Even those who don't listen to much Norwegian folk music may recognize the instrument's unique timbre from its prominent solo lines in such film scores as The Lord of the Rings, Fargo, and How to Train Your Dragon.
The fiddle, which has much in common with a regular violin, has some specifics on the physical side, which often separates the two. The Hardanger fiddle is rounder, and has a flatter stool, making the player more able to play on two or three strings at once. The resonance holes in the body is shaped in a way that ables you to put your finger inside, a trait that is impossible on a regular violin. The fact that the regular fiddle is flatter, gives this "other fiddle" the nickname "flat fiddle" in Norway, to distinguish it from the rounder Hardanger fiddle. The Hardanger Fiddle is also decorated, often with flowery motifs and acanthus patterns, as well as mother pearl on the gripping board (and often along the side of the body). The head is often carved in the shape of a lion, a dragon or even a woman. One particular fiddle has the head of a devil on top. The neck of the fiddle is often shorter than usual for a violin - because almost all the music played goes in the first position.
The strings of this fiddle is often made of sheep gut and steel. As a rule, they are thinner than the strings of a regular violin, about half the thickness. The instrument is also tuned a whole tone higher, sounding a B where a regular violin has an A. Some fiddles are tuned even higher, the most extreme fiddles go as far as C# instead of regular A. For a number of younger performers, the ideal is high pitching for the "golden" trumpet-like effect it gives.
Resonant strings are obligatory on this fiddle. This trait is what gives the fiddle its distinguished sound. Usually, a fiddle has four resonant strings, being set under the gripping board, and placed on a lower level on the stool. Some fiddles have five resonant strings, while the oldest fiddles only had two. This principle also evolved over time.
Almost every tune is played in first position. To compensate for the lack of modulation (many tunes are older than modern modulation techniques), fiddlers learn to tune the fiddles in different ways. The scordatura principle evolved over time, and by today, the instrument can be tuned in 40 different ways. The biggest amount of tunes goes on a "regular" tuning, A-D-A-E. A slightly less used tuning is the normal fiddle tuning (G-D-A-E). Besides these two, with a good eighty percent of all the collected material played, there, as noted, 38 other ways to tune the fiddle, and as the upper strings go, so go the resonant strings. No wonder tuning of a Hardanger fiddle is a painstaking process, with fiddlers joking that they have used half their life just tuning their fiddles.
The first fiddle we know of, was made in 1651 in Hardanger. Hence the nickname "Hardanger fiddle". The area is central for development of the fiddle music, as is the western parts of Norway altogether. The fiddle got more grace in the early 1700s, when a new generation of fiddle makers developed new models, while still being more square, and smaller, than the modern ones. It is agreed that the fiddle evolved from instruments used in The Renaissance, possible England and France, in a period with vivid experimentation. The instrument spread during the eighteenth century, through all the communities of central and southern Norway, with a developing centre for fiddle making in Telemark, and a belt of tradition for the instrument spreading from the south, through Telemark, Numedal, Hallingdal and Valdres, and in the west as far as Nordfjord, and as far south as Rogaland. This is the traditional Hardanger Fiddle Area, with small secluded communities, all developing their own traditions over a hundred years. By the end of the eighteenth century, names of fiddlers gradually come down to us, usually following tunes which is named after them.
Norwegian farmers, and fiddlers, travelled over the mountains between the east and the west, taking the music with them. Fiddlers were necessary for festivities, and they played in all feasts and parties, often carrying ceremonial roles. Many tunes bear names to memorize this: Tunes for getting the bride to church, tunes for going from church after wedding, tunes for setting food on the table, tunes to sooth temper in case a brawl was brewing, and even tunes used if a brawl was unavoidable. And, of course, tunes for dancing. The fiddle had a ritual role in the rural society for many years.
The nineteenth century
The nineteenth century marked a new political awareness in Norway, and then also a cultural awareness. Old Storytellers had to meet an urgent need for relating stories to people who actually wrote them down, first of then Asbjørnsen and Moe, later others who followed them. Old songs, folk tunes, dresses, all were recorded to mold a "national culture" from, and the collectors were astonished - they never dreamed of such diversity. And then there was the fiddle. The Bergen violinist Ole Bull, a musician with international fame, had grown up in an environment where he had known the sound of this fiddle. In 1831 he encountered the Telemark Fiddler Tarjei Augunsson AKA The millerboy, known to be the best fiddler in his day. The two became close friends, and Bull learned to use the instrument. He also invited Tarjei to perform on a stage, which he did in 1849, a time for the "national breakthrough" in Norwegian urbanism. The Telemark fiddler became famous, and fiddlers after him decided to go touring, like he had done. The fiddle music took to the stage, new tunes, elaborate melodies, were spun, and soon the musicians toured in America as well, often in Norwegian societies, but also, among other things, on stage in cities like Chicago. The rural musicians were actually that brilliant, when they were at their best.
Early twentieth century
Hardanger fiddlers now learned to use notation, and started to be aware that the music had to be recorded. New recording technology came in use, and some musicians (Ole Bull had been one of the first) started to make notes of the music. Three of them, working separately, collected tunes for years, and the archives grew. At the same time, Radio came to Norway, and from 1931, folk music became a regular post in the broadcasting programs. Eivind Groven, himself from Telemark, was a pioneer in the field, and urged the broadcasting company to get better recording equipment. Thus he made sure to record all the material when fiddlers were invited in studio. Later, he wrote down the tunes. This made him able to take down more than 2000 numbers during his life - a work that continued after his death.
But to be fair, folk music, who had been a craze during the mid eighteenth century, was not particularly popular when being sent on radio. While rural communities gathered in awe, listening to their favorite fiddlers, the urban communities wrote hate mail to the broadcasting company, and Groven himself got his share of this, up to and including stones through his window at home. The Oslo burghers hated the music, but Groven kept on playing, aware that this was appreciated at home.
The tradition of contesting grew from unofficial rounds in the eighteenth century to regular fiddler contests in 1888. Gradually, the community understood that the contest arena was a valuable asset, and the first "national" contest was held in 1914, but the first big one, who later was held on a yearly basis, from 1925. From the start, the "national contest" was primarily for fiddlers, but after World War II, all kinds of folk musicians and dancers have participated, making Landskappleiken (the national contest) a four day yearly event every summer. Besides this, there is a lot of regional and local contests as well. The Hardanger fiddlers are, as a tradition, the hub of the contest, and the winner of this "class" is usually reckoned the winner of the whole contest.
Three dances are accounted in tradition. First, the (usually) male dance halling, a solo dance, which made international reknown when backing Alexander Rybak during the Eurovision on 2012. This dance goes in duple time, and is usually pretty fast. Often, the tunes can be played to the more sedate gangar (walking dance), most prominent in Telemark, but also in Numedal. Many of the halling traits can be seen here as well.
The most used dance, with the biggest bulk of tunes, is the springar, a dance in triple time (leaping dance). Here, the greatest diversity is found, separating the dance into a number of traditions, being distinguished by the length of the second beat in each measure. On the dancing side, a lot of differences have evolved as well, to be seen and relished at when the dancers also contest. Thus, we have: Tele(mark)springar, Numedalsspringar, Hallingspringar, Valdresspringar, Vossaspringar, Jostedalsspringar, Suldalsspringar, Tinnspringar, Kryllingspringar, Hemsedalsspringar... Not to mention the pols varieties outside the hardanger fiddle area.
Tropes connected to the instrument and the dance tunes
- The Black Death: Some old tunes are connected to this plague. The most honorable mention goes to the story of the brave brown horse which carried the dead alone over a mountain pass after everyone on the farm where it served had perished. The last body was found in the snow alongside the horse, who had wearied itself out on the way. Naturally, the story got connected to a well-known tune.
- The Devil: Said to have made quite a number of fiddle tunes. Thus, one is called "the one the unmentionable hummed when he buried his mother". And there is several others.
- Get Thee to a Nunnery: Some dance tunes have names connected to "the act". A rather elegant example of this is the tune called "the boy and the girl in the haybarn". Nuff said. Two other tunes have names that tells exactly what the business is about (funny in Norwegian, and one example is only named halfways. This particular one is translated as "the cunt-shaker". Really!) Also getting into the area of small ditties of text that were made to the dance tunes. You Do NOT Want to Know.
- I Call It "Vera": Many fiddlers gave names to their fiddles, often female ones. When a fiddler dies, the fiddles usually passes on to other performers, reverently preserving the names (and the backstory of said instrument). Thus, everybody knows the "identity" of fiddles like "Kjempa", or "Veslemøy".
- Keep Circulating the Tapes: As a rule, the trope has been played straight. Many fiddlers used old fashioned tape recorders to tape themselves for rehearsal purposes, and thus, a lot of tunes were preserved. Concerts, informal performances and so on were also taped after the same rule. NRK, while of course recording themselves, also was prone to be taped. It is hard to find an area of music where this trope has been played more straight.
- Named After Someone Famous: Naturally, most of the tunes are named after the ones who played them, connected to tradition, or in some cases, the people who liked to dance to them. "Famous" in this case translates as "very locally known".