Hardanger fiddles and weddings
Bernt Balchen Jr. leads the procession
MARY JO THORSHEIM
In our column last month, we looked at a wonderful mangle board from 1789. This historic object was found in Scandinavia and imported by Norway Art in Minneapolis. Its legend is inscribed on the top and around all the edges. The wooden mangle was intricately carved by a Dano-Norwegian sailor on the British ship HMS Saturn, as an engagement gift for his future wife. (See “An ultimate valentine,” The Norwegian American, Feb. 12, 2021.)
The wedding theme of this issue sparked the idea of continuing the romantic theme through featuring another type of hand-crafted wooden object. The Hardanger fiddle was an essential part of many traditional weddings in West Norway, long ago. In recent years, and in some places, the tradition has been revived.
In this article, we imagine the scene at a traditional wedding and then zoom in on a specific Hardanger fiddle that is now at Norway Art: a richly decorated, vintage instrument from Norway. It has an interesting backstory.
The Hardanger fiddle and traditional wedding processions
Hans Dahl (1849-1937) portrayed guests arriving in boats to attend a West Norway wedding in one of his beautiful paintings, now owned by Norway Art. Almost everyone was wearing a bunad, a folk costume of the region. (See The Norwegian American, Sept. 20, 2020.)
Picture the action the guests may have encountered: The bunad-clad fiddler would play while riding along with the bridal party in a procession of horse-drawn carts, approaching the church where the ceremony was to be held. After getting out of the cart outside the church door, he would play the fiddle as he led the orderly, ceremonial procession of the wedding party and their guests, wearing bunads, into the church.
His position in leading the procession was something like a drum major in an American parade or a bagpiper in Scotland. After the ceremony, he might accompany the wedding party in a procession of boats on the fjord, or walk or ride with them to the reception, playing the fiddle on the way. He then would play for the celebration that included feasting and dancing. His formal role at the church morphed into a joyous, informal time after the ceremony. The wedding event, from start to finish, often lasted for days!
Certainly, the Hardanger fiddle is unique to Norway. Although it is now known as “Norway’s national instrument,” it originated in the region called “Hardanger” in West Norway. It differs from a typical violin in that it is made of thinner wood and it has eight or nine strings. Arranged in two layers, a tune is played on the four upper strings and the lower-level strings reverberate in response. The result is a melodic theme that is accompanied by drone-like tones that some compare to those of a bagpipe.
The Hardanger fiddle in Minneapolis
Here is an opportunity to examine the instrument up close and in detail, rather than from the distance of a performance venue. Our focus is a special Hardanger fiddle that had belonged to the person who was recognized as the foremost pioneer in creating interest in these unique instruments in America: Bernt Balchen Jr., one of Norway’s top fiddlers.
The Back Story of our Hardanger fiddle
Balchen taught Hardanger fiddle classes for the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America (HFAA) for 13 summers. He traveled from his home in the Holmenkollen neighborhood of Oslo to Minneapolis. When in the Midwest, he was always a house guest of a Minneapolis couple who were among the founders of the HFAA. On one of Balchen’s visits, the Hardanger fiddle that we feature here was brought from Norway and presented to his host. At that time, it was plain wood and without any decoration. Subsequently, the fiddle’s new owner added traditional kolrosing designs to its front, sides and back, and mother-of-pearl to the fingerboard. This artisan was not only skilled and trained in fine woodworking, but very knowledgeable about Hardanger fiddles. He could make them, play them, talk about their history and interest others in them. He and his wife, both of whom were originally from Norway, were among the founders of the HFAA.
Balchen was a famous pioneer in advancing interest, study, performance, and preservation of the Hardanger fiddle. His father was a famous pioneer in quite a different way.
Bernt Balchen Sr. (born near Kristiansand in 1899) was a world-famous Norwegian polar aviator, navigator, aircraft mechanical engineer, explorer and military leader who became one of America’s best. Among his stellar accomplishments were that he was the pilot for Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s explorations of Antarctica, with Roald Amundsen to the Arctic, advised Amelia Earhart, and he was a decorated member of the military. He won many prestigious awards and international recognition for his achievements and was one of both Norway and America’s greatest aviators. After his death in Mount Kisco, N.Y., in 1973, Balchen Sr. was honored by being buried next to Admiral Byrd in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.
Bernt Balchen Jr. (1932–2017) lived in the Holmenkollen area of Oslo. His major occupation was as a staff member in the computer department of the University of Oslo, at Blindern, not far from his home. His interests in traditional old customs (Hardanger fiddle), as well as modern technology (computer science) may seem to be in marked contrast. Yet, there may be striking similarities between them: both computers and Hardanger fiddles depend on arrangements, permutations, codes, patterns, order, and sequence.
Balchen’s contribution to the field of Hardanger fiddle education was huge. Tape recordings of his playing the instrument were produced, music that he arranged was published, educational materials were developed and disseminated. And we cannot forget his impact on preserving and promoting Hardanger fiddle playing in America.
The fiddle at Norway Art is a very special reminder of Bernt Balchen Jr. It has a fantastic provenance and the qualities of a desirable instrument. As the well-known Hardanger fiddle performer and retired professor of music at St. Olaf College Andrea Een says, “Hardanger fiddles sing and they have a soul.”
This article originally appeared in the March 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.