country in the days when he was in power. I was there on business, nothing to do with music at that time, and unfortunately I didn't get to hear any folk music. I think the whole country was so miserable that entertainment wasn't a thing that people went in for. It was too much a matter of survival. Fortunately, things have changed there, and the population have a chance of discovering their real selves again.) The feudal system was not abolished until the mid-1800s, and traditional music and dance have remained deeply embedded in rural life, numerous villages, for example, having their own cycle of dances. Along with Transylvania, the historic states that comprise Romania are Wallachia in the south and Moldavia in the east. The Taraf de Haidouks are a group of outstanding Rom musicians from the village of Clejani, near Bucharest in Wallachia, who since the 1990s have achieved international fame. On fiddles, cimbalom, accordions and (plucked) double bass, they play, often at a hectic pace, the dance tunes that accompany the marriage, birth, baptism and burial rituals of Romanian village life.
So even in a culture that is steeped in old traditions, music for the wedding ceremony, the wedding celebration was just as important then, or perhaps even more important then, than it is now. So when we hire out a band, bidder jazz band, the ceilidh band or barn dance band, author and string quartet, for a present-day wedding in England Scotland Wales, we are following the tradition that has gone back in Europe for centuries.
The hora is a large closed circle dance in which the hands are held at shoulder height. The sirba, or sarba (possibly meaning 'Serb-like'), with its melodic triplets played over duple rhythm, is usually danced in an open circle. The invartita is a 'turning' dance for couples related to the Swedish polska and Polish oberek, while the geamparale is a wedding dance associated particularly with the Dobruja region ('Dobrogea' in Romanian) on the Black Sea coast. Within Transylvania itself regional styles vary, and Gypsy musicians will play from several repertoires, Hungarian or Romanian, depending on which village they're booked to perform in. Kalotaszeg music has 'western' harmonies, and was mentioned earlier. In Bihor tunes are often played on the Stroh fiddle, with its resonator and horn. In Maramures, next to the Ukraine border, the fiddle (cetera) is accompanied on the guitar-like zongora. Village costumes here, are not just worn for best but for everyday life and the music includes magic songs and spells of incantation against sickness and the evil eye.' (Have a look at my ramblings and rantings on the traditions of weddings, in this section)
Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia the traditional lead instruments there are the kaval, an end-blown flute, the long-necked lute known as tamboura, a bagpipe called gajda, and the pear-shaped gadulka, a type of fiddle held vertically like the Greek lyra. A very different lineup of instruments to what you'd expect to see in a ceilidh or barn dance band in this country. However, transcriptions of music from these traditions are available, and can be attempted with conventional instruments of a band, but the effect is very different of course. In neighbouring Macedonia, whose music displays the most complex of rhythmic patterns, its equivalent is a bottle-shaped, three-stringed fiddle called the cemane (Turkish kemence). Perhaps this is explains why I can get on with this music better than most people, in that my first instrument was one stringed Egyptian fiddle. I was only about four years old at the time, was a knee-jerk my father was in the air force. I really must go back to Egypt sometime and try and track down such an instrument. But photograph it somewhere with me playing it, and it looks like a baked bean can with a stick hammered through it in some way. I bet it sounded hideous!
In Serbia it is the piano accordion that predominates when the kolo (literally 'wheel' or 'circle') is danced. Brass bands are also common. All the tunes however lend themselves well to the violin. Bela Bartok referred to the asymmetric time signatures found in Balkan music as 'the Bulgarian rhythm', but the most common dance rhythm in Bulgaria is a straight 2/4. The asymmetric tunes featured here include the kopanitsa (literally, 'little digging dance', referring to the scooping movement made with a spade or a hoe), which is danced mainly in western Bulgaria by men using a belt-hold, and 'handkerchief dances' known as ruchenitsas. Although dances, mostly line dances, are still performed in the villages, eminent professional groups like Tanec have developed both choreography and music and brought the music to the wider world.
One of my old violin teachers have played for three years in a gypsy fiddle band in Eastern Europe. Strangely, he wasn't Eastern European, he was a Londoner and by the time I knew him freelanced for the London Symphony Orchestra's. Even more strange, as all my the violin teachers were Eastern European, but to my knowledge none had played in a gypsy band. So what characterises gypsy music? Spontaneous, virtuoso and above all fiery! European Gypsies have taken their music wherever they have travelled, from Russia to the Balkans, from Andalucia to the Black Sea. But for many people the heart of the repertoire - the essential Gypsy music - is found in Hungary and Romania.
It is not always easy to define what is meant by Gypsy music.Nowadays, Gypsy Jazz is popular, and you can find Gypsy Jazz Bands amongst our jazz bands, and jazz solos and duos. Certainly, Gypsies have always played the music of the communities in which they found themselves, at the same time giving the traditional tunes their own characteristic spin. In parts of Transylvania all the professional musicians are Gypsies, so it seems reasonable to think of their music as Gypsy - even though an ethnomusicologist might tell us a particular tune is actually Hungarian or Romanian in origin.
This is all very romantic and inspiring, but the realities of life for ordinary Gypsies are very different from the image presented by the slick restaurant orchestras of Budapest and other big cities. (That's if you can find them, they are dying out I fear. I managed to track some down several years ago, but only because a friend of mine owned a flat in Budapest and spoke a language, and although he didn't live permanentlyhe knew the area well. He was a musician to. I found some great music in tiny restaurants and other non-touristy places, even going to the equivalent of local ceilidh, where I was the only Englishman. Truly amazing, but the music is difficult, virtuosic, and unless people, that is local people, I really inspired by still, it's not going to survive. Almost everywhere Gypsies are an isolated people, maligned and even persecuted. Their music may offer an insight into a largely hidden society and its distinctly Gypsy genius.