Back in vogue: Nyckelharpa

Emilia Amper, photo by Simon Johansson

If the nyckelharpa sounds a little unusual, it looks utterly bizarre – like a violin morphed into a relic from the set of The Goonies. It’s a sort of fiddle-cum-hurdy-gurdy; a violin with extra ‘resonating’ strings and a chromatic keyboard that sits under the arm and produces a zingy, eastern-inflected tone – part kazoo, part squeezebox, part Strad.

And as with a Strad, you know when you’ve heard one. Aside from its tonal qualities – a distinct depth and edge, heard against the gentle clacking of the keys – the nyckelharpa is enthused with a touching, honeyed melancholy that’s all its own. ‘What makes it stick out is the fullness and roundness of the sound at the same time this silver-glittering treble’, says Swedish nyckelharpist Emilia Amper. ‘That’s a wonderful mixture and I think it’s why people react to the sound.’

Amper provided my first sonic experience of the nyckelharpa on the 2L album In Folk Style (2L 2L-068-SABD), where her instrument is pitched in languorous, addictive reels against the modern strings of the Trondheim Soloists. Here it finds its own momentum, bypassing the technical vulnerability of a comparable string instrument – to the violin what the organ is to the piano: a mechanical, near-infallible fiddle.

But the nyckelharpa has acute warmth and sensitivity, too. It was born somewhere in Northern Europe but survived only in Sweden, incubated by the folk music tradition which still cleaves to the instrument (it also adorns on the reverse side of Sweden’s 50 kroner note). It came into its own in the fifteenth century, undergoing a wave of revivals in the twentieth.

Something about the plaintive, strophic folk song tradition of the north speaks so readily through the nyckelharpa. Perhaps the best way in which to hear the instrument unalloyed is in one such strophic song, Sonnet No.1 from Karuna’s recent album Hyvää matkaa. Some other fascinating instruments are in full-throttle here, but it’s when the nyckelharpa soars upwards that you feel its agility and expressivity so acutely.

And it looks as though the nyckelharpa is increasingly venturing beyond Nordic shores. It has no shortage of fine advocates in the UK, recently weaving its way through Delphian’s album The Revenge of the Folksingers, where in the hands of Clare Salaman it shoots a ribbon of mourning into Olivia Chaney’s tracks Swimming in the Longest River and The King’s Horses.

Clare Salaman, photo by Brian Jones

 You have to wait for it, but then it arrives: initially underneath Chaney’s lyric ‘Freud never got to beloved Egypt’ in the first song, the crux of the most moving non-Nordic track I heard this summer. Salaman told us of the pure, ‘other-worldly’ sound of the instrument, ‘a result of the playing strings being stopped by keys rather than by fingers, and the sympathetic or resonating strings which create a sort of sonic aura around the core of the sound.’ That it’s bowed, she says, gives it an extra expressive capacity.

Salaman also has a pretty neat website which is a decent resource for anyone who wants to sort their Hardanger from their Hurdy-Gurdy.

And stand by for the humble old nyckelharpa to emerge on its very own solo album next year, when Emilia Amper records for the Swedish label BIS. ‘The album will be a mixture of traditional tunes and my own compositions and arrangements,’ Emilia tells us. There will be percussion, more appearances from members of The Trondheim Soloists, and contributions from Persian singer Bahram Bajelan.

Robert van Bahr of BIS is already billowing with excitement about the project; he sees a chance to thrust the nyckelharpa into the consciousness of a much wider public – a man caught off-guard by its alluring, curious sound. He’s not alone.

– Andrew Mellor

Listen to Emilia Amper playing a movement from her own quite for nyckelharpa and strings, Abrégé, courtesy of our friends at Gramophone.