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What is a Hardanger fiddle?

Hardingfele made by Lynn Berg

Hardingfele made by Lynn Berg
The Hardanger fiddle (in Norwegian, hardingfele) is often called the national instrument of Norway. It is similar to the violin and each one is a handmade work of art. A typical hardingfele is beautifully decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay and black pen-and-ink drawings, called rosing.
It is topped with a carved head of a maiden (see photo below) or, more frequently, of an animal, usually a lion. Its most distinguishing feature is the four or five sympathetic strings that run underneath the fingerboard and add echoing overtones to the sound.
Listen to Michael Fitzhugh's March, 2005 radio segment, A Short Exploration of the Hardanger Fiddle.
The traditional playing style is heavily polyphonic. A melody voice is accompanied by a moving "drone" voice. Together, the instrument and the playing style create the sound for which the Hardanger fiddle is famous.

The instrument probably originated in the area around the Hardanger fjord of Norway — whence comes the English language name. The oldest known fiddle, the "Jaastad Fiddle," was made by Olav Jonsson Jaastad from Ullensvang and may date from as early as 1651. By the mid-1700s the Hardanger fiddle had become the dominant folk instrument in much of the inland south-central and western coastal areas of Norway. It is one of the few European folk music traditions that has survived the assaults of cultural change and foreign musical influences to continue nearly unchanged up to the present day.
 

Researchers in hardingfele music have notated over 1,000 distinct tunes, or slåttar, for the instrument. Each tune has a history and lineage, transmitted as carefully as the tune itself. The folklore surrounding the music has also been handed down for generations. Stories abound of the prowess of particular fiddlers or dancers, of the connection of fiddling with the supernatural, and of the joys and sorrows of everyday life, all connected with the music of the Hardanger fiddle in a living web.

Hardingfele made by Olav Vindal

Hardingfele made by Olav Vindal, showing detail of bridge and string attachments to tailpiece

The primary purpose of the hardingfele is to be played for listeners, but especially for dancers. Hardingfeler can be played for gammaldans (waltz, reinlender/schottis, pols, etc.), but are most associated with Norwegian bygdedans (regional dances) such as springar and gangar. These dances are found in areas such as Hallingdal, Telemark, Setesdal, Valdres, and on the west coast of Norway in Voss, Jølster, and Sogn. We invite you to listen to audio selections of Hardanger fiddle music.