The fiddle is one of the most common instruments, found in one form or another in nearly every part of the world. It is best known today as the violin, which found its present form in sixteenth-century Italy.
Other bowed instruments have emerged in a range of cultures from Iceland to India. One of the most charming, both in the auditory and the visual sense, is the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle (also known as the hardingfele). This close cousin of the violin developed in the Hardanger district of western Norway, southeast of the port city of Bergen. It was developed by makers who probably combined aspects of the old Norse fiðla with the viola d’amore, one of the relatives of the violin. It seems to have first appeared in the 1600s, and quickly became popular throughout the region. Isak Neilsen Skaar and his son Trond Isaksen were two well-known early makers of the instrument. During the period from 1825 to 1875, the Helland family of Telemark brought the fiddle to its highest point of development. Jon Erikson Helland and his sons Erik Johnsen Helland and Ellef Johnsen Steinkjøndalen brought an exceptional degree of craftsmanship and artistic ability to their fiddlemaking, and incorporated a number of worthy improvements.
Several features make this instrument distinctive to Norway: the use of eight strings (only four of which are played with the bow; the other four vibrate sympathetically), the dragon’s head in place of a scroll, the overlapping f-holes, and the lavish use of inlay and decoration. Many fiddles have elegant floral drawings covering their surfaces, and often the peghead is detailed with gold leaf. There are also important structural differences, among them a lack of interior linings, very small corner blocks, and a bass bar which is carved into, not glued to, the sound board. The fingerboard and bridge are often nearly flat, allowing the player to bow more than two strings at a time.
The hardingfele is played in a variety of tunings; among them the common violin tuning GDAE (low to high) with the sympathetic strings tuned DEGA. Another is ADAE with DEF#A. The sympathetic strings give this fiddle’s sound a delightful coloration, with dark, shimmering undertones.
The folk fiddling of Norway draws one back to a simpler time, to a time of hard work at the loom or in the forests and fjords, of long winter evenings spent singing around the central fireplace, and of solemn processions and joyous wedding feasts with family gathered from afar.
For more information on recordings, performances, instruments, and strings, visit the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America at http://www.hfaa.org.
This article appeared in slightly different form in the November 1989 issue of the San Diego Folk Heritage journal Folk Notes.