Reviving the Norwegian harp tradition

The magical tones of an old instrument are heard again in Norway and around the world

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Harrisson
Harp historian Nancy Thym enjoys playing in a period Viking setting.

REBECCA HARRISSON

Oslo
The year is 1825. We are in the middle of Norway, toward the Swedish border. Before us, the Tynset valley stretches, wide and glacier-carved, tucked between the high, forested, and rocky slopes of Østerdal. The scent of warm spruce and fir trees drifts by on the breeze.

Look, there, downhill, past the grain fields. Between the trees, there’s a flash of sunlit water—the Glomma River, just starting its long journey to the fjord. We’re almost there, just around this bend toward the red barn and yellow wooden house. Normally, this farm would be quiet, but today wagons arrive, full of guests and food. Women and men walk up the road, dressed in their beautiful folkcostumes, all gathering for a wedding celebration.

Food is served and speeches made, at one table, young Johanna’s irritation rises as her brother squirms next to her. A well-aimed kick stops his teasing, his eyes widen, his lower lip trembles, and then comes his piercing cry. Everyone turns to look, interrupting Svein Ove’s long-winded story about the wedding couple. The white-haired man glares at the children, they freeze, and then relax slightly when he continues talking. Finally, the guests raise their glasses in a toast. The creak of wagon wheels prevents the start of another speech, it’s Lægd-Dordi and her harp, brought from a neighboring farm to show off her skills.

The youngsters brighten up; perhaps they can move at last? Soon Lægd-Dordi is settled in a chair and begins to play dance music, gammaldans, the polka, waltz, mazurka, and Reinlender. Others run to collect their instruments, and soon the music is in full swing. Feet start to tap, and guests jump up to dance. Suddenly Svein Ove’s angry voice rises above the music, which stutters to a halt. “How are we to have a proper visit? I can’t hear myself think above this racket!” For a moment, uncomfortable silence descends.

Norway - Harp

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Harrisson
“It was love at first sight and sound” said harpist Tone Hulbækmo from Østerdal.

Lægd-Dordi’s calm voice responds, “Svein Ove, you’ve been the same all these years, always an ear for talk, tone-deaf, and two left feet. We’ll move the dance then.” Standing, she walks from the house to the barn, her harp held in her arms. The wind gusts a moment and the metal strings vibrate in eerie harmonic counter tones. Lægd-Dordi allows herself a small smile for her dramatic exit. Not breaking stride, she looks over her shoulder. “Come on then!” Musicians and dancers exchange glances, then grin and follow her.

Stopping on the little bridge leading into the barn, she sits and begins the next tune. All evening they dance, into the endless summer night’s twilight. The music stops, giving musicians a chance to rest, chattering voices rise to fill the silence. Lægd-Dordi starts playing a hymn’s beautiful melody, as clear notes rise into a sky of dusky pink and blue, the guests fall silent, listening.

This story contains all the facts, with some artistic additions, from Nicolay Ramm Østgarrd’s recollections of a wedding in 1825. It’s one of the few references in literature to specifically mention Norwegian harp. Perhaps when Lægd-Dordi passed away, the old traditional line of harp players ended. We only know that sometime after 1825, the harp fell out of use, and today only nine original historic Norwegian harps remain. 

Of the nine remaining harps, four are clearly dated. The oldest comes from 1681, and the youngest is from 1776. Historians assume the other five were made within this period. All of the harps are constructed from spruce or pine, with birch or maple necks. Most of the sound boxes are carved from one piece of wood, with an attached back. Heights vary from 36 inches to 48 inches. They have from 12 to 20 strings, spaced around 3/4-inch apart, which is much wider than other historical or modern harps. Six of the harps, found in the Østerdalen region, are unique in two sound boxes.

Back in the 1970s, an instrument maker and artist, Sverre Jensen, found a Norwegian harp while drawing historic langeleiker (similar to American mountain dulcimer) in museums. He made detailed drawings and built his first harp, intending to play it in his medieval group. Little did he know that he would become the factor connecting the three people who avidly play replica harps today: Tone Hulbækmo, Nancy Thym, and Stein Villa.

Sverre did not have his first harp long, after a young student at the Norwegian Academy of Music saw the harp. “It was love at first sight and sound,” said Tone Hulbækmo. “I grew up following my father around as he recorded traditional music from local artists … and I had never heard about harps in Norway, many of the harps are from my home area, Østerdal.”

She had to invent her own way of playing the harp. “No one knows how this harp was played, so no one can tell me I’m doing it wrong,” Tone explains. “For example, with the fiddle in Norway, there’s a long unbroken tradition. We just have the harps, so it’s a new tradition based on old instruments.” In the beginning, Tone used the harp to accompany her clear voice. Her first album, “Kåmmå no,” earned her a Norwegian Grammy for Folk Music in 1983. 

Some years have passed since Tone first borrowed and then bought Sverre Jensen’s first replica harp. She has played it throughout her successful musical career, including international concert tours and the recording of seven solo CDs. (All Tone’s albums are available on Spotify.) Toward the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021, she should release her next album.

In 1984, Nancy, harp historian, contacted Sverre as part of her project to catalogue all the harps in European museums. Sverre connected Nancy to Tone and Morten Bing at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. When Nancy visited the museum, she became fascinated by the harp with two sound boxes and immediately wanted to experiment with playing technique. Her first harp with double sound boxes was built from church organ-pipes, so she could practice until the luthier found two matching blocks of Norwegian wood large enough to carve the sound boxes.

Nancy plays her harp differently than most, across her lap. She’s based her technique on careful research through the very limited historic references, in addition to trial and error. The Norwegian harp has opened doors for Nancy across the world, allowing her to travel, give lectures, and teach workshops. One of her recommended workshops teaches historical dance to musicians, enabling them to truly understand the rhythm of the tunes.

Back in the 1980s, many old langeleiker were discovered at farms surrounding the town of Gjøvik. Some local musicians and woodworkers decided to start making reconstructions. Sverre drew drafts of historic langeleiker, and showed his harp plans to the local instrument building group. Soon they were building harps of their own.

In 1987, Stein moved to Gjøvik. His harp adventures started with a flyer in the mailbox. “It had all these courses you could take: learn to knit, how to make bread, repair your car—and make your own harp. Of course, I had to try it,” Stein said.

Attending the Tuesday night workshops, he built his own harp, strung it, and proudly brought it home. He laughs at the memory, “the tension was too high, one night the soundboard exploded and gave us all a shock.” The harp Stein now plays was made by his neighbor. 

At that time, Stein didn’t know anyone else playing the harp and had to figure it out on his own. He found a book of old local tunes at the school library, a collection made around 1920. He found some tunes suitable for the harp—and he still plays them.

Stein has become a resource of historic folk music and instrument for schools and cultural events. After a little concert, everyone has a chance to play and sing. He says, “It doesn’t matter how old someone is, you hand them a harp to play, and their eyes light up: they’re happy. I love to see the stars in their eyes.”

Stein and his wife, Marit Steinsrud, are well known in the harp corner of the world for organizing the Nordic Harp Meeting when it is held in Norway. At the meeting, the traditional music and instruments of the Nordics are kept healthy by a group of avid music lovers. The meeting is held annually in various Nordic countries and attended by people from all over the world. 

In the American corner of the world, Beth Kollé and Sue Richards are recognized for arranging Norwegian folk tunes for the harp. Their harp music books help in building a new harp tradition from historic music.

In Norway, the harp is listed as an endangered instrument, and a group of volunteers is working to revitalize it. In 2016, Instruments in Focus was formed to promote these endangered instruments: harp, oboe, bassoon, church organ, and double bass. The group’s goal is to increase the number of students learning, studying, and professionally playing, or becoming lifelong hobby musicians. 

Instruments in Focus cooperates closely with volunteers, depending on them to arrange classes and courses. In 2019, Isabelle Perrin, harp professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music and artistic director to the World Harp Congress, arranged a harp symposium in Oslo. On a very snowy weekend, 54 harpists gathered to meet and celebrate their instrument: teachers and harpists of all ages, both folk and classical players alike.

During the symposium, the international group brainstormed ways to help the harp base grow in Norway. Using their combined knowledge, the participants outlined the needs of harpists in Norway and the best way to support them, forming the Norsk Harpeforening (Norwegian Harp Society). One year on, the society is planning two weekend events in Oslo and Stavanger. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, it is unsure if they will take place as planned.

Two members of the Arctic Harp Circle came down from Tromsø to play at the symposium. Seeing these two women keen on playing their folk harps together inspired the author to try to form a harp circle in Oslo. A few Facebook invitations later, the Oslo Fjord Harp Circle was born. Our harp circle is an informal gathering of enthusiastic players. We sit with our harps in a rough circle and play tunes together. Often a few other instruments will join in: guitar, fiddle, and voice.

It’s been centuries since Lægd-Dordi played at the wedding dance in Østerdalen, and yet the crystal-clear tones of harps playing the traditional tunes ring out again, in Norway and around the world.

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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