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Strange Fiddle in the Attic
Sympathetic Strings Make Hardanger Fiddle Special
by Karen Torkelson Solgård
In Part I, I described how I stumbled across the "strange Norwegian violin," the Hardanger fiddle. It isn't just that it was decorated in fancy flower inkings, or that it was topped with a fierce dragonhead instead of a scroll. What totally captivated and mesmerized me about this instrument were the sounds it produced in the hands of a master, freeing the resonance of sympathetic vibration.
In 1979, I had done a research project on the family Hardanger fiddle while at music school. I found some written music and descriptions of the instrument. From that, I tried to play my family fiddle, and even gave short presentations about it when I performed cello recitals. It wasn't until 1986 that I finally had the transformative experience many devotees describe-a conversion experience-when hearing hardingfele for the first time.
I was in a small dance hall in Rauland, Telemark, Norway. The concert featured one of today's great fiddlers in Norway, Knut Buen, performing music of a locally well-known early-20th-century Hardanger fiddler. As Knut played and tapped his feet, the audience tapped their feet along with this strange uneven rhythm. To them, the tunes were familiar favorites. To me, the melody was indistinguishable from this constant ringing sound, a constant chord or drone. There was a fluttering and flurry of notes and chords, but it was all a blur. Compare it to the rushing sound of a large waterfall. It is peaceful and energizing at the same time. There is rhythm to the sounds, but also a constant sameness to the music.
The biggest difference between the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle and the violin is that it has extra strings that can't be touched by the bow. While it could be tuned in over twenty combinations of pitches, the most common tuning of the top four strings is (from top to bottom) E, A, D, A. (The bottom string G is tuned up a whole step.) The understrings are tuned A, F#, E, D, with sometimes a fifth string tuned to B or C#. This causes the fiddle to ring around a tonic of D or A. It is critical the sympathetic strings be in tune. A Hardanger fiddler tunes before every three-minute piece, and it isn't uncommon for the fiddle to be somewhat out of tune by the end of the piece. We joke that a fiddler spends half his life tuning. . .and the other half playing out of tune.
Listeners often say the Hardanger fiddle reminds them of bagpipes. The pitches of the four sympathetic strings make a melody many people recognize, "Morning Prelude" from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg, Norway's most famous composer. It's no accident that Grieg composed "Morning Prelude" based on the tuning of the Hardanger fiddle. He loved Norwegian folk music, and especially loved to travel from his home in Bergen into the rural mountain communities to listen to fiddlers. He based much of his music on folk music of Norway. Oddly enough, I had never heard a Hardanger fiddle tune that used the simple melody of "Morning Prelude." I made my own arrangement of Grieg's orchestral work for Hardanger fiddle.
(example from "Norse Fiddle at the Wedding" music transcription book by Karen Solgård.)
When sitting at a distance from the Hardanger fiddle, it's hard to see the sympathetic strings; thin wire strings attached to the tailpiece with hooks and strung on a "second shelf" of the bridge. They run under the fingerboard hollowed out to create an "underpass" at the nut, i.e. the nut serves as a small arched bridge. The peg box has eight or nine pegs, depending on whether there are four or five understrings.
The concept of using sympathetic strings is actually very old. Before the violin became what it is today, there were many varieties of bowed stringed instruments. As recently as Mozart's time, there were other instruments with sympathetic strings, the best known being the viola d'amore.
A larger and more modern example of an instrument that uses sympathetic strings is the piano. Look inside a piano to see that each pitch (piano key) is made up of three strings. Felts dampen the strings while not sounded with the hammer. To make a more sustained sound, a pianist pushes down the sustain pedal. That takes the felts off all or some of the strings allowing them to resonate, creating that shimmering sound (so enchanting to children exploring the piano). The same thing happens on a much smaller scale with the four of five sympathetic strings on the Hardanger fiddle.
(Musical styles of Hardanger fiddle in Part III.)
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. http://mnfolkarts.org/karen_tork/karen_tork.html CDs available are "Norse Fiddle at Home" and "Norse Fiddle at the Wedding" http://cdbaby.com/all/karensolgard, as well at a book of music transcriptions "Norse Fiddle at the Wedding" for violin or Hardanger fiddle, available directly from the author email@example.com.