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A Brief History of the Nyckelharpa

By Bart Brashers

The nyckelharpa belongs to the same instrument family as the French vielle and the English hurdy gurdy. The nyckelharpa has wooden keys that slide under the strings and have tangents set perpendicularly to the keys that reach up and stop (shorten) the melody string. It’s sort of like moveable frets that move to meet the string, rather than pressing the string against a fingerboard or frets. A short bow is used.

Most of the following photos are by Per-Ulf Allmo.

Click on any of the picture for a bigger version!

The Medieval Nyckelharpa

Källunge CarvingMoraharpa Vefesenharpa EsseharpaVefsen & Mora harpor

(1st and last pictures courtesy of Barry Hall, Esse harpa picture courtesy of Rauno Nieminen.)

The oldest “evidence” of nyckelharpa use is a relief (left picture) on one of the gates to Källunge church on Gotland from about 1350 depicting two nyckelharpa players. There are three surviving examples of the medieval nyckelharpa: one found in the town of Mora in Dalarna, Sweden (2rd picture); one found in Vefsen, Norway (3nd picture, it hangs in the Musik Museum in Stockholm, where the last picture was taken [i.e. that's a reproduction of the Moraharpa in the last picture]); and one found in Esse, Finland (4th picture). The Moraharpa is dated 1526, and hangs in the Zorn Museum in Mora. They have one row of keys (although some keys stop two strings, making them a mix of melody and drone strings) and two drone strings.

Note that the Moraharpa is shaped like a lute, while the Vefsenharpa and the Esseharpa are shaped more like the modern nyckelharpa. Recent evidence suggests that the Moraharpa was probably built in the early 1600′s, using wood that was already about 100 years old. It was likely made as a copy of the picture in the German book (picture forthcoming). So it appears that the lute-shaped tradition is broken, while the long/narrow tradition is unbroken. A few people still play this version of the instrument today, including Anders Stake (now Anders Norrude) in the group “Hedningarna”.

Enkelharpa (simple harpa) / Mixturharpa (mixture harpa)

Perhaps under the influence of the viola d’amore which was popular in Uppsala and Stockholm in the late 1600′s and early 1700′s, resonance strings were added. Sympathetic strings were brought from the near east to England circa 1600, and were thought to be a fashionable innovation.

On the nyckelharpa, the resonance strings are set lower in the bridge, so the bow does not touch them. The oldest surviving example of the enkelharpa is from 1777. The mixturharpa is similar to the enkelharpa, except that 2nd string also has tangents (on the same key at the tangent for the 1st string) that stop the string and make the notes.

Not many people today play this version of the nyckelharpa, opting for the older or younger versions.

The Kontrabasharpa (contra-drone harpa)

The kontrabasharpa had one row of keys but had two tangents on many of the keys, one for the melody string (1st string) and one for the 2nd melody string on the opposite end of the bridge. Between them was a drone string and about a dozen resonance strings. You played either the high melody and drone strings together, or the second melody and drone (“bass”) string together, producing a characteristic sound.

This was the type of nyckelharpa that Byss-Calle (1783-1847), one of the all-time greatest nyckelharpa players, used. Here’s a picture of an old one. Many of his tunes, which are mostly 16th-note polskas, are still played today as they are well suited to the modern nyckelharpa.

A few people today play the kontrabasharpa in addition to the modern nyckelharpa, including Hasse Gille, and Olov Johansson of the group Väsen. There are about 5 kontrabasharpa players in the U.S.

The Silverbasharpa (silver-bass harpa)

This is a silverbasharpa from the late 1800′s, named for the use of a silver-wrapped gut string for the bass string to get more sound. There have been widespread rumors that in about 1836, a sergeant named Johan Söderstedt and an organ builder named Per Olof Gullbergson built the first silverbasharpa by adjusting the design of the kontrabasharpa. They positioned the second melody string adjacent to the first melody string and added a second row of keys especially for that string. They also decided that the second playing string should be tuned to a C, not a D as before. Similar rumors have attributed this re-design to Wesslén, also near the end of the 1830′s. These ideas have been shown to be false. Both the kontrabasharpa and the silverbasharpa descended from the mixturharpa, in parallel. Most surviving silverbasharpor have fewer notes available than older kontrabasharpor — if you were trying to add ability, why would you take some notes away?

There were different ways of adding ability to the instrument, both the ability to play different intervals (drone vs. chordal intervals) and the ability to play more notes (more keys, or more accidentals). Either way, the second row of keys on the C-string gave the opportunity to play double-stops (triad intervals) instead of just with the drone as before, offering the possibility of a more modern sound. As a result, the dominant kind of polska played in Uppland shifted from 16th-note to 8th-note polskas (e.g. music played for the Bondpolska från Viksta and Bondpolska från Överhärde).

The silverbasharpa’s popularity, although great at first, waned in the face of the increasing availability of accordians around the turn of the century, which were preferred for their sheer volume and because they represented the “new” times. It is not a fully chromatic instrument, but works well in the keys of C, F, G, & D. Many Swedes today play the silverbasharpa as well as modern 3-row nyckelharpa, e.g. Björn Björn.

Kontrabas med dubbellek

(contra-drone harpa with two rows of keys)
Also called the Österbyharpa

Soon after the advent of the silverbasharpa it was found that certain ceremonial tunes were not easy to play with the second melody string tuned to a C, and the kontrabasharpa med dubbellek was invented. It has two rows of keys: the lower row stops the second string (tuned to a C), but the upper row has tangents that stop both the first melody string and the opposite bass string (tuned to a D), as in the kontrabasharpa. Thus you could pretend it was an old-fashioned kontrabasharpa and play the required tunes, or you could pretend it was a new-fangled silverbasharpa and play the newer tunes in C and F.

Justus Gille and Viktor Vikman, both of whom were born in 1893 (and started playing in 1912) and lived until the late 1970′s, played this kind of nyckelharpa. Viktor’s harpa was made by their teacher, Klaus Harpare, in the 1860′s. Some Swedes play this version of the nyckelharpa, though not as many as play the silverbasharpa.

Here’s more about the Österbyharpa, the Kontrabasharpa med Dubbellek.

The Modern Chromatic Nyckelharpa

This is a modern 3-row chromatic nyckelharpa, made by Eric Sahlström in 1980. August Bohlin made one of the first 3-row nyckelharpas in 1926, after being frustrated that he couldn’t play along with the fiddle players he was meeting down at Skansen in Stockholm, where he worked during the summer of 1925. Eric Sahlström continually experimented with the design, adding among other things a bass bar and making the top less arched, to make it sound more “pleasant”, more like a violin. Note also the move from round sound holes (oxögon) to f-holes. It has 16 strings: three melody (keyed) strings (G-C-A), one drone string (C, a leftover, really, as one hardly every plays it) and 12 resonance strings.

Eric was also a great player, and composed many tunes. He liked the 16th-note polskas, and played many of Byss-Kalle’s tunes. In that sense, he reached further back in history even as he modernized the instrument. He worked throughout his life to preserve the nyckelharpa, teaching people how to build and how to play. He was very insightful at the beginning of the 1970′s folkmusic revival and started courses on building for other teachers. These teachers then went back home and taught how to build and play, resulting in there being about 25,000 nyckelharpas in Sweden today. An estimated 8000 Swedes play this kind of nyckelharpa. It is by far the dominant form of the nyckelharpa today.

The Four-Row Nyckelharpa

In the late 1960′s and early 1970′s, there were a few people (Tord Johanssons, Erik Olsson, Karl Svensk, Lundin) who developed four-row nyckelharpas. These are essentially of two different kinds. Olsson and Svensk simply added a 4th row of keys, stopping the low C(4) string on a modern chromatic nyckelharpa (1st picture). 4row_harpa Johansson and his followers have inverted the rows of the keys, so that the highest string is stopped by the 4th row of keys, and the lowest string by the top row of keys (2nd picture). 4row_upsidedown They also tune the 4 strings the same as a fiddle (G-D-A-E, from lowest to highest). This makes it easier for fiddle players to quickly pick up the nyckelharpa, as the fingerings are the same — leading some to call this variant the ‘fiddleharpa’.

Mechanically, it’s difficult to make a tangent on the 4th row stiff enough to produce good tone — it gets too long and gives too much. Johansson solved this problem by placing 2 rows underneath the strings, and 2 rows above the strings. It looks complicated, but isn’t really.

Despite these innovations, the 4-row nyckelharpa has failed to gain much popularity in Sweden during its first 30 years of existance. In contrast, the modern chromatic ‘harpa was already the dominant form in use by 1955, 30 years after that innovation. Perhaps 5% of the nyckelharpa players in Sweden today play the 4-row harpa.