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A Hardanger fiddle (or in Norwegian: hardingfele) is a traditional stringed instrument used originally to play the music of Norway. In modern designs, this type of fiddle is very similar to the violin, though with eight or nine strings (rather than four as on a standard violin) and thinner wood. Four of the strings are strung and played like a violin, while the rest, aptly named understrings or sympathetic strings, resonate under the influence of the other four, providing a pleasant haunting, echo-like sound.
The Hardingfele is used mainly in the southwest part of Norway, whereas the ordinary violin (called 'flatfele' - 'flat fiddle' or 'vanlig fele' - 'common fiddle') is found elsewhere. The Hardingfele is used for dancing, accompanied by rhythmic loud foot stomping. It was also traditional for the fiddler to lead the bridal procession to the church.
The instrument often is highly decorated, with a carved animal (usually a dragon or the Lion of Norway) or a carved woman's head as part of the scroll at the top of the pegbox, extensive mother of pearl inlay on the tailpiece and fingerboard, and black ink decorations called 'rosing' on the body of the instrument. Sometimes pieces of bone are used to decorate the pegs and the edges of the instrument.
The earliest known example of the hardingfele is from 1651, made by Ole Jonsen Jaastad in Hardanger, Norway. Originally, the instrument had a rounder, narrower body. Around the year 1850, the modern layout with a body much like the violin became the norm.
Unlike the violin, the Hardingfele is a transposing instrument, meaning that sheet music for the Hardingfele is written in a key other than the one in which the instrument sounds when it plays that music. Specifically, the Hardingfele is a "B-flat instrument" (as is, e.g., the trumpet), meaning that the Hardingfele's "written C" corresponds to B♭ (about 466 hertz on an instrument tuned to the usual 440 Hz for the first A above middle C). The notes given below for tunings are therefore relative to the Hardingfele's written A, not to a concert A.
The understrings are tuned to vibrate according to the main tuning. For example, when the main strings are tuned A-D-A-E, the understrings are tuned B-D-E-F♯-A. The tuning largely depends on the region in which the instrument is being played, or the requirements of a particular tune.
In Norway, more than 20 different tunings are recorded. Most hardanger tunes are played in a common tuning (A-D-A-E). The hardanger fiddle can also be played in "low bass", the word "bass" referring to the lowest string, (G-D-A-E), the normal violin tuning. In certain regions the "Gorrolaus" (F-D-A-E) tuning is sometimes used.
Another tuning is called "troll tuning" (A-E-A-C♯). Troll tuning is used for the fanitullen tunes, also called the devil's tunes, as well as the tunes from the Kivlemøyane suite (thus associated with the hulderpeople as well as the devil); in the Valdres district of Norway, using this particular tuning is called "greylighting", a reminder that the fiddler tuned his fiddle like this when the morning was near, and he had played himself through a number of other tunings.
Legend has it that the fiddler learned fanitullen tunes from the devil. This tuning limits the melodic range of the tunes and is therefore sparsely used.
The technique of bowing a Hardingfele also differs from that used with a violin. It's a smoother, bouncier style of bowing, with a lighter touch. The player usually bows on two of the upper strings at a time, and sometimes three. This is made easy by the relative flatness of the bridge, unlike the more curved bridge on a violin. The strings of the fiddle are slimmer than those of the violin, resembling the strings of violins from the baroque period.
Tunes and techniques of playing differ a great deal between different regions in Norway. This is likely due to earlier isolation of communities in the series of valleys and mountains constituting Norway's geography.
Standard musical notation is rarely used by the traditional players. But to preserve the music, and to get classical players to play Norwegian music, there were people who systematically transcribed tunes. They used a system where the notes corresponded to the fingering on the instrument rather than to absolute pitch. It is usual for the players in Norway not to read music, but learn tunes by ear. It is actually surprisingly common for players to not even be able to read notes. In later years, however, some fiddlers use manuscripts as a kind of "second-hand" source, for refreshing their memories.
The Hardingfele has had a long history with the Christian church. Well known early fiddle maker Isak Botnen is said to have learned some of his craft from church lay leader and school master Lars Klark, as well as the methods for varnishing from pastor Dedrik Muus. In many folktales the devil is associated with the Hardingfele, in fact many good players were said to have been taught to play by the devil, if not by the nix. During religious revivals in the 1800s many fiddles (regular and Hardanger) were destroyed or hidden both by fiddlers and laypeople who thought "that it would be best for the soul that the fiddles be burned", as it was viewed as a "sinful instrument that encouraged wild dances, drinking and fights." This happened in Norway, as well as other parts of Europe, and until the 20th century playing a Hardanger fiddle in a church building was forbidden. Some fiddlers, however, played on, in spite of all condemnation, and thus, valuable traditions remained intact. The first folk musicians to perform in a church were the fiddlers Johannes Dahle from Tinn, and Gjermund Haugen from Notodden. Dahle performed in the 1920s.
Famous modern fiddler Annbjørg Lien has played with church organist Iver Kleive, but even she has experienced prejudice before performance from the religious side. Also, the oldest known fiddles still in existence can be heard accompanied by the oldest playable church pipe organ in Norway (originally built for an 18th-century church) on the album "Rosa i Botnen" by Knut Hamre and Benedicte Maurseth. While the use of a Hardingfele in church in Norway may still be a bit sensitive for some, fiddlers in other parts of the world have no problems playing in churches for all types of occasions, including weddings.
Edvard Grieg adapted many Hardanger folk tunes into his compositions, and composed tunes for the Hardanger as part of his score for Ibsen's Peer Gynt. The opening phrase of "Morning" from Grieg's Peer Gynt music is derived from the tuning of the sympathetic strings of the Hardanger fiddle: A F♯ E D E F♯ and so on. The main theme from Grieg's piano concerto is said[who?] to be inspired by a version of the tune Fanitullen, played by a fiddler from Hallingdal.
In recent years, the instrument has gained recognition in the rest of the world. Japan has been one of the countries that has found an interest in the hardingfele and Japanese musicians travel to Norway just to learn to play this instrument. In 1997, the Australian classical composer Liza Lim wrote the piece Philtre for a solo Hardanger fiddle. Another recent work is "mobius II" for hardanger fiddle and electronics by the British composer Rose Dodd (2011, premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival by Britt Pernille Froholm).
Notable hardingfele players include Hallvard T. Bjørgum, Torleiv H. Bjørgum, Per Anders Buen Garnås, Knut Buen, Hauk Buen, Kristiane Lund, Olav Jørgen Hegge, Vidar Lande, Annbjørg Lien, Myllarguten (Targjei Augundsson), Anders Hagen, Lars Fykerud, Lars Jensen, Nils Økland, English Northumbrian piper and fiddle player Kathryn Tickell, the Irish fiddlers Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, and American players Loretta Kelley, Bill Boyd, Andrea Een, Karin Loberg Code, Toby Weinberg, Dan Trueman, Karen Solgard, Mariel Vandersteel, and Kris Yenney.
The Hardanger fiddle was used in the soundtracks of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King composed by Howard Shore, to provide the main voice for the Rohan theme. (The tuning of the sympathetic strings is also notably used as the notes in the first phrase of the 'Hobbiton' theme tune, though played on a flute.) The use of the hardanger fiddle in this movie, however, is far from traditional since the theme does not make noticeable use of the usual practice of bowing on two strings at a time for harmony. It was also used by composer John Powell (played by Dermot Crehan) in the DreamWorks Film How to Train Your Dragon to play the main romantic theme.
The Hardanger fiddle is also featured in the soundtrack of Fargo, written by Carter Burwell. Here the context is a little more traditional. The main theme it plays is an arrangement of a Norwegian folk song entitled "The Lost Sheep".
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