By Karen Peterson | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Mesmerizing, the droning asymmetric tone of the Hardanger fiddle, with its distinguishing double-decker string set, haunts the opening soundtrack of the movie Fargo, as a car towing a mangled truck slowly emerges from the ghostly whiteout conditions of winter in North Dakota.
The music the Hardanger is playing is not a moody construct imagined by filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen. It is a Norwegian folk song, “The Lost Sheep.” To truly understand what has made the Hardanger synonymous with the sound of Norway, listen in the video below to hear one of the country’s most famous Hardanger (or hardingfele) players, Annbjørg Lien, coax out the same tune on this most unusual violin
Fargo isn’t the only film to feature the Hardanger. It had a starring musical role in The Rohan Fanfare, the signature theme of the second episode in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, The Two Towers. Karen L. Rebholz of Madison, Wisconsin, a Hardanger player, maker, and teacher, gained a 12-year-old student from the Hardanger’s LOTR exposure.
Until popular culture unwrapped it for a worldwide audience, the Hardanger had remained Norway’s best-kept musical secret, a treasured national instrument that rose from the orchards and farmland in the Hardangerfjord region of southwestern Norway. While the spotlight hasn’t created an overnight mass trending event, interest in the Hardanger has increased worldwide and in the U.S., where the attention is most welcome by the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America (HFAA), founded in 1983 to resurrect the Hardanger for younger generations that had lost touch with their Norwegian roots.
Today, Rebholz, an HFAA member—as all serious U.S. Hardanger makers and players are—has an inside track on gauging interest among players. As a volunteer, she is in charge of merchandise. Going through the roof? Sales of authentic strings imported from Norway. You can’t use regular violin strings for the Hardanger; they’re too heavy and can damage the lighter-weight fiddle. Rebholz has also noted an increase in the number of players and dancers who attend and perform at the HFAA’s annual summer workshop, this year scheduled to take place July 22–25 online, according to the website.
For all its charms, the primary role of the Hardanger is the same as for fiddles everywhere: music to drive the dance. It can be played for waltzes and schottisches, but it is primarily used for Norwegian regional dances. More than 1,000 distinct Hardanger tunes (slåtter) have been identified by researchers, handed down over generations.
Each tune delivers a story, which can vary from region to region. The hypnotic, polyphonic sound of the Hardanger, with its set of resonating strings, directs the movement. Slow as they begin, posture straight, two dancers circle the floor. As the dance story unfolds, the couple in this version becomes more flirtatious and demonstrably, by the male, more acrobatic.
From the beginning, Hardanger playing and the songs played were passed down by ear. But in the 19th century there was concern that the old ways would be lost or forgotten. The solution came from 13 years of correspondence between Hardanger player Knut Dahle and Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg. Dahle’s pleas to save the music came to fruition in Grieg’s Norwegian Peasant Dances, Op. 72, which contains 17 of Dahle’s traditional slåtter.
Beloved as much for the way it sounds as the way it looks, the Hardanger is a stunning piece of folk art, reflective of a rural homeland that is known for brightly colored embroidery and home arts that celebrate nature and country living.
On the Hardanger, that love of design translates into delicate hand-drawn black ink motifs on the body, called rosings; intricate mother-of-pearl inlays; and the crowning feature, the hand carved figurehead that replaces the volute. Traditionally, it’s a lion’s head honoring Norway’s coat-of-arms, but variations are acceptable and depend on the creativity of the maker. Fingerboards and tailpieces are also made of ebony, and tailpieces can include details such as inlaid mother-of-pearl, bone, and metal.
“Compared with the violin, the Hardanger fiddles leave more space for creativity,” says Wiebke Lüders, fiddle maker and conservator at Ole Bull Academy in Voss, Norway. Named for Norway’s most famous violinist, Ole Bornemann Bull, Ole Bull Academy is the world center for Hardanger music education and Norwegian folk music.
“Hardanger fiddle making is closer to artisan craftswork than violin making,” says Lüders. “Even though decorations can be standardized, there is always freedom to make your own. One can often recognize who made the fiddle by the way it is designed or decorated.”
Lüders joined Ole Bull after studying at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts and completing a scholarship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s conservation department in New York. Her decision came after a workshop with the Academy’s well-known Hardanger maker, Sigvald Rørlien, now retired. “We had an instant connection and Sigvald asked me if I would like to work with him,” she says. “The work is creative, there is contact with musicians, and there are always challenges and new things to learn.”
Rebholz, who attended a workshop at Ole Bull Academy, also studied with Rørlien, and remembers the experience fondly. “I spent a month immersed in the local culture of the valley where he was born. It really gave me a better appreciation for the music,” she says, particularly “the sounds of nature in the songs.”
The oldest-known Hardanger, the Jaastad Fiddle, named for its maker Olav Jonsson Jaastad, possibly dates to as early as 1651. By the mid-1700s, the Hardanger had become a dominant folk instrument in parts of Norway. While the instrument’s origins are still under study, most accept that it was inspired by the European viola d’amore or similar Baroque instruments with a drone sound, says Lüders.
Its kinship to the violin, she says, is recognizable in its classical body shape, which clearly resembles its Italian counterparts that issued from the workshops of Stradivari or Guarneri.
Setting it apart are the elements that drive the dramatic echoing sound delivered by the “sympathetic” understrings. The f-holes are usually longer and carved so that the wood overlaps on the bottom and the top, giving the opening a more vertical alignment. Designed to create a perpetual “open” sound, you can see through the fiddle from one f-hole to the other.
Since Hardanger fiddles usually have four or five resonating understrings, the pegbox is longer. The bottom strings run under the fingerboard, which is carved out on the underside, and the bridge has a cutout for the understrings, which are tightened on hooks at the tailpiece. The neck is shorter by about an inch.
The fingerboard and bridge are flatter than those of a classical violin, making it harder for a player to play a single string. Double-stops are the norm, and bowing style, using standard bows, is smoother and with a bounce. Stylistically, ornamentation is done with trills, says Rebholz, and not vibrato. Hardangers are traditionally played in first position.
As for tuning, Rebholz advises that there are 29 ways, at least, to tune the top and bottom strings based on the tune to be played. She says a common tuning for the top strings is A D A E, with the understrings tuned B D E F# A (lowest to highest). The D and higher A strings would be the same pitch for the top and bottom strings, with the E understring an octave below the E top string.
Hardanger fiddle-making is a part of the curriculum at the Ole Bull Academy, and a new program in historical instrument making at the University of South-Eastern Norway includes Hardangers. That’s about it, until next year when Ole Bull launches a one-year postgraduate course in Hardanger fiddle making, open to international students with a degree in instrument making.
“As far as I know, these are the only places in the world where you can officially study Hardanger fiddle making,” says Lüders, adding that in Norway, “fiddle makers have become more and more secretive, and knowledge has not been passed on” as in the past. The opposite is true in the U.S., where only a handful of makers are at work fashioning traditional Hardangers with their own special touches. Rebholz, for instance, carves women’s heads, not lions’, on her scrolls.
Lynn Berg, a violin maker before turning to the Hardanger, enjoys the challenges of making these traditional instruments in his Eugene, Oregon, workshop—“it’s a learning curve,” he says—and also the company afforded by being part of a niche market. “You get to know the other makers,” he said. “It’s fun to be a part of a small community.”
Berg, who has traveled to Norway numerous times to study, and who has won awards in competitions there for his fiddles, says the switch to the Hardanger was partly due to his Norwegian roots—“100 percent second-generation,” he says—but also because “there are just too many darned violin makers.”
Hardangers in the U.S. usually range in cost from $4,500 to $6,500, depending on the wood and the ornamentation (Berg uses maple from Slovakia and spruce from British Columbia). “The prices are often lower or similar to violin prices, even though the work is more elaborate and takes much more time,” says Lüders. Violin makers have access to prefabricated parts, like fingerboards and bridges. “Hardanger fiddle makers make all these parts themselves by hand,” she says. “Nevertheless, as folk instruments, they are unfortunately not considered quite as valuable as the classical violins.”