What Is A Hardanger Fiddle?

The Hardanger fiddle, or hardingfele in Norwegian, is commonly referred to as Norway's national musical instrument. Resembling a violin, each hardingfele is painstakingly hand-crafted, and then decorated with care and attention. Mother-of-pearl inlays and rosing, a form of black pen-and-ink illustration, combined with the carved heads of animals such as lions or beautiful maidens (as shown in the photograph below), make each hardingfele a unique piece of art. The hardanger fiddle's signature sound is created by a combination of musical technique and the instrument's own unique characteristics. The polyphonic playing style creates a haunting “drone” underneath the main melody, enhanced by the reverberating overtones produced by the four or five sympathetic strings running beneath the fingerboard.

The hardingfele can probably trace its origins to the area surrounding the Hardanger Fjord in Norway, hence its name in English. The “Jaastad Fiddle”, dated to around 1651 and created by Olav Jonsson Jaastad of Ullensvang, is the oldest surviving example of the instrument. Within a hundred years, the hardingfele's popularity had spread so quickly in the western coastal areas of Norway, and even into the inland south-central regions, that it had become the dominant folk musical instrument. This Norwegian musical tradition is one of the few in Europe to have remained impervious to the cultural and musical pressures of foreign influences.

Over 1,000 individual melodies for the Hardanger fiddle have been recorded by musical researchers. The music itself is steeped in folklore, and each tune possess its own history and lineage to be passed and preserved from each generation to the next. The hardingfele acts as a central motif for tales of legendary fiddlers and dancers, for music entwined with the supernatural, and for the little victories and heartbreaks we all experience in our lives.

While beautiful to listen to, the hardingfele is especially suited to providing musical accompaniment for dancers. While hardingfeler can accompany gammaldans such as the waltz, pols and schottis, it is most commonly associated with the Norwegian regional dances known as bygdedans, examples of which include the gangar and the springar. These bygdedans are popular on Norway's west coast in places such as Voss and Sogn, as well as areas like Hallingdal, Setesdal, Telemark and Valdres.

A Hardanger Fiddle: A photograph of a hardingfele, illustrating the exquisite craftsmanship that goes into their production. This example features the mother-of-pearl inlay and rosing synonymous with the instrument.

Close-up of a Hardanger Fiddle: A photograph showing the detail that goes into the rosing on a hardingfele.

The Hardanger Fiddle Association of America: Home to the hardingfele community in the United States, with information on the instrument, music, dances and events.

Wulffenstejn Fiddle and Mandolin Works: One of the leading hardanger fiddle creators, with each instrument painstakingly crafted by hand.

Hardingfeles at the National Music Museum: An annotated list of hardanger fiddles in the Museum's possession, with photographs.

Scandinavian Fiddling Resources: A collection of links to resources on Scandinavian music, societies, music and publications in the United States.

Scandinavian Dance and Music Links: A comprehensive resource for those wishing to discover more about the musical traditions of Norway and the other Scandinavian countries.