The Hardanger Fiddle Project

By Bjørn Aksdal, Committee Chair, Hardanger Fiddle Project

Translated by Tore Pedersen

In 1993, a project was established to survey the older history of the hardingfele (Hardanger fiddle). The initiative came from the Ole Bull Academy (Voss), Hardanger Folk Museum (Utne) and Bergen Museum (Bergen) in Norway. Eventually, these institutions also became the central group for accomplishing the project.

The professional project group includes Olav Vindal, a hardingfele maker from Granvin, Sigvald Rørlien, a hardingfele maker from Voss/Fagernes, Jan-Petter Blom, professor of social anthropology at the University of Bergen, and Chair of the Committee, Bjørn Aksdal of the Norwegian Council for Folk Music and Folk Dance.

The motivation for the project was the fact that little exact knowledge exists of the origin and the development of the hardingfele until around 1860, at which time the instrument mainly evolved to its present-day shape. Primary sources include a few ethnographic instances, some written materials, quite a few oral traditions, and a lot of preserved fiddles and fiddleboxes. Many of these sources are unreliable and difficult to interpret. As to the fiddles, many of them are unsigned and undated. Even the accuracy of the signatures and the dates of some of the dated fiddles has legitimately been questioned.

The first phase of the Hardanger Fiddle Project is aimed mainly at older instruments, especially those made before 1870. The Project's first goal is to track all relevant instruments in public collections and private ownership in Norway, as well as in other countries. The next step will be to travel around and map all available instruments through exact measurement, photography, and preliminary professional estimates. The Project would also like to borrow as many fiddles as possible for closer examination at the fine fiddle construction workshop at the Hardanger Folk Museum (Utne). Thus, fiddles in private ownership and in small collections or museums will be the primary targets for this phase. The last part of the project is an evaluation of the collected materials and the preparation of a written presentation, which will include a professional evaluation of handwriting and decorations on the fiddles.

Many people concerned with the early history of the hardingfele have put forth various theories of the instrument's development. The major areas of differences in those theories are often between those who consider the hardingfele development to come from the shape of the violins, strongly influenced by the viola d'amore; and, on the other hand, those who have considered the hardingfele to be a development of the Norwegian Middle-Age stringed instruments played with a bow.

At central positions in hardingfele development are the fiddle makers Isak Nielsen (Skaar) Botnen (1663?-1759) and his son, Trond Isaksen Flateboe (1713-1772), both from Kvam in Hardanger. According to tradition, these two are supposed to have built many fiddles which, in their time, were very attractive. Quite a few of their fiddles have been preserved and some are dated. However, none of these is older than 1750.

Both Isak and Trond also built violins. It is said that Isak produced violins in Italian shape and of high quality as early as the 1780s. An important question to be researched is whether the Botnen fiddle makers used the same materials and principles for building fiddles as they did for violins. In discussions of the origin and development of the hardingfele, there is no doubt about the great importance of research about the fiddles made by the Botnen family.

The Hardanger Fiddle Project is interested in all kinds of information about fiddles dated before 1870, as well as unsigned/undated fiddles that are not in the common shape of today's fiddles. Older instruments are often much smaller, have a high arched belly, have high sound hole openings, and the number of under strings can vary from one to six. The Hardanger Fiddle Project is also interested in any older violins built in Norway, especially those made by Trond or Isak's hands. Financial contributions for the Hardanger Fiddle Project come from the cooperating institutions and have been supplemented by contributions from the Norwegian Council for Folk Music and Folk Dance (Rådet for folkemusikk og folkedans) and by a larger amount from the Arts Council Norway (Kulturrådet).

Members of Norway's Hardanger Fiddle Project traveled to the USA on a grant from the Norwegian government to research older hardingfeler at the HFAA's 2000 Annual Workshops to share their expertise via lectures and demonstrations in all areas of Norwegian folk music, dance and hardingfele construction. They were on site to identify, describe, measure, record, photograph and register hardingfeler. Hardanger fiddles were brought in by individuals for evaluation. There were no charges for these services.