The Nyckelharpa

From the Great Steppe, we now travel to the middle of Sweden, to a small village about five miles outside the city of Örebro called Tysslinge. In the previous entry we focused on the morin khuur of Mongolia, and now we’ll pause for a little rumination on one of the most dignified and fascinating stringed instruments of Europe, the nyckelharpa.

Without a doubt, the nyckelharpa, sometimes described as the bowed hurdy-gurdy, is positively medieval. Its origins, though debated, seem to date back to at least the middle of the 14th century, and documentation of its use and existence under various names and slight iterations appear in church paintings, early books on music, and relief sculptures, for several hundred years, until the modern era. Primarily, however, evidence suggests that the nyckelharpa was an instrument that flourished mainly in small villages of the Swedish region of northern Uppland. The nyckelharpa is a “keyed fiddle,” and quite large. Played with a bow and held with a strap around the neck, the instrument today has 16 strings and 37 keys. The keys are pressed as a player bows, hence the hurdy-gurdy comparison. Except the nyckelharpa has 12 sympathetic strings and 1 drone string giving it a unique sound when its 3 melody strings are bowed. Now firmly part of the Swedish folk tradition, today it is the Swedish national instrument, even found on the printed kronor.

Swedish folk music was certainly recorded in the 78 rpm era, though it was not the main output of Sweden’s recording industry and can be devilishly difficult to find, even in Sweden. In terms of early recorded music from the country, including the output of Swedish-Americans, fiddle, nyckelharpa, and bagpipe tunes are nearly completely absent – most what you find are the enjoyable, light-hearted comic tunes with accordion. The songs we’ll present today are quite different, and truly shine a light on the early folk tradition in Scandinavia. I’ve always thought that, not unlike the hardanger fiddle tradition of Norway, Swedish folk music has almost a wistful, yet stately and regal quality – almost baroque – that is thoroughly beautiful. Traditional music can be both “folk” and refined.

It is Tysslinge where Erik August Sellin was from. Born in 1869, Sellin was actually a multi-instrumentalist, playing besides the nyckelharpa, the clarinet, accordion, and violin. He lived portions of his life in Stockholm, with travel to the U.S. and to Berlin as a touring musician, though apparently the tours were not as successful as he’d hoped. He did, however, record several nascent examples of nyckelharpa folk music for Odeon, and for the Gramophone Company, in 1912 and 1913, respectively. This piece (link below), recorded in Stockholm on August 12, 1913, is a medley of two tunes, “Tysslingevalsen” (Waltz from Tysslinge) and “Hopparvalsen” (Jumping Waltz). Bowed instruments can sound so distant on these early recordings, even in perfect condition. I am sure well-seasoned Excavated Shellac readers have the innate ability to hear magic through the fog.

The nyckelharpa has evolved and changed in its construction. Sellin’s instrument was found in an attic, and dated from the mid-1800s. It’s a type known as a silverbasharpa which he made changes to, increasing the number of keys from 20 to 29, increasing the keys’ notes, adding a layer of rosin that acted as insulation against the rattling of the keys, modifying the bow to increase elasticity, and also adding a piece of rubber to the “frog” part of the bow, so he could play pizzicato. Sellin died in 1937. His life is well documented in a privately published book from 1982, in Swedish, written by Roger Berlin.

Flash forward nearly 40 years. Apart from the scarce early examples, one of the most interesting series containing folkloric music on 78 from Sweden were the occasional discs issued by the Radiotjänst label, run by the Swedish national broadcast company. While most of their releases on 78 were classical, from about 1946 or so, Radiotjänst periodically recorded excellent folk music by the most renowned traditional musicians in the country. Only several dozen of these discs were issued and those don’t exactly grow on trees either, but they constitute a wide array of top performances. Probably the most well-known nyckelharpa musician of the 20th century, Eric Sahlström, was among those captured – on a mere 2 discs, in 1950.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Eric Sahlström not only revolutionized and popularized the nyckelharpa, but he helped reinvigorate interest in Swedish folk music in general. Born in 1912, Sahlström hailed from Uppland, an area north of Stockholm known for keeping the nyckelharpa tradition alive when it had fallen out of favor. He, too, redesigned the instrument, creating the chromatic version played most commonly today, with 3 rows of keys, augmenting an original design by August Bohlin. Sahlström taught classes, appeared on radio and television, and rekindled interest in the Swedish folk tradition. A soft-spoken, avuncular man, at least in his TV appearances (at the 5:50 mark), he bridged the gap between the older and modern era, while still keeping the roots in place. Today, there is an Eric Sahlström Institute, in Tobo, and his composed works are performed by many. Thanks to him, there is recognition of this rich tradition. He passed away in 1986. This track is one of his own compositions, also known as “Fiddler’s Joy” recorded ca. early 1950.

E. A. Sellin – Tysslingevalsen; Hopparvalsen

Eric Sahlström – Spelmansglädje

Eric Sahlström nyckelharpa photo by Karsten Evers.

Image of young Erik Sellin from Roger Berlin’s Allmogespelmannen Erik Sellin (Vintrosa: författaren, 1982).

Label: Gramophone Company
Coupling Number: 587911
Matrix Number: 5115ab

Label: Radiotjänst
Issue Number: RA 153
Matrix Number: RTJ 2988 A

With thanks to Tony Klein.

For more Sahlström on Radiotjänst there’s Volume 1 of the Secret Museum of Mankind, of course!

12 thoughts on “The Nyckelharpa

    1. Thanks, John! Yes, I see those are all from early cylinder recordings…doesn’t look like commercial recordings, but important early work.

  1. Great to hear, especially Sellin. Thanks for sharing! Some of his recordings is on some Lp´s that came out in the late 80´s – under the name Gammal svensk folkmusik (Old swedish folkmusic). I´ve been looking for them, but haven´t found them. But now i´ve heard one of his recordings!

  2. I find the earlier Erik August Sellin record to be of mystifyingly great sound and ambience, especially for a record that was made in 1913. Marvellous sequence of music!

  3. Wow, very cool! JW, do you know any more about the history of the nyckelharpe? Even though it’s played with a bow, I can’t help but wonder if the sympathetic string system influenced Persian or Indian instruments (or the other way around).

    1. Thanks, Chad! As for the strings, I’d doubt it, but I guess stranger things have happened. The hardanger in Norway (and many other instruments, obviously) also have sympathetic strings and seem related. Others can surely chime in, I am sure!

    2. Rather late to this party, but sympathetic strings don’t point to any direct connection with Persia or India. They were, in fact, a common feature of Renaissance and Baroque European musical instruments. The nyckelharpa finds its roots in this same milieu. For example, look at the viola d’amore.

      The connection to Persia and India is that there was tremendous cultural interchange during that period and a lot of musical ideas that became common in Europe came from that region during the period. But of course, Sweden was about as removed from direct contact with those countries as any place in Europe at that time, so you should look to more immediate European sources and connections.

  4. Hey, Jonathan.

    On another note, listening to the preview samples of your forthcoming “Excavated Shellac – Reeds”, I have to say, it sounds like pure gold! Especially striking is the North Korean track “Janggochum”. Just remarkable. What era would that be from? The concept of “North Korea” here is a baffling one…

    Most of the tracks sound like they’re from the 1920’s at the earliest… Can you tell me which one is the oldest of them all?

    1. Thanks! I’ll post a message about the release soon. Most are actually from the late 20s to as late as the early 50s. But the earliest I believe is either the Chinese track, or the Upper Egypt track – not sure whether the latter comes before or after the former…

  5. Missed this one! Loved it, especially having the two examples to compare and contrast.

    It’s been suggested that the hurdy gurdy might have its ancestry in the middle east (I’d offer a citation, but I don’t have one to hand, although… um… it’s mentioned on Wikipedia). If we do see the nyckelharpa in terms of a bowed hurdy gurdy, maybe it isn’t a stretch to imagine some geographically remote connections. As you say, stranger things have happened.

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