Friday, 19 March 2010
I like fiddling. No doubt it’s some kind of midlife-crisis thing, but the joy of fiddling is one that was only thrust upon me in adult life. And make no mistake, everything you ever heard about someone trying to learn the violin is true. It is tortuous, obnoxious and very painful on the ear. But it is part of my plan for later on. I fully intend to while away my retirement jamming in pubs with unsuitable fiddlers in some of the more remote parts of Scotland.
It seems to me the fiddle is a truly excellent instrument for those who happen to live in remote places, so perhaps this explains why the instrument should lie at the heart of traditional music in both countries. Living in the countryside of Scotland’s North East, it is almost impossible to avoid all the fiddling that goes on there. And in Shetland, they are famous for it.
As in Scotland, geography has played a part and so Norwegian playing varied in style from region to region. With the fiddle being such a portable instrument it was used wherever it might be needed. In the past, for example, a bridal procession would be led by a fiddler, down a mountainside, across a fjord, the fiddler being almost as important as the bride herself.
Who knows why all this wasn’t enough. Maybe it was the dark winters or the remoteness, maybe they just got bored, but for some reason some Medieval Norwegian joker came up with an instrument that was so hard it took fiddle-playing to a different, even more fiendish level. From my own experience, I reckon the instrument is quite difficult enough already, but, nope, they had to make it even harder. So they invented the Hardanger Fiddle, known in Norsk as Hardingfele.
It’s a nightmare. In addition to the usual four strings, they added four more(and sometimes five), known as ‘sympathetic strings’ as they sit underneath the original strings and resonate like crazy. (The word ‘sympathic’ in this context seems rather ambitious, if not cruel.) The result is an extraordinary, beautiful and eery sound which left some people believing that many good Hardanger fiddlers were taught to play by the Devil himself. It is a sound that has influenced composers ever since, and was recently used in the soundtrack to ‘Lord of the Rings-Two Towers’. Nowadays, the Hardanger Fiddle, with its highly decorated bodywork and unique, haunting, mesmerizing sound, is considered to be Norway’s national instrument.
All this fiddling created a rich folk tradition from which many glorious players emerged. But there is one that must be mentioned here. Ole Bull, born in Bergen in 1810, was a musician who took violin-playing to a new level and to an audience far beyond the borders of his own country. After meeting Paganini in Paris, Ole began an ambitious series of concerts around Europe, and soon made his mint. His fame matched the rising tide of Norwegian romantic nationalism at the time, and he championed the idea of a sovereign state, with Norway being separate from Sweden.
So with Ole Bull taking Norway to Europe and Alexander Rybak bringing Europe to Oslo, one could say fiddles have been instrumental. Personally, I’m rather keen on all things that help our nations to understand each other. The ties that bind through music, the connections that are made, whether between people, over time, across borders or between cultures, give me the heebie jeebies.
But it’s very inspiring. Luckily everyone else is out so I think I’ll go and have a quick twang and scrape.
Posted by Returning Scot at 11:43