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Strange Fiddle in the Attic
Part III

Form follows function: Hardanger fiddle music design

by Karen Torkelson Solgård

The first time I heard the beautiful cascading sounds of Hardanger fiddle was in 1986, in a small dance hall in Rauland, Telemark, Norway. The performance was by one of today's great fiddlers in Norway, Knut Buen. He entertained the local audience mimicking one of their own great fiddlers, not only playing the well-known tunes (to the locals) but also told stories, many apparently hilarious. This fiddle tradition comes out of the mountains. Hardanger fiddlers play in simple cabins to wile away the winter hours, remind listeners of better times, tell fantastic, gruesome or mythic tales, or get people up on their feet to dance.

At that concert in Rauland, I heard not only Knut's performance, but his sister Agnes Buen Garnås sang ballads; the melodies were the source for the tunes that Knut played. Besides borrowing from vocal music, many Hardanger fiddle tunes are rooted in the songs and melodies of ancient instruments such as lur, ram's horn, and willow flute. While the fiddle music is a wall of sound with so much tonal complexity, Agnes' songs were simple and repetitive, meant to convey the stories.

The richly ornate Hardanger fiddle music actually breaks down into simple forms and melodies. When I play for audiences now, I always incorporate the songs and stories because that is how I finally was able to understand this music and give it the cultural context for my listeners. Norwegians are a group of people whose culture developed out of an isolated, rural mountain environment. They carved a life of beauty out of the whatever resources were available and the musical forms reflect that.

The main repertoire of Hardanger fiddle is from its zenith of popularity in the 18th century, while some of the oldest tunes trace back to the Middle Ages. Norwegians keep detailed records, even in small rural communities. Likewise, with tunes transmitted aurally, the fiddler learns not only the tune itself, but who learned that tune from whom, etc. The titles often include the name of the fiddler, dancer, or the event that was the source of the tune. This isn't to say the tune remains precisely the same as it is passed along. Each fine fiddler adds to the canon by making the tune their own, adding ornaments and details unique to them. (Norway is a society of individualists and their music expresses that.)

Included below is an example of such a tune, called a slått, (excerpted from "Norse Fiddle at the Wedding" music transcription book by Karen Solgård). I learned Gjenta med garde' (Girl with the Farm) halling from Olav Jørgen Hegge, who learned it from Torleiv Bolstad, both from Valdres, Norway. This slått also is known by other names in other valleys, with similar thematic material put together in slightly different ways. A few elements remain constant in these variants.

Each slått stays in the one key and doesn't modulate. The reasons become obvious; the tuning of sympathetic strings in a chord gives the best resonance in the key to which it's tuned. To bring out the ring of the sympathetic strings further, the fiddler always plays two, and sometimes three, strings at once, providing melody and harmony. A fiddler is highly regarded if s/he can include as many beautifully executed ornaments in just the right places. These fine points, as well as the unique playing technique, combine to bring out the ringing of the sympathetic strings.

Besides remaining in one key, meter doesn't change within a tune. The majority of Hardanger fiddle repertoire is based on dance forms. 1) Halling is in duple meter, a solo dance for young men to show off their athletic strength and agility. 2) Gangar is a slow walking couple dance in duple meter, similar to an allemande. 3) Springar is a running couple dance in triple meter, similar to a courante. These are the main forms, although other dance forms exist that are unique to certain valleys.

Typically, a slått develops out of a short two-measure motif, called a vek. Veks mutate over the course of a phrase. They may repeat, usually in pairs, with a slight change made with each pair. At the end of the phrase the vek may have mutated to the point that it is now the beginning of the next section or phrase. It is fairly common for a slått to be comprised of five sections or phrases. When playing for dancing, the fiddler repeats this material at least three times so the dance is about three to five minutes long. The most revered fiddlers have the ability to put the material together, to build it up, in various creative ways (just as J.S. Bach was respected for his ability to improvise). The music may have a simple function, but executed with beautiful form and decoration. Similarly, Norwegian simple pine furniture is painted in flowing freehand flowers and swirls, called rosemaling. Another example of this ornate style is in the woodcarving from Norway.

(More on playing technique in Part IV.)

About the Author

Karen Solgård's Hardanger fiddle performances include centuries-old tunes from rural Norway, more recent "old-time" music popular in Norwegian American communities, and her own compositions and arrangements. She also sings, tells stories and invites audience participation. CDs available are "Norse Fiddle at Home" and "Norse Fiddle at the Wedding", as well at a book of music transcriptions "Norse Fiddle at the Wedding" for violin or Hardanger fiddle, available directly from the author

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