I am going to be exploring a little bit of the history and evolution of the instrument called the Nyckelharpa. The nyckelharpa is a Swedish instrument. It is related to the English Hurdy Gurdy and the French vielle.
In other words, “It is somewhere between a type-writer and your grandpa’s old crackly fiddle.””A nyckelharpa (Swedish: [ˈnʏ̂kːɛlˌharːpa], “keyed fiddle”, or literally “key harp”, plural nyckelharpor) is a traditional Swedish musical instrument. It is a string instrument or chordophone. Its keys are attached to tangents which, when a key is depressed, serve as frets to change the pitch of the string”(Wiki, 2020)
The Nyckelharpa dates back to the 1300’s but I will only be covering two of the instrument’s forms; one of its earlier forms from the 1700’s and its latest form used today.
The Nyckelharpa 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.” (Brashers, 2020)
It has wooden keys that you press down on with your left hand while using a short bow, similar to a violin bow, that you use to play using your right hand.
From my observations, the nyckelharpa’s looks and form have stayed relatively the same throughout the years though there are some definite sound and structural changes from the early version to what it is today.
“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.” (Brashers, 2020)
The Kontrabasharpa only had one row of keys. The keys pressed against the strings sideways instead of like the strings above the fingerboard on a violin.
It was not initially designed to be chromatic making it difficult to play with fiddle players and other modern instruments.
(I will now refer to the kontrabasharpa with an abbreviation: kbh )
Here are 2 video examples of the kontrabasharpa (kbh); its sound and structure.
Notice how the kbh is very rusty sounding? It’s scratchy and distant in timbre. It appears to mostly be made of wood and it has a decent sized body.
The tune in the video above I cannot find the name for or the composer. However, the player’s name is Gunner F and he released this recording on Jan 4, 2019. The tune is Swedish from what I have gathered and it was written for the kbh.
I found this tune to be particularly rhythmic. It seemed to sway back and forth with choppy sections in between. I imagined swaying dancers with quick feet, skipping in-between graceful twirls. Ba da ba da duh da… Can you feel the swaying rhythm?
Now, take a look at the kbh’s more modern form below:
Here is the modern day chromatic nyckelharpa. It is the most commonly played nyckelharpa out of the various models that are available. It sounds the most like the violin and has a much more pleasant sound then the kbh.
It has more keys than the kbh, has a bass bar, and isn’t as arched on the top. The modern chromatic nyckelharpa is the refined version of the kbh.
Here are 2 videos demonstrating the sounds of the nyckelharpa. The first video shows it being played (actually a tune tutorial) while the second is just a recording with no video demonstration. Listen to the second video and hear how very similar it sounds to a violin or fiddle.
There is a very distinct tingy-ness to the nyckelharpa. It resonates differently than the violin and has a more muted sound. However, it echoes quite a bit more than a violin. It has a timbre that is unlike any violin I have ever heard, making it extremely mysterious.
Another thing to notice (refer to first video) is how much larger the chromatic nyckelharpa is compared to the kbh. When it was being designed, it was made larger to take on more components so that nyckelharpa players could play with fiddlers. In order to play with fiddlers, the instrument had to be chromatic, therefore, becoming larger in size.
In the second video, (Folk music journey) the first song being played was called – The Rambling Pitchfork (Ireland). The nyckelharpa player is Emelie Waldken and she released this recording in Feb 12, 2017. I could not find the composer for the tune as this tune is an Irish tune, notorious for being lost among ten other different names. For free sheet music to this tune for those of you who fiddle, visit this link.
A musical element that I found striking within the tune, The Rambling Pitchfork was the dynamics. I found it striking that there wasn’t a lot of dynamics! Notice how very even the dynamics are throughout the first piece. It hardly changes and there isn’t much increase or decrease. It feels like you are wading through the same depth of water for a long while. It is interesting as the entire recording is very soft in the dynamic range. I wonder if it is hard to create dramatic dynamic changes with a nyckelharpa? I will have to research that more.
I prefer the modern chromatic nyckelharpa over the kbh. It sounds more like a violin and is sweeter; less rusty sounding than the kbh.
Each form of the instrument had a uniqueness to it that I thoroughly enjoyed. However, I lean more towards the mysterious and clearer sounding instruments. The chromatic nyckelharpa was just that.
The evolution and innovation of the nyckelharpa fascinates me. It went from scratchy and small, to big and clear in tone. I definitely enjoy the clarity of the modern form and like to look back and see where it used to be and where it is now. So neat!
In conclusion, the nyckelharpa is one interesting instrument. I really want one! I already play the violin so I think handling a nyckelharpa will be similar as far as the bow and string mechanics. Who else wants to try out a nyckelharpa now?
Brashers, Bart. “A Brief History of the Nyckelharpa.” Nyckelharp.Org, www.nyckelharpa.org/about/what-is-a-nyckelharpa/nyckelharpa-history. Accessed 14 Oct. 2020.
—. “Nyckelharpa.” Wikipedia, 7 Sept. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nyckelharpa.