Hardingfele

Last week, I shared a few memories from a wedding that we attended in Norway last summer. One of the most beautiful and memorable parts of the wedding was the music. As I mentioned in the last post, processionals are traditionally led by a fiddler, and in this particular part of Norway, the customary instrument is a local variant known as the hardingfele.

In typical Norwegian style, the hardingfele is sumptuously ornamented to an extent not seen on the common violin. The fingerboard, tailpiece, and purfling are inlaid with a geometric design of bone and mother-of-pearl. The soundboard features delicate florid kolrosing, and peg box is often topped with a dragon carving in lieu of the familiar scroll.

Hardingfele

Though outwardly attractive, the soul of the hardingfele resides not in the baroque Scandinavian styling, but in the four understrings that run inconspicuously beneath the fingerboard. Due to the extra strings, the hardingfele can be recognized at a distance by its eight tuning pegs, rather than the conventional four. When played, these strings resonate under the influence of the primary strings and impart a richness to the music that seems perfectly suited to the simple melodies of Norwegian folk music.

Compare the vibrant self-harmonizing effect in the wedding processional (which was played on a hardingfele):

to the more formal and reserved melody of the recessional (which was played on a regular violin).

 

Both are beautiful, of course, but I’ve come to appreciate the simple regional traditions that add color and complexity to the tapestry of human culture. If there was a pervading theme to my trip to Norway, it was my continuous amazement at their dedication (and success) in weaving ancient tradition with modern culture. Their country may rank near the top of the list in modern infrastructure, internet access, wages, and quality of life, but they also cling dearly to their cultural inheritance. Old buildings are unquestioningly preserved and maintained, slöjd is still taught in elementary schools, traditional food and dress and folk music are alive and well.

During my visit, I constantly felt as though the past was a part of the present, rather than some harsh, distant era. I think as Americans, we have stronger reasons to keep our past at an arm’s length, because some of the uglier episodes of our history (segregation, slavery, and the near-annihilation of Native American culture, for example) have not been seasoned by the centuries as they have in Norway (e.g., Viking culture). My recent visit to the Aiken-Rhett House was impressive, but I could never fully escape the reality that the massive home was built and maintained on the backs of slaves. Nor would I want to forget. I suppose also that the simple lack of a cohesive national identity – we are a nation of immigrants, after all – contributes to a widespread indifference towards our past. After all, my past is very likely not at all similar to your past. Perhaps another thousand years of existence will give us the perspective that we need.

Okay, that was a rather long aside in a post that is ostensibly a discussion of a fiddle. Let’s get back on track, because there are a couple more notes I wanted to include: The fiddler at the wedding is Øystein Rød, who is not only a good friend of the bride; he has also been named the best fiddler in the country! He actually wrote the music for the processional. The song is called “Gledden” (“Joy”, in English). I’m including another version of him playing this song, since the sound quality is much better. The passion and precision of his music is breathtaking. I think it’ll be worth 3 minutes of your time to listen.

 

Norwegian Nuptials

Last summer, my wife and I took an all-too-short trip to Norway to attend the marriage of my wife’s high school friend Idun. Ten years prior, Idun spent a year in my wife’s hometown as an exchange student. The two became close friends during that year, remaining in touch ever since.

We had previously considered a trip to Norway to celebrate our own nuptials six years ago, but our meager finances at that time precluded such an extravagant excursion, and we happily booked week-long trip to Yosemite National Park instead. It turned out that delaying our trip was providential decision, because the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience a traditional Norwegian wedding (as an invited guest, that is) was without a doubt the highlight of the trip.

The ceremony was held in the historic and imposing Fjære Church, just outside the city of Grimstad, where the bride and groom have lived their whole lives. The stone walls of the church date to ca. 1150. The church is impeccably maintained, as are most old Norwegian buildings, it seems.

 

I was particularly awestruck by the woodwork within the church. The work was completed discontinuously over several centuries. The balcony is dated 1708. The pulpit may be as old as 1500. The church contains two clocks, which date from 1660 and 1855. I would have loved to spent an entire afternoon poking around the church, but of course, I was there to celebrate a marriage and not to ogle ancient woodwork. Propriety (and by “propriety”, I mean “my wife”) compelled me to restrain myself, so most of my pictures of the interior were snapped hastily and/or surreptitiously.

 

The couple has friends from all over the world, and the wedding was very much an international affair. Guests were encouraged to wear wedding garb that would be traditional to their nationality. We intermingled with Scotsmen in plaid kilts, Arabians in bisht, Portuguese in their finest livery, and I (being a Southerner) wore my blue seersucker suit. Most of the guests were, of course, Norwegian, dressed in their quaint bunader, and the bride herself donned the customary silver crown. According to the bride’s estimation, perhaps only one in five Norwegian couples get married in their traditional dress – the common Western white-gown-and-tuxedo weddings are presently far more popular. I was happy to see that our friends chose the traditional route. It certainly made for a richer experience for their many foreign guests.

7.Wedding Entry
Welcomed into the kirke by a well-dressed kvinne.
19.Blonde Curls
Daughter of the bride and groom in her diminutive bunad.

The wedding ceremony itself was simply beautiful. I can think of no better word to describe it. The bridal procession was led, as tradition dictates, by a fiddler playing the Hardingfele, a variant of the violin peculiar to the southwestern part of Norway. The Hardingele is unique in that it has eight or nine strings, rather than the four strings of the familiar violin, and thinner wood. Four of the strings are strung and played normally, while the other four or five are understrings that resonate under the influence of the primary strings. The result is a haunting and emotional tone that is quite distinct from a normal violin.

9.Recessional
The fiddler leads the recessional with the bride and groom close behind.

I could go on with some prolixity about the wedding, and especially the reception, which was one of the most enjoyable that I’ve attended, but I suspect that it was a bit of a you-had-to-be-there event. Instead, I’ll leave you with this 60-year-old video of a rural Norwegian wedding that seemed familiar, though decidedly more stodgy than the convivial affair that we attended:

 

Some highlights from the video:

  • 3:03: The fiddler begins playing his Hardingfele as he leads the wedding processional out of the farmhouse (I’m not so sure that the music that plays in the video is actually of a Hardingfele. The film appears to be silent, and the sound of the instrument seems far less rich and resonant than I would expect. Might be over-dubbing of a regular violin, or I might be full of it.)
  • 4:40: Ale bowls! Three lovely traditional Norwegian ale bowls appear and are passed around the crowd, starting with the Master of Ceremonies and proceeding to the bride, the groom, and the fiddler. The first bowl is absolutely massive, far bigger than the ones that Jarrod Stone Dahl makes.
  • 5:30 and 5:47: You get a better view of the lovely double horse-head ale bowl, a type that Dave Fisher recently wrote about and then carved. I will definitely have to try my hand at this style of ale bowl at some point.
  • 6:30: “Ancient custom decrees that the fiddler must not play his instrument on holy ground, so as they approach the church, he puts it discreetly aside and stays behind, while the others enter the churchyard. In Medieval times, the fiddle was considered a Pagan instrument.” No such objection exists today; at the wedding we attended, the guests were already seated in the sanctuary while the fiddler led the procession right down the aisle.

 

 

Memories from Norway

A couple of weeks ago, I saw this video shared on a Facebook group:

The video is 11 minutes long and completely in Norwegian, but it’s wonderfully vintage footage of a few old dudes collecting and processing whetstones from a centuries-old quarry in Eidsborg, Norway.

What made the video all the more fascinating for me is that my wife and I actually visited Eidsborg (among many other stops) last summer. I don’t know how old this video is, but I recognized several buildings from a small settlement about a mile from the quarry.

First, at minute 1:08 in the video, is the famous Eidsborg stavkyrkje (stave church). The building, remarkably, dates from 1250-1270. The level of detail evident in the craftsmanship is arresting. I could have spent an entire day exploring this building.

Norway 594

Standing in front of the building, it’s much smaller than you might imagine from the pictures. You would have to duck to walk under the eaves. Unfortunately, the building was not open for visitors on the day we went, but there was plenty to see from the outside.

At 8:55 in the video, you’ll see another pair of remarkable buildings that I recognized immediately. The one on the right is known as the “Loft”. It was built in 1167…850 years ago. What are you building today that will still be around in the year 2865? Anybody?

Norway 608

This building is regarded as Europe’s oldest secular wooden structure. There are older churches made of wood. There are older homes made of stone. But if you want to see a wooden building that isn’t a church, you can’t do much better than this little beauty. A sign beside the building reads “Listed storehouse from upper Vindlaus farm, built 1167. Legend claims the three sons of rich widow Ase Stalekleiv built it to store quantities of linen. Runes by the upper level door (ca. 1300) read, ‘Vestein wrote these runes. Hail he who wrote, and hail he who reads.’ Europe’s eldest secular wooden structure.”

The second building is a newbie by comparison. The date in the carving above the doorway was a bit hard to read, but I believe it reads “ELEFOUVERSON ANNO:1757”. Of course, the building could be older than the inscription. I don’t recall seeing a sign beside this one, and if there was one, I didn’t snap a picture.

Did I mention how amazing Norway is? It’s amazing. Plenty more pictures where these came from.