As a group of Pine City residents recently found out, the nyckelharpa, or Swedish key fiddle, is as fun to listen to as it is to pronounce, which is no surprise considering it belongs to the same instrument family as the English hurdy-gurdy.
The nyckelharpa is a traditional Swedish instrument that has been played for over 600 years. An image on the gates outside Källunge church, on the Swedish island of Gotland, dates back to the year 1350 and depicts two nyckelharpa players.
Looking something like a cross between a guitar and a fiddle, it hangs on the front of the body but is played with a bow. The instrument has evolved over time, and today most modern nyckelharpas have sixteen strings, twelve of which are called resonant strings that are not touched, but vibrate and add to the richness of sound. It has dozens of wooden keys that slide under the strings when pushed and little posts called tangents, that are set perpendicularly to the keys and reach up to stop the melody string to make a particular note, similar to fretting on a guitar.
Although the nykelharpa has been played in Sweden for over 600 years, its popularity waned in the early 1900s but was revived again, in large part because of the efforts of Eric Sahlström, a Swedish folk musician who composed a wealth of music for the instrument and tinkered with its design as well.
Today there are around 10,000 nykelharpa players in Sweden. Here in the United States, the number is a bit lower, likely just over 200 according to the American Nykelharpa Association. More than 20 of those belong to the Twin Cities Nyckelharpalag, or Key Fiddle Group, which was formed in 1998, drawing mostly on interest from a few Scandinavian dance enthusiasts who wanted to learn to play the instrument.
The current group consists of people from all walks of life, including teachers, physicians and medical personnel, historians and social workers. Marilyn McGriff, who is retired from East Central Regional Library, has been a member of the Twin Cities Nykelharpalag group for 13 years. She served as spokesperson for the recent event at the library, introducing the tunes and providing informative descriptions and historical tidbits.
McGriff’s interest in Scandinavian folk music began after becoming acquainted with several nyckelharpa players in the Twin Cities. “I was able to borrow a harp for a few months while I learned some rudiments about the instrument and how to play it,” she recalled. “Most players have a similar story in that they became fascinated with the instrument and its unique sound and became hooked rather readily.”
The group’s repertoire is drawn mostly from folk tunes from the Uppland area of Sweden, where the nyckelharpa tradition has its roots. Accompanied by guitars, a fiddle, a mandolin and a bouzouki, which is another quirky stringed instrument, the performers entertained the Pine City audience with waltzes, Schottisches, similar to a polka, and gånglåts, which means walking tune or march. The songs were rhythmic and infectious, and it wasn’t difficult for the nykelharpalag members to convince those assembled to join in the dancing. While most of the songs were lively and cheerful, one piece was slow and haunting and particularly moving.
A video clip of the group performing this song, all dressed in traditional Swedish garb, is available on the Pioneer’s website at www.pinecity.mn.com