Bára Grímsdóttir and Chris Foster
Icelandic folk music with traditional Icelandic langspil, guitar, kantele and Icelandic fiðla
Traditional Icelandic langspil and fidla (fiðla)
With our good friend and colleague Rósa Þorsteinsdóttir, we have been researching two Icelandic instruments, the traditional Icelandic langspil and fidla (Íslensk fiðla). We are looking into:
• When and how the instruments either arrived or evolved here in Iceland.
• What direct ancestors and cousins they have.
• How widespread they were in the country before their use declined and they stopped being used.*
• How consistent was the design of instruments, from place to place and over time.
• What materials were used for both body construction and strings.
• Tuning systems e.g. the pitch(es) that strings were tuned to.
• Repertoire and when and how the instruments were played.
• Playing techniques.
* The arrival of ‘new’ and more sophisticated instruments (e.g. accordions and harmoniums plus violins, clarinets, flutes etc.) from Denmark from the early 19th century onwards led to the fiðla dying out by circa 1850. The langspil lasted longer, but by the early 20th century, with very few exceptions, nobody was playing it anymore.
Ólöf Jónsdóttir frá Emmubergi á Skógarströnd playing langspil
photo Gísli Gestsson 1963 /4
A fundamental problem arises from the combination of the extreme shortage of instruments (especially fiðlas), a complete lack of sound recordings or film and the fact that most of the written material about them was written, not only by non-players, but also by people who had never seen a fiðla or langspil played by an experienced player. Consequently, there is an almost total lack of musical information regarding tuning (pitch and intervals between the strings), playing technique and repertoire. What they have been able to tell us is anecdotal information, much of it derived from oral, folkloric sources, along with detailed descriptions and measurements of the small number of instruments (in the case of fiðlas, just 3) that they had access to.
Fiðla from Rangarþingi, southern Iceland,
made circa 1810.
Collection of the National Museum of Iceland.
photo Chris Foster
Drawing by Sigurður 'málari' Guðmundsson, made during a visit to the north of Iceland in 1856. This instrument is lost.
Collection of the National Museum of Iceland
Two photo's of fiðla made in 1905 by the carpenter Stefán Erlendsson from Ólafsgerði in Kelduhverfi for Sr. Bjarni Þorsteinsson. The instrument, minus its bridge, is in the collection of the National Museum of Iceland.
Colour photo, Chris Foster - black and white photo, Bjarni Þorsteinsson
Tautirut (Eskimo fiddle) in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilisation, Ontario.
Fiðla playing technique
The only old, 19th century, photos of someone 'playing' fiðla that we have found show a man called Jakob Árnason with the so called Rangarþing fiðla (see above) which is in the National Museum of Iceland. Rumour has it that Jakob wasn't really a player of the instrument, a notion that's born out by the fact that in the two photos, he is playing on opposite sides of the instrument - see the position of his hands in relation to the tuning pegs. However, for all we know, the side you played on may not have mattered. The way that he is fretting the strings does fit with some written descriptions.
A question arises about whether people would have played the instrument on a table, as shown in the photos of Jakob, one of which was clearly posed in a photographic studio. In the turf houses that people lived in, back in the old days, there was very little furniture. People did everything in one room called baðstofa. There are plenty of accounts of people eating their food, doing jobs such as knitting or making shoes and so on while sitting on their beds, which were fixed along the walls of the room. They simply did not have tables.
When we handed our fiðla to the Finnish ancient instruments expert Rauno Niemenen and asked him to play it, he immediately started playing the instrument in a vertical position.
We continue to investigate ways of tuning and playing the fiðla and also experimenting with things like the bridge position, which can open up the possibility of having four open string notes in tune.
Here is a video clip of our friend, viola da gamba player Niccolo Seligman holding the instrument 'gamba style'. He had never played the instrument before, but his experiment reveals interesting possibilities.
Jón Ásbjörnsson (1821 – 1905) a carpenter and stone quern maker from Borgarnes, playing a langspil. Photographed 1897
In addition to collating references from existing printed and manuscript sources, we are scouring the country for additional, original source materials, e.g. family stories, drawings, poems and photographs. We are also tracing living descendants of players identified in the historical record. While it would be fantastic to find and document even just one actual instrument, we know that this is extremely unlikely to happen.
An off-shoot from our investigations in Iceland takes us to North America, in particular the region around Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and North Dakota, USA, where approximately 25% of the Iceland population emigrated to in the period between the 1870’s and the 1920’s. We know that some of these migrants took instruments with them and also that they made new ones after they got there. We have already discovered a number of instruments that have made their way into museum collections in Canada.
Skafti Benediktsson Arason, son of Benedikt Arason who moved to Canada in 1874, holding a langspil made by his father.
We are also investigating possible links and connections with other similar instruments from other countries for example the Hummel (also called German scheitholt in the USA), including instruments found among German immigrant communities in the USA and the Canadian tautirut (the so called Eskimo fiddle).
One of our own langspils alongside a 19th century scheitholt in the Mercer Museum, Pennsylvania USA. Collected from the German Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, USA.
Photo taken at the Mercer Museum, by Ken Koons
We have recently been in contact Wilfried Ulrich in Germany who has spent many years researching the hummel, including restoring and playing old instruments. His book 'The story of the Hummel' (published in German and also English) is highly recommended and clearly points to the very close relationship between instruments in northern Germany, Denmark and eastern Holland and the langspil in Iceland. You can visit his fascinating website here:
Wilfried recently passed on this translation of a quotation by one Claas Douwes in a dutch manuscript from 1699 where he describes the playing technique used on the local hummel type instruments, sometimes called Noordsche Balken:
"Playing is done by some people with two pieces of wood, with one they scrape over the strings and with the other they slide over the first string over the frets. Others move with a viol bow over the strings and with the nail of the left hand thumb, they slide over the first string over the frets and so they play the melody."
The second part is as neat an explanation of the playing technique of langspil with a bow as we have ever come across. Just look at the photo's above.
We are always very pleased to hear from people with information, ideas, theories and so on.
Our investigations are at an early stage and proceed slowly due to limited time and no funding. Nevertheless, we are making progress and as is always the case, we are making unexpected tangential discoveries along the way.
Here is a link to Ryan Koons, a friend and colleague of ours in the USA playing and singing a German Hymn 'Spar dein Buse Nicht' on a replica (made by Ken Koons) of a 'German scheitholt' made and owned in 1870 by Henry Lapp in Pennsylvania, USA.
The original is shown alongside our langspil above. The hymn is one that used to be sung by Henry Lapp.
We will post updates and links on this page from time to time, as we go along.
Is this the oldest langspil?
With Rósa Þorsteinsdóttir and other friends, we are always working away on our researches into the old Icelandic instruments langspil and fiðla. Here is a beautiful langspil that belongs to our friend Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. It has been in his family for generations. The instrument definitely dates from before the year 1800, although we are not sure exactly when. It is very likely that this is the oldest langspil that is still around.
The instrument has a rather unusual system of wooden frets that merits detailed investigation. Being a very old and delicate instrument, it is too risky to tune it up with modern wire strings.
Now, another langspil pal Örn Magnússon has had this copy made and we are looking forward to exploring what the instrument can do.