The Hardanger Fiddle In America
by Lanson Wells
An outlandish looking “new” fiddle has been popping up at Bluegrass, Celtic, and Old-Time jams across the country. This “new” fiddle is the hardanger fiddle, and it is the national instrument of Norway. Showcasing four playing strings and five additional sympathetic strings, as well as a highly decorated body, the hardanger fiddle draws attention as soon as it is pulled out of its case. This “new” fiddle has one of the oldest folk music traditions in the western hemisphere and it is the most popular string instrument that combines both bowed and sympathetic strings.
The hardanger fiddle’s story starts in Norway around the 1650s. It is a violin that includes four or five additional resonating strings that run below the bowed strings. The body of the instrument is decorated with complex pin-and-ink drawings along with copious inlay. The bridge is often flatter than the bridge of a conventional violin, to allow the fiddler to play on two or more strings at once. The additional sympathetic strings combined with double stops and drones from the melody strings add up to a dark, mellow, and hypnotic violin sound. By the mid 1700s the hardanger fiddle had become the dominant folk instrument of Norway. This fiddle was traditionally used for accompanying folk dancing and has more than one thousand documented instrument specific folk melodies.
Several traditional and alternate tuning options have attracted Celtic, Irish, Old-Time, and Bluegrass fiddlers to this unique instrument. The standard hardanger tuning is (from the bottom up) A-D-A-E. Other popular tunings include F-D-A-E, A-E-A-C#, G-D-A-E, G-D-G-D, and F#-D-A-D. The sympathetic strings are traditionally tuned to B-D-E-F#-A, but can be tuned to the player’s taste. These alternate tunings mirror tunings often found in other fiddling traditions, and fiddlers of these styles that are attracted to the unique tone of the hardanger fiddle have started performing these styles on this fiddle of Norwegian origin. Experimental violinists have also embraced the possibilities of resonating strings and alternate tunings to craft new soundscapes that could never have been imagined until this century.
The hardanger fiddle belongs to an unusual group of string instruments that combine sympathetic strings with bowed strings. These instruments are rooted in the Renaissance and Baroque time periods and found throughout music history. They include classical western European instruments such as the lyra da braccio, viola d’amore, and baryton. While these other instruments are rarely heard and only played by early music specialists, the hardanger fiddle experiences popularity throughout Europe and the USA among both professional and amateur musicians.
The hardanger fiddle’s boost in popularity is partly due to the instrument’s use in film sound tracks. Howard Shore’s score to the three Lord of the Rings films makes heavy use of the instrument. It’s mellow and rustic sound is used with the melodic material connected to the realm of Rohan. More recently, the hardanger fiddle was used in the DreamWorks film How to Train Your Dragon.
If this article has piqued your interest, and you would like to learn more about the unique story and sound of the hardanger fiddle, please check out America’s best hardanger resource: The Hardanger Fiddle Association of America. The HFAA offers workshops, scholarly research, classifieds, tips on playing, and access to the largest community of hardanger players in the USA. Their website is found at www.hfaa.org.