Myth and Reality

Thanks to its national history and mythical associations, the Hardanger fiddle is more than just a Norwegian violin. In earlier times, it was regarded as a not entirely human invention...


Norwegian legends and fairy tales are full of references to subterranean or supernatural beings, many of which have the fiddle as a symbolic attribute. The fiddle is an expression of power and strength, it carries the spark of life from nature to mankind, but is sometimes also associated with mortal danger. Even today, some people believe that anyone hoping to become a real fiddler must be apprenticed to Fossegrimen. This creature is related to the rattier more frightening Nøkken. Both live in water, Nøkken in rivers, becks and tarns and the fiddle-playing Fossegrimen, as its name suggests, in waterfalls and rapids.

The waterfall sprite is the supreme fiddler. He is the steward of the fiddle's magic, and it is with him a budding fiddler must enter into a pact if he is to learn the secrets of this supernatural art. The part is reminiscent of similar contracts with the devil in other mythology, or the well-known motif from the Faust legend, which in turn explains why there is something Mephistophelean about the fiddler, a hypnotic, spellbinding power capable of seducing both people and live-stock. However, this is not usually regarded as power; it is normally interpreted as benevolent, since the fiddler is capable of dispelling the powers of darkness in threatening situations - provided he plays well enough.

The story of Veslefrikk med fela (Little Freddy with the Fiddle), recorded by the two literary folklorists Peder Chr. Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, demonstrates how the madness the fiddler is capable of releasing is all to the good. Veslefrikk is to be hanged, surrounded by the stony countenances of the priest, the bailiff and the curious villagers. With the noose already round his neck, he asks them to grant a final wish. Very well, they chuckle knowingly, there's no reason why he shouldn't play them a tune before he leaves this world. But as soon as he gets hold of his fiddle and draws his first bow, an unbelievable thing happens: nobody can stand still! It is not him, it is the fiddle which forces everyone, high and low, to join in the dance. The playing is hardly of this world. Soon the entire area around the gallows has become one frenzied celebration and Veslefrikk is saved.

The Hardanger fiddle is inextricably linked to such legends, and it is the folk tunes which have kept them alive. Folk dances such as the gangar and springar are almost unthinkable without the fiddle.

The music has never changed character, but these are thousands of different slåtter, and young fiddlers have had to pay for the privilege of learning many of them. Traditionally, these slåtter have never been written down; they have been the property of the fiddler who created them, and on occasion the colleagues to whom he sold them. Most fiddlers have created their own slåtter, which usually bear their names.

In the course of time, some of them have become common property while others have retained their exclusiveness, for musical or social reasons, and are played with considerable reverence. Folklore isn't far away in this connection either.

One of the most famous slåtter is Fanitullen, said to have been composed by Old Nick himself. They say you can hear his hoof beating the rhythm.

Fiddle-making is also a highly honourable craft that requires not only expertise but also a considerable portion of respect for tradition and ritual. Each village has had its own inherited specialities, although few today master the craft. The difference between an ordinary fiddle and a really excellent Hardanger fiddle is just as decisive for the professionals in this field as the difference between a standard violin and a Stradivarius for classical violinists.

During the post-war period, the Hardanger fiddle was losing its popularity in urbanised, industrialised Norway. People despised folk music, which aroused feelings of shame and minority complexes. This situation has changed considerably in recent years. Nowadays, Norwegians find it natural for the Hardanger fiddle and its special Norwegian musical tradition to have been used in connection with the 1994 Olympic Winter Games at Lillehammer as one of several ways of profiling the country as a modem European cultural nation.

There was really no growth of “modern” Norwegian music before the National Romantic period in the first half of the last century. This took place slowly, as was also the case in drama and literature, almost like a natural process with a few determined leaders. While they were artists themselves, they were first and foremost cultural policy pioneers who wanted to raise the folk tradition (and particularly certain local variants of it) to a national level where it would also be able to grow into a European cultural pattern. Henrik Ibsen's first plays, written when he was in-house playwright at the new theatre in Bergen in the 1850s, must be regarded as part of this project. Det Norske Theater (now Den Nationale Scene) had been founded by violinist Ole Bull as late as 1850.

It is typical for the history of this national liberation and consciousness movement that it may be said to have originated on the borderline between mythology and reality. The dream of a politically free and culturally independent Norway found sustenance in other dreams: the “Norwegian national soul” had long since been influenced by fairy-tales and poems, superstitions and ghosts. Now they were to be used as a resource in the creation of a modem nation, and even became the symbol of bourgeois spiritual life in Norway.

Ole Bull (LTN no. 3/94) was one of the leaders. A composer and violin virtuouso, he became a living legend, building bridges between the ordinary people and the authorities, between various types of music, even between Norway and other nations. In his dream world, for he was a born dreamer, he travelled widely and gave concerts. He played in the ruins of the Colosseum in Rome; he climbed the Cheops pyramid in Egypt with his violin and rained Norwegian strains over the planet.

He was a strange bird. His song was Norwegian, his wingspan universal. His attempts to found a Norwegian colony - Oleana! - in Pennsylvania never succeeded. But at least he became one of the founders of the new Norway. Typically, it was he who “discovered” Myllarguten, the Millers' Boy, in 1831 and turned him into a celebrity.

That story has a symbolic significance: Myllarguten was the well-known nickname of a not quite so well-known fiddler called Torgeir Augundsson. He came from Telemark, from a rich, proud folk music environment, and his prowess was renowned. It was said that he had a gift of nature, that he handled his fiddle with magical power, almost as something supernatural, and that strange things happened to those who heard him play. In actual fart, his father had taught him to play the fiddle and the Hardanger fiddle was by no means a “mystical” instrument in Sauherad, his home village. According to tradition, however, there were so many legends associated with the fiddle and so many stories about the power of the fiddler over human beings and his secret contacts with the forces of nature, that it was not really surprising that the Miller's Boy himself became a myth. He travelled round southern Norway with his Hardanger fiddle, was very much in demand, and had such an aura that having him play at weddings or dances brought unimaginable status.

As soon as Ole Bull heard Myllarguten play, he was wildly enthusiastic, not envious but bewitched, almost mystified. Myllarguten was a man of the people, he seemed to have grown straight from the forest, perfectly trained in Ole Bull's own instrument. However, Ole Bull had grown up in an urban environment, a bourgeois tradition, and had been taught by professional music teachers since he was a child. He had developed his own technique, built his own violin to be able to play on all four strings simultaneously, and made frenetic attempts to learn Paganini's secrets by studying him at concerts in Europe.

The wonderful thing about Myllarguten was his natural talent. It supported both the claims of ancient Norwegian fiddle mythology and the national programme supported by Bull. Myllarguten was just the ticket. Ole Bull wanted to play with him. He introduced Myllarguten from Telemark to “official” concert platforms and ensured that he performed in Gothenburg and Copenhagen. The sensational innovation was the meeting between chamber music and folk music, the fact that rural slåtter suddenly appeared on the concert repertoire of “polite society”.

Since then, Norwegian music has led a double life. As “national composer” par excellence, Edvard Grieg was later influenced by precisely Ole Bull and Myllarguten. With his transcriptions for piano, Grieg contributed towards making folk music acceptable.

But isn't the Hardanger fiddle just a Norwegian violin?

I suppose it is, but that tells us little or nothing. Due to its national history and mythical associations, the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle is almost another instrument. It differs in purely technical terms too, having not only shorter, thinner strings, but twice as many. The four additional strings - and the high tuning this entails - contribute towards the rough, full, almost “unmanageable” richness of sound, as does the body of the instrument, which is also differently built and proportioned than that of a violin. Because of all this, the Hardanger fiddle has to be played in a special way, and it has had both its own special areas of use and its own special repertoire, not least for festive and ceremonial occasions.

The latter may be one explanation of why the old fiddlers developed precisely this kind of stringed instrument.
It was their own music they were to play, and it was for weddings and dances they were paid to play. The tunes were passed down from father to son, and from this point of view the music was related to the oral narrative tradition of the fairy tale. This was folk art that accorded with the most immediate need for atmosphere and a feeling of community, it was a light, dancing form of music that conjured up and engaged in dialogue with the threatening forces of nature that surrounded people.

The art of the fiddler was regarded as something close to wizardry. The fiddler and his fiddle acquired a position in popular rite and myth indicating that the Hardanger fiddle could not be an entirely human invention. People have wondered whether the older instruments - with or without strings - may have provided a background for this “supernatural” interpretation of the nature and value of the fiddle, when characters from ancient legends can suddenly be “seen” in the fiddle and the dance. But nobody has been able to give a satisfactory answer.

It is unlikely that the continental violin, the concert instrument which originated in Italy in the 16th century, is older than the Hardanger fiddle. Some fiddlers believe that it is younger, that the Hardanger fiddle must have had at least as long a tradition to build on, and that it therefore developed in a misty past which they would like to trace back to the very earliest sources of folk culture...

The idea of the Hardanger fiddle as the indigenous Norwegian instrument does not bear closer historical analysis, as does the Greek lyre, the origin of the term “lyric” in many European languages. In the case of the Hardanger fiddle, there are good reasons for assuming that its historical development ran parallel with the Italian “viola”, unless the first violins were simply the forerunners of the Hardanger fiddle.

As yet, no research has been able to trace the Hardanger fiddle further back than the 1650s. However, there is little doubt that the aesthetic design of the instrument is based on far older handicraft traditions. Now we are talking about wood carving, with ornaments and lion's heads which are easily associated with the dragons' heads on the old stave churches. But the “staves” themselves were national adaptations - in wood - of Gothic church art. The rose painting and similar decorations that often adorn the Hardanger fiddle also have their South European inspiration in the ancient (and later baroque) acanthus vine. Nevertheless, this is a localised phenomenon, in fact more local than national, since the existence of the Hardanger fiddle is limited to western Norway and the south-western valleys of eastern Norway. Further to the east and north, we find the so-called flat fiddle and a different music and dance tradition as well.

The most unique thing about the Hardanger fiddle is its sound and repertoire. The most Norwegian thing about it has little to do with the instrument but far more to do with all the mythology with which it has been associated in rural culture.

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.4 - 1996 No. 1
Share the story on:
                    |     More


New acquisitions from the National Library (sheet music)

MIC-pages is managed by Aslak Oppebøen
Tel: +47 90175338 ·