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The Hardanger fiddle culture and history

The Hardanger fiddle as we know it today has an unbroken history and tradition all the way back to the 17th century.  The oldest instrument we know of is “Jåstadfela” (the Jåstad fiddle), made by Ola Johnsen Jaastad in 1651. This fiddle is exhibited in Bergen Museum. There is also a fiddle case dated to the 16th century which we can be quite certain belonged to an instrument resembling this one.  There are also tunes written down from this time period that are commonly used today. Therefore, there are many factors indicating that we have an approximately 500-year-old fiddle playing tradition.


The Hardanger fiddle has been through several eras that have changed it and given it a broader geographical spread. Possibly the most important era is the years from the beginning of the 18th century to around 1770. Over this time period Isak Nilsen Skaar and his son Trond Isaksen Flatebø renewed the Hardanger Fiddle and had an enormous production of instruments. It is estimated they made 1000-1500 instruments throughout this time period. We have reason to believe that these two had a lot to do with the geographical spread of the Hardanger fiddle we see today. Papers from Trond´s estate show that he was one of the richest persons in the west of Norway when he died, which gives us reason to believe that he and his dad did not only make good instruments, they also managed to make it into a profitable business.


Not much happens in the next hundred years until the Helland family in Telemark appear. From 1820 until 1970 there is a continuous series of Hardanger fiddle makes from the Helland and Steintjønndalen families. Maybe the most defining of these is Erik Johnsen Helland who around year 1860 developed and made a Hardanger fiddle model similar to the one we know today, which is relatively similar to the violin in outer measurements.


The last hundred years haven’t led to any major changes to the construction of the Hardanger fiddle, but many skilful fiddle makers with large production have perfected the building process. Besides the Helland and Steintjønndalen families Gunnar Martin Røstad, Olav K. Venås and Torleiv Frøysaa are worth mentioning, And in the last 50 years Håvard Kvanndal, Anders Aasen and Sigvald Rørlien.


The Hardanger fiddle as an instrument has had a growing popularity in line with trends and changes in society. Today the fiddle has its place both in traditional “slåttespel” (traditional tunes), “samspel” (playing together) and in modern music. We often divide the country into either Hardanger Fiddle or Fiddle districts. The Hardanger Fiddle districts are Rogaland, Vestland, parts of Møre og Romsdal as well as Hallingdal, Valdres, Telemark and Setesdal.


Since 1896, when Vestmannalaget arranged the first Landskappleik in Bergen. “Kappleik” (folk music and dance competition), both national and regional, have been a major part of the Hardanger Fiddle culture. Here, people gather to both listen to and perform folk music, as well as it being a social meeting point. It is an important strength for the folk music that we have a social environment bigger than only the local one, and that you can be part of large network.


Part of the culture is so called “master-student” teaching for Hardanger Fiddle. Another part is to communicate and spread the local knowledge and history regarding the traditional tunes and the fiddlers we have them from.  Also valuable are local variations and versions. This contributes to the folk music having a greater diversity than many other genres.


When it comes to use of the Hardanger fiddle, the slåttespel, such as gangar and springar is the most rooted and used for the last 500 years. Is has traditionally been used as a solo instrument. This is probably the most common use today as well, but for the last 100 years the Hardanger Fiddle has also been used a lot in samspel for the more modern runddans (reinlender, waltz etc.). Today the use of the Hardanger Fiddle is even more versatile, including newly composed music and other genres than just folk music. This shows that the instrument has qualities making it able to follow new development of music in general.


The geographical spread of the instrument has been characterized by coincidences, trade routes and established cultures. The churches view of the Hardanger fiddle and folk music has also played a huge part in this. There is reason to believe that intense Hardanger fiddle playing has been a competitor to the religion and spiritual revival in Norway especially in the 1800 and early 1900. All the way up to 1958 the church has denied the hardanger fiddle from entering the church room. The term “the devils instrument” is today a part of past history, and the hardanger fiddle is now often used in churches.


The fiddle maker tradition has been widely discussed the past years. Earlier there has been a larger group of fiddle makers, but today there are only a few doing this full time and only a couple of them are self-employed. Among prominent fiddle makers today are Ottar Kåsa, Bård Riise Hoel, Knut Oppheimsbakken, Harald Kvanndal, Leif Salve Håkedal, Sigvald Rørlien, Wiebke Lueders and Ole Gjerde.


Today we experience a bigger international interest for the Hardanger fiddle. In USA there was already an established culture in the Norwegian-American community, but now even more independent communities show interest in both the instrument and in learning how to play it. Japan has a growing Hardanger fiddle community, and the interest also seems to be rising in Europe and other Nordic countries.

Alexander Røynstrand at kappleik.

Photo: Knut Utler

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