Hardanger Fiddles

The 10th Chloe Ellefson Mystery sends Chloe and her fiancé, Roelke McKenna, to Norway. Given the book’s title, it’s probably obvious that the plot involves Hardanger Fiddles.

Historians believe that violins arrived in Norway by the 1600s, probably from Germany and Italy. The first known Hardanger fiddle (the Jaastad fiddle) dates to 1651. The Hardanger region in SW Norway became famous for its fiddle makers—and fiddlers!

When Chloe arrives in Norway, the director of the Hardanger Folk Museum introduces her to the instrument:

“How much do you know about Hardanger fiddles?
“Not a lot,” Chloe allowed humbly.
“This region is, of course, the birthplace of the hardingfele—the Hardanger fiddle. They have understrings that resonate when the top four are played. That gives the instruments a unique sound.”
“Haunting, I’d call it,” Chloe offered.

Fiddler at the Norsk Folk Museum, Oslo

Later, a fiddler explains why the instrument was so important in rural Norway:

“Hardingfele tunes once measured everyday life. Music was deeply rooted in rituals and traditions. There were specific tunes for every aspect of a Hardanger wedding. There were tunes for planting, for harvesting, for celebrating a good yield.”

As beloved as the instruments were, there was a time when Hardanger fiddles were considered, by some, to be “the devil’s instrument.” They were associated with parties, heavy drinking, and casual sex.

(Adolph Tideman)

One particular tune, Fanitullen, was supposedly taught to a fiddler by the devil himself.

(Adolph Tideman)

Some zealots went so far as to destroy any fiddles they could find.

Such violence must have been wrenching to the fiddlers and fiddle makers, especially because Hardanger fiddles are gorgeous, decorated with intricate inked designs and mother-of-pearl inlay.

(Hardanger Folk Museum)

Many also feature an elaborately carved figure at the scroll on top of the instrument.

(Met Museum/Wikimedia)

Some fiddlers and makers emigrated, bringing their skills to the new world. The Helland brothers, who arrived in Wisconsin in 1901, became famous for their fiddles and violins.

Knut and Gunnar outside their fiddle workshop in Chippewa Falls. Picture taken before 1920. (Wikipedia)

And happily, the traditions continue today. I had the chance to learn more about Hardanger fiddle construction when Madison, WI resident Karen Rebholz made a presentation at Livsreise in Stoughton.

Karen Rebholz and several exquisite fiddles she made.
Fiddle by Karen Rebholz.
Fykerud’n Spelemannslag, which performed at Syttende May in Stoughton, WI, 2019.

I’m not a fiddle player, but I loved exploring the music and traditions while writing Fiddling With Fate!

To learn more, visit the Hardanger Fiddle Association of America. You can also find lots of performances on YouTube.

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6 Responses to “Hardanger Fiddles”

  1. Agnes Says:

    I always thought that hardanger was just embroidery, but it is actually an area in Norway!

  2. Liz V. Says:

    You’re right. Some of the fiddles are gorgeous!

    Another post to pass along to my niece.

  3. Pat M Says:

    Those fiddles by Karen Rebholz are exquisite. My step-mother was a Rebholz. Relation??

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