Mike Adcock

Articles

A wedding in Hardanger

Hardanger wedding

This piece was written for the book Eye & Ear (Schott 2004) in which Christoph Wagner invited a range of musicians and writers to each write a commentary on a postcard depicting musicians. The book also contained a CD with early recordings complementing the images. 

The occasion is a wedding in Norheimsund in Hardanger, in the west of Norway. The guests are wearing traditional costume and the bride is dressed in the more ornate wedding outfit, complete with crown-like head-dress. Leading the procession is the spelemann, playing the instrument that takes its name from the same region, the Hardanger fiddle or hardingfel. He is doubtless playing one of the many beautiful wedding marches to be found in Norway and later he will stand alone playing for the guests as they dance, the music hypnotic and, to fresh ears at least, strange and extraordinary. It is a music that I have grown to love.

The Hardanger fiddle is generally thought of as Norway’s national instrument, yet it was once treated with suspicion: the devil’s instrument which tempted men away from the work to be done and from the path of righteousness. In the nineteenth century there were fiddle-burnings and for some who wished to continue playing emigration was the only option. In areas where the tradition was strongly established the music continued, but even there caution prevailed. A spelemann might lead the wedding procession to and from the church, but he would probably not be allowed in to play at the ceremony.

I have been visiting Norway regularly for about twenty-five years. I heard about the Hardanger fiddle early on but it was hard to discover. I went to an accordion festival hoping to hear hardingfel but heard only accordions. Weeks later I bought my own first accordion. Had it been a fiddle festival my musical life might have taken a different path. I bought an LP of Hardanger fiddle music and liked the sound, the sympathetic strings giving the instrument a haunting resonance, but found the music impenetrable. It wasn’t until 1994 that I was finally converted, on a visit to the Telemark Festival. There I heard fiddlers playing in concert and for dancing: in particular for the almost unworldly springar with its three uneven beats, marked out by the spelemann stamping his foot, providing a reference point for himself and the dancers. Why I had found the music hard to penetrate was that on my LP the foot-stamping was missing: classically-weaned record producers thought it crude and used to discourage it.

Hardanger fiddle tunes are passed down through the generations but good players will add their own variations. The music is mostly for dancing but there is a brooding, introspective quality which suggests an agenda going beyond the merely functional. It is this expressive aspect that has really drawn me to the music and which has, in turn, influenced my own. Without attempting to emulate it, I am sometimes aware of setting foot in the expressive territory the music occupies. I have also been affected by the way the music is structured. Instead of taking a strophic, verse form, a hardingfel piece will introduce a short, repeated motif which is then developed. Other melodic themes follow, each in turn coming in and out of focus. The music has an organic, asymmetrical quality which has evolved through improvisation. Over the years I have written many pieces that have been overtly influenced by folk music but it is only in my piano improvisations that I feel I come anywhere close to the spirit of Hardanger fiddle music. But maybe it’s just me that hears it that way.

wedding in Hardanger by Mike Adcock


The occasion is a wedding in Norheimsund in Hardanger, in the west of Norway. The guests are wearing traditional costume and the bride is dressed in the more ornate wedding outfit, complete with crown-like head-dress. Leading the procession is the
spelemann, playing the instrument that takes its name from the same region, the Hardanger fiddle or hardingfel. He is doubtless playing one of the many beautiful wedding marches to be found in Norway and later he will stand alone playing for the guests as they dance, the music hypnotic and, to fresh ears at least, strange and extraordinary. It is a music that I have grown to love.

The Hardanger fiddle is generally thought of as Norway’s national instrument, yet it was once treated with suspicion: the devil’s instrument which tempted men away from the work to be done and from the path of righteousness. In the nineteenth century there were fiddle-burnings and for some who wished to continue playing emigration was the only option. In areas where the tradition was strongly established the music continued, but even there caution prevailed. A spelemann might lead the wedding procession to and from the church, but he would probably not be allowed in to play at the ceremony.

I have been visiting Norway regularly for about twenty-five years. I heard about the Hardanger fiddle early on but it was hard to discover. I went to an accordion festival hoping to hear hardingfel but heard only accordions. Weeks later I bought my own first accordion. Had it been a fiddle festival my musical life might have taken a different path. I bought an LP of Hardanger fiddle music and liked the sound, the sympathetic strings giving the instrument a haunting resonance, but found the music impenetrable. It wasn’t until 1994 that I was finally converted, on a visit to the Telemark Festival. There I heard fiddlers playing in concert and for dancing: in particular for the almost unworldly springar with its three uneven beats, marked out by the spelemann stamping his foot, providing a reference point for himself and the dancers. Why I had found the music hard to penetrate was that on my LP the foot-stamping was missing: classically-weaned record producers thought it crude and used to discourage it.

Hardanger fiddle tunes are passed down through the generations but good players will add their own variations. The music is mostly for dancing but there is a brooding, introspective quality which suggests an agenda going beyond the merely functional. It is this expressive aspect that has really drawn me to the music and which has, in turn, influenced my own. Without attempting to emulate it, I am sometimes aware of setting foot in the expressive territory the music occupies. I have also been affected by the way the music is structured. Instead of taking a strophic, verse form, a hardingfel piece will introduce a short, repeated motif which is then developed. Other melodic themes follow, each in turn coming in and out of focus. The music has an organic, asymmetrical quality which has evolved through improvisation. Over the years I have written many pieces that have been overtly influenced by folk music but it is only in my piano improvisations that I feel I come anywhere close to the spirit of Hardanger fiddle music. But maybe it’s just me that hears it that way.

Published in Eye & Ear by Christoph Wagner. Schott 2004