Never second fiddle: On Norway’s most famous instrument

Photo: Frode Inge Helland / Wikimedia
A Hardanger fiddle made by Knut Gunnarson Helland.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

A fiddler plays for a solo male dancer. A Scot might regard the music as akin to that produced by a bagpipe. The tune and rhythm might remind an American of traditional square dances. But there’s nothing Scottish or American about the dance.

The dancer turns in an intricate pattern, pacing steps to the major key 2/4 melody, usually in an allegro moderato (cheerful) tempo. Nearby a girl stands on a chair, holding out a stick with a hat hooked on its end. The dancer seems to be building up to something, as if under a spell cast by the hat well above his head. Finally it comes: he leaps nimbly into the air to kick the hat. Applause follows if he kicks the hat off the stick on the first try.

If he misses, he repeats the acrobatic performance. Among the spectators, there’s small talk; everyone seems to have an uncle or father who could still ta hatten (take the hat) at the age of 80.

It’s a mini-drama seen nowhere else, an indigenous facet of Norwegian music. The dance is the Halling, the most characteristic folk dance of Norway, taking its name from the Hallingdal valley between Oslo and Bergen. The origins of the music for it are unknown, but it’s apparently related to the Scottish reel, whose musical descendants include some bagpipe melodies and American square dance music.

Four active strings
The instrument played by the fiddler is the Hardingfele (Hardanger Fiddle), named for the first such instrument, devised around 1650 in the Hardanger area of western Norway. Unlike other members of the violin family, the Hardingfele has four active strings and a second set of four sympathetic strings, lying closer to the belly of the instrument. It’s the only remaining member of a scattered, small, and now mostly obsolete family of instruments. In late Elizabethan times, English lyra viols were briefly made with sympathetic strings. In the 18th century similar instruments, known as viola d’amour in French and Liebesgeige in German, had a short and unimportant musical life in Central Europe. But in Norway the Hardingfele survived.

Music on a Hardingfele is like that of no other violin; it’s a second sort of fiddle. Nobody knows why it did not slide into oblivion along with its English and continental cousins, but Norway’s relative isolation until the mid l9th century probably contributed to its survival. University of Oslo social anthropologist Henrik Sinding-Larsen pinpoints 1850 as the decisive date. At that time, Norway had begun to build railways, which were to foster the greater mobility of the population that eventually standardized music and eroded the music traditions of the more fixed peasant societies. But it was also the apex of the romantic era, as Norwegians sought their national identity in their peasant roots. World-renowned Norwegian concert violinist Ole Bornemann Bull had discovered Hardingfele virtuoso Tarjei Augundson. Known as Myllarguten (Miller Boy), as his father had been a professional miller, Augundson accompanied Bull on concert stages in Bergen, Christiania (now Oslo), Copenhagen, and Gothenburg. Bull performed on the common European violin and Augundson on the Hardingfele. The effect was electric and far reaching.

With Bull, Augundson firmly anchored awareness of peasant music tradition in the cities. Myllarguten and the railways represented the opposing forces shaping Norwegian music in the latter half of the 19th century. The influence of the railways finally dominated, but to this day Myllarguten’s music is still very much alive.

Similarities to a bagpipe
The modern Hardingfele differs little from the first instrument made in the early 18th century by Isak Botnen in Flatabø, a village innermost in the Fyksesundet (sound) in the Hardanger district of western Norway. The bridge of the instrument is nearly flat, which allows playing a variety of polyphony, the simultaneous sound of several notes of different pitch. When played, the active strings, usually tuned to A, D, A, and E, cause the underlying sympathetic strings, usually tuned to D, E, F sharp, and A, to vibrate. The effect can be compared to that of the drone pipes of a traditional bagpipe.

The slåtter (peasant dances) that Myllar­guten popularized were the model for Norwegian national melody that first was given classical clothing by composer Edvard Grieg.

Grieg had learned music from his mother, Gesine Hagerup, who, being of solid peasant stock, also knew the slåtter well. In 1902 he paid tribute to that connection in his Opus 72, Slåtter—Norwegian Peasant Dances Arranged for Pianoforte Solo.

Original peasant melodies
Naturally, Grieg’s music is popular in Norway. But so are the original peasant melodies. Spelemenn (fiddlers) are still to be found, though their national association, Landslaget for Spelemenn, formed in 1923 and disbanded in 2009, is no longer part of the cultural scene. But its purpose has been preserved. NRK, the national radio and TV broadcasting network, occasionally features programs of folk music by spelemenn. This was so important that in pre-TV 1947, the main NRK studios in Oslo were fitted with a small studio specially designed with acoustics replicating those of a rural log hall, where the Hardingfele sound is at its best. In 1956, mobile NRK units equipped with tape recorders enabled program crews to go on location for Hardingfele recordings, so the small studio was dismantled.

Out in the countryside, there are still many spelemenn. And there’s a statue of one of them, Myllarguten, in the village of Nordagutu in Telemark County.

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 8, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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