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Hardanger Fiddle

Mid-nineteenth century violin converted into Hardanger fiddle by Knute Hellund, c. 1893.
(Museum object #1973.56)

In 1893, Theodore Mikkelson of Chetek, Wisconsin, gave his seventeen-year-old nephew, Adolph K. Austin, an old violin. Under the tutelage of his uncle, Austin learned how to read music and the basic fundamentals of how to play the instrument. While he never received any formal music lessons past those rudimentary instructions, Austin continued to practice and learned how to play Norwegian folk music largely by listening to phonograph records originally recorded in Norway.

One day violin maker Knute Hellund, a Norwegian immigrant, stopped at the Austin home in Chetek and told Autin he could turn the old violin into a Hardanger fiddle. Austin agreed and Hellund took the violin with him to Chippewa Falls where he replaced damaged wood, applied the border designs (known as kol rosing), and inlaid mother-of-pearl into the fingerboard and behind the bridge area. Hellund also carved the dragon head for the head of the instrument, charging Austin $50 for his efforts and changing the original violin into a fine example of a traditional Norwegian folk instrument.

With his refurbished fiddle, Austin continued to practice and gradually increased his repertoire to include waltzes and square dance music. He never played professionally, but participated in community programs in Barron County for many years, often accompanied on piano by his daughter Lillian, until illness forced him to give up his music at the age of seventy.

Hardanger fiddles, or hardingfele, first appeared in Norway in the mid-1600s and within a century had become that country's dominant folk instrument and unofficial national instrument (it probably originated in the area around the Hardanger fjord from which it garnered it English name). Like Austin's fiddle, Hardangers are typically decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay on the neck with black pen-and-ink drawings around the body. The instrument is sometimes topped with a carving of a maiden, but more usually a lion or other animal (in Austin's case, a dragon).

The Hardanger fiddle differs most from a violin, however, in that it has eight strings instead of four. The top four strings are played with a bow like the violin while the other four run underneath the fingerboard and vibrate sympathetically when the top strings are played. Together, these strings provide a melody accompanied by a droning echo that distinguishes the Hardanger's sound from any other instrument.

[Sources: Casey, Lillian Austin. "The True History of Adolph K. Austin's Hardanger Violin - Chetek, Wisconsin." (Wisconsin Historical Museum accession file 1973.56); Hardanger Fiddle Association of America. "What is a Hardanger fiddle?" at]


Posted on March 31, 2005

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