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How Norwegian is the Hardanger Fiddle?

By Arild Hoksnes
1998, Vol. 11, No. 1
Used by permission.
Translation by Ruth Marie Sylte

It is possible that the hardingfele (Hardanger fiddle) may be more Norwegian than we had previously thought. An important joint project, which attempts to date old instruments, is currently winding up. Both humanities-focused and technological dating methods are being used to determine the age of old fiddles and fiddle boxes. So far the results are indicating that the Hardanger fiddle may be a result of an older Norwegian fiddle-making tradition, and not simply the result of influences from Europe in the 1700s.

Knut Buen
Knut Buen, one today's finest hardingfele spelemenn (Hardanger fiddle players). Photo by Scan Foto

How old is the hardingfele? And how did it come into being? For a long time, researchers have been in agreement that it originates from the mid-1700s. And the theory has been raised that the hardingfele is a Norwegian variation of a violin made in a style of European instruments in the 1700s, when it was popular to put resonating understrings on violins.

A Tradition from the Middle Ages?

At the same time, music researchers have puzzled over the fact that there is no documentation proving that the hardingfele is older (than the 1700s). This is particularly perplexing because so much of the fiddle music has been proven be older than that. So the exciting question is: Could the hardingfele possibly be a development of an old Norwegian fiddle — perhaps back to the "fidel" which is mentioned and depicted in the Middle Ages?

A fiddle with a makers mark of 1651, the so-called "Jaastad fiddle" from Hardanger, has long been a mystery for music researchers. It has been considered as the oldest existing hardingfele, but nobody has been able to produce evidence that this dating is correct. And especially perplexing is the fact that there are practically no fiddles in existence which date any earlier than the 1750s. Why, therefore, should a single hardingfele from 100 years earlier suddenly appear?

Jaastad Fiddle
The oldest dated fiddle we have is the "Jaastad fiddle", which was probably made by Ole Jonsen Jaastad in Hardanger. But is the dating of 1651 reliable? Photo by the Hardanger Fiddle Project.

Some historians who have grappled with this issue indicate the possibility that the pietistic Danish king, Christian VI (1699-1746), may have negatively influenced the extent of fiddle-making during that one hundred year period and indirectly caused the burning of fiddles. If this is the case, how can it be that fiddle maker Trond Isaksen Flatabø from Hardanger, who was known to have built around 1000 fiddles, was the wealthiest man in Hardanger when he died in 1772? What sort of demand for this instrument could have made him as rich as Croesus? A production of that magnitude could not possibly have been a "flash in the pan."

C14 and Dendrochronological Analysis

Three C14 analyses carried out under the supervision of Steinar Gulliksen at the Radiological Dating Laboratory of the Norwegian University of Science and Technoglogy (Norges Teknisk Natursvitenskapelige Universitetet, also known as NTNU) in Trondheim also places the Jaastad fiddle in the correct period. However, among other things, because only very small samples can be taken from such an instrument, the margin of error for measurement is so great that it is difficult to give a final indication that the dating of 1651 is correct.

Another possibility is a tree-ring (dendrochronological) analysis. Terje Thun, a research assistant at NTNU’s Botanical Institute, has tried to analyze the Jaastad fiddle with the help of photographs of the fiddle. "Reading tree-rings from photographs seems to work well, and that is, in itself, an exiting development of the method," says Thun.

Lack of Reference

The problem is that there is no reference chart for the growth of pine trees in western Norway after 1600.

Analysis shows that the pinewood of which the fiddle was made was cut and bundled before 1600. But now a chart must be made that will document the growth of western Norway’s pine trees after 1600. Thun waits for permission to take samples from the 17th century buildings of western Norway now located at the Norwegian Folk Museum., which can give him the needed reference point. By the end of the year will he be able to give a more definitive answer about the dating of Norway’s oldest hardingfele.

On the Trail of an Unknown Tradition

The leader of the project, Bjørn Aksdal at the Council for Folk Music and Folk Dance (Rådet for Folkemusikk og Folkedans), also known as RFF-Sentret, at NTNU, says that a wide range of disciplines have been used to test the dating of the Jaastad fiddle and other old Norwegian fiddles.

Fiddle Box from Voss
This fiddle box from Voss has the inscription of "1512". Both dendrochronological and C14 analysis support this dating as correct. The box fits perfectly to a fiddle of the Jaastad style. Photo by the Hardanger Fiddle Project.

"Art historians, historians, handwriting experts and fiddlemakers have evaluated the instruments from many angles. Connections between the humanities, natural science methods and the knowledge of craftsmanship from (modern) fiddle makers Sigvald Rørlien and Olav Vindal, have brought the Hardanger Fiddle Project many exciting dimensions," he says.

But Aksdal is of the opinion that there are other, and perhaps even more important, clues that point to the possibility that the hardingfele is older and more Norwegian than we had believed.

"One of the clues is a fiddle box from Voss, bearing the inscription "1512". The box has room for a relatively small fiddle, something that is typical for the oldest preserved fiddles.. And the dendrochronological analysis used seems to indicate that the box was made late in the first decade of the 1500s, probably earlier," says Aksdal.

"What we have found so far has not contraindicated that the Jaastad fiddle is from the 1600s and we have also found a fiddle box from the 1500s, made for what we believe would be a typical old Norwegian fiddle. We feel that we are "getting warm" in the search for an older Norwegian fiddlemaking tradition with which we were not previously acquainted," says Aksdal.

Arild Hoknes is a researcher and fiddler from Norway. He is the former editor of Spelemannsbladet, the journal of Landslaget for Spelemenn.