Wednesday 7 January 2015


I had never heard of a nyckelharpa until last Sunday but was privileged to get the opportunity to both see and hear it for the first time in Arundel. The player, Jeff Swann, kindly gave a talk and a demonstration.

Originally it is believed to have come from Slovakia in the 1500s.  Despite many German churches depicting the instrument in their wall paintings this is most likely a red herring as the artists would have travelled throughout Europe and already been familiar with it. Later on it became very popular in Sweden but it is thought that it was introduced to them by the Wallonian miners from Belgium. Sweden has a rich seam of iron ore, but only when the foreign miners showed them how to extract it by blast furnace methods were they able to turn it into pig iron and thus found an industry based upon it.

Related to the hurdy gurdy it is a bowed instrument with keys that act as frets to the wire strings. The keys allowed the miners to play without causing additional stress to their already arthritic and calloused hands. Older versions had drone strings. It makes a beautifully haunting sound if somewhat more sombre than I usually favour. Jeff made his from scratch in six weeks from Swedish spruce for the box because it resonates and the other components from maple and curly birch. For more info about Jeff further details can be found here

Chatting to Jeff afterwards we discovered we had already encountered him last year at the Medieval Joust and he is in our local Morris side. Small world!


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