Getting to Know Two Popular Violin Playing Styles: Klezmer and Baroque

By Katharine Rapoport

Two violin playing styles to explore are Klezmer and Baroque. The name klezmer is taken from a Yiddish word meaning musician or musical instrument, and most of the klezmer music is intended for dancing.

Klezmer music originates from long ago in the Jewish schtetls of Eastern Europe, where musicians played a big part in daily life. It’s not religious music, but it can be very intense and spiritual nevertheless, with the violin often imitating a human voice wailing, laughing, crying, or representing any number of other strong emotions.

A typical klezmer group includes the violin at the heart of the group, together with a clarinet, perhaps also a flute, a hammered dulcimer or an accordion, and other instruments. Klezmer music arrived in America around the end of the 19th century, along with the wave of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe who were seeking political freedom and a viable economy in the U.S.

From its Eastern European origins, where you could hear the influence of Russian folk songs and gypsy music, the klezmer musicians soon began incorporating elements from the New World, especially popular American jazz genres, making for an energetic and catchy melange of styles. For a quick, delightful introduction to klezmer sounds, you should listen to the famous and popular musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There is a big renaissance in Baroque music these days, with scholars researching old texts about playing and original manuscripts of music from around 1700. Orchestras have formed to play this music in a style that is suited to what’s known about those times. You will enjoy listening to Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra or Musica Antiqua Köln to hear the best of these sounds.

One of the biggest differences between the instruments of then and now can be seen in the shape of the bow, which was curved into a shape more like a bow-and-arrow kind of bow and was quite a lot shorter than the bows in use today. You can also hear a difference in the musical pitch, which was not standardized until the 19th century, and which generally sounded about a half-step lower than today’s pitches, giving the music a warm and old-world sound.

Violinists played on strings made out of sheep’s gut, and they didn’t use a chinrest or shoulder rest, letting the violin sit lightly on their collar bones. Vibrato was used very sparingly, as a special effect, in part due to the fact that it was more labor-intensive to move the left hand without the extra support of chin and shoulder rests.