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The Power of the Harp

Myrkur - Folkesange (2020)
New month, new monthly marker!

MYRKUR – HARPENS KRAFT (2020)

Many songs tell us about the magical beauty of harp play and the powers a skilled player can wield under the right circumstances. Previously I was captured myself by Kati Rán‘s Harpa Toner which upon investigation turned out to be one of many renditions of the same tale that has been travelling throughout Europe, shapeshifting and scope-creeping, evolving in time to well-known versions like Binnorie, The Twa Sisters, The Bonnie Swans and Harp of Death. Now, once more I am mesmerized by a harp-related song (or should I say ‘sange’? ) and this time as well, I simply had to know what was behind the softly sang lyrics brought across by the tempting voice of none other than Amalie Bruun, a.k.a Myrkur.
Though mostly known for her Metal albums, Amalie has been diving deeper and deeper into the richness of Scandinavian traditional songs and clearly she came up with some pure Danish gold. As early as January of 2018, some of you may have been lucky enough to witness performances of Myrkur having struck new ground, touring together with other great artists of our scene, like Christopher Juul ( Heilung, Euzen ) and… you guessed it: Kati Rán. Fortunately her collaboration with Christopher did not end when the tour did. In fact, she stepped into his famous Lava Studios and recently proudly released her latest album Folkesange.

This work of art is a 100% match with our station’s format, which means we will be able to play each individual track and what’s more: we have chosen Harpens Kraft as our new Monthly Marker, meaning we will be playing it 5 to 6 times a day for the month of May!



And this brings me back to the story: Harpens Kraft dates as far back as (at least) 1570 and is a ballade about Villemann and Magnhild. Whilst playing a game, the bride is clearly distraught and Villemann inquires about the reasons for her distress, offering up several possibilities, which all are refuted by Magnhild. Instead, she reveals a premonition that she will fall (to her death) into the river Blide, like her two sisters did before her. Although the lyrics of Harpens Kraft end here, the story does not. Despite Villemann’s reassurances promising her the protection of many of his men and the building of a very strong stone bridge, she is not comforted and as it turns out, rightfully so. When Magnhild crosses the bridge, her horse rears up on its hind legs and she falls off into the river. The moment Villemann hears of this, is where Myrkur picks up lamenting in the song Villemann og Magnhild, the Norwegian part of this tale, which is also part of the repertoire of bands like (amongst others) SKÁLD and Datura:



After her fierce Kulning singing, Amalie continues to tell how Villemann took his golden harp to enchant the troll that was holding Magnhild, by draining the power from his arm with his harp play. As is often the case with Nordic tales, the (here unsung) ending isn’t a happy one, as she doesn’t come back to life, but he can at least provide a proper burial.

Epilogue:
The story of this tale actually doesn’t end here and so, I will finish with the beginning. In the variations that could be heard in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, the troll was the villain, yet in Iceland there was none but fate itself. Something happened halfway on the Norwegian Sea and clues can be found exactly there: on the Shetland Islands, where in Unst the Scandinavian versions where predated by a very similar song from the 14th century:



This song has a happier ending, the Celtic influences are clearly recognizable in the character of the Elven King and the clue to the last part of this trip, lies in the naming of the hero of it all: Villemann is called King (or Sir) Orfeo. This is where my wonderings went full circle for me: Orfeo was one of the first Balfolk bands I danced to, back when the scene was just sprouting in the Netherlands and it was the personal CD collection of Erica, the flutist of that very band, that laid the foundation for CeltCast’s musical arsenal not much later.

But wait! There’s even more to this story:
Let me offer you the chance to go even further back in time and have a listen to AmmA‘s King Orfeo, a rendition of the late 13th century version of the Westminster-Middlesex area. This version was introduced via Breton poets in Medieval times and it contains a mixture of Celtic mythology, such as the faeries, the Greek myth of Orpheus.



Yes, you read that correctly: this tale brings you all the way back to Greek mythology, when in 438 B.C. Euripides wrote the first known version of this love story of Orpheus and Eurydice in his Alcestis. And that to me is the true power of the harp: this instrument once again welcomed me to travel far beyond the confinement of my home and through 25 centuries to show how we are all connected, supported by the tales that travel through time, preferably put to beautiful music.

– Alex


The key to the nyckelharpa



‘Tales of the Unknown Instruments’ is a multi media web series about unknown folk instruments. It tells the tale of their origins, their players and their music through audio, video and text. In this episode of ‘Tales of the Unknown Instruments’ we talk about the nyckelharpa.
The nyckelharpa is a folk instrument that is mostly known in Sweden. Its name exists out of two parts: nyckel is the Swedish word for key and harpa is the collective name for stringed instruments. It looks like a big fiddle with a wooden keyboard on the end of the neck. The keys are are attached to tangents. When they are pressed, they serve as frets to change the pitch of the string. The modern chromatic nyckelharpa has 16 strings. The three melody strings are played. There are twelve resonance strings which resonate with the melody strings. It has also one drone string. That string always resonates when the instrument is being played. The modern nyckelharpa is a chromatic one. Chromatic keyboards let you play all the half tones.
 
The nyckelharpa is a versitile instrument. It can create very different kinds of music, even though its sound is very recognisable.
Curious of the different sounds? Head over to the playlist down below and find out yourself. It features the works of modern musician Faber Horbach and famous nyckelharpa player Eric Sahlström. Not familiar with these names? Watch the video and find out about Faber Horbach and look at the timeline and be amazed of Eric Sahlström’s work.


The how and what now of the nyckelharpa

In this video, musician Vicki Swan will show you what a nyckelharpa is. She does thaty by showing how the instrument works and what sound it makes. If you’re interested in the techniques on how to play the nyckelharpa, check out this video from classical musician Didier François. This playlist from Two Cherries Instruments will show you the process of making a nyckelharpa in detail.  

The musician’s tale

This is the tale of two musician’s. They will tell you about their first encounter with the instrument and what makes it so special.
 
Emelie Waldken
Emelie Waldken is a musician who lives in Sweden. She is originally from Switzerland, but after intending the one-year course at the Eric Sahlström Institute in Tobo she fell in love with Sweden. Four years ago, she decided that she wanted to live there permanently, although she regularly comes over to Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands to perform with the nyckelharpa.
 
“For me, the nyckelharpa represents a lot. I’m a violinist and I used to play lots of classical music and later on folk music, too. When I discovered the nyckelharpa and held it for the first time in my arms, I was feeling really emotional. It completely changed my life -for the better. Because before, I was studying agriculture and agronomy in Switzerland and I ended up being a professional musician in Sweden. It has been a key to my life -because key in Swedish is nyckel.
 
I would say that the sounds makes the nyckelharpa such a special instrument, because it’s very specific. It has resonance strings that ring a lot, they resonate with the instrument. It’s like playing in a church, even if you are in a very tiny room. It sounds very powerful. You also hear the clicking of the keys. That is very different from the violin or the cello. Only the hurdy gurdy has a similar sound of clicking keys. The nyckelharpa is a very polyvalent instrument, too. You can play any kind of music with it, like classical, jazz, metal and folk. It goes with any kind of instrument. The history is fascinating, too. It’s very varied. The instrument existed in many countries and in many forms, but it only survived in one small place in Uppland, Sweden.
 
I have way too many ideas of what to do next with the nyckelharpa. I’ve made a challenge for myself to play very hard tunes on the nyckelharpa and release audio and/or video’s of that on the internet. I would also love to have a duo of nyckelharpa’s; to play with another nyckelharpaplayer. Historically there have often been a fiddle and a nyckelharpa in a band, but never two nyckelharpa’s. I would love to play with a fellow player.”
 
Faber Horbach
Faber Horbach is a Dutch musician. You might know him from the bands Heilung or Sowulo, where he writes music, sings and plays multiple instruments. One of those instruments is the nyckelharpa.
 
“I knew of the instrument because of the traditional folk music that I listen to. I’ve also seen the nyckelharpa a couple of times on Castlefest, because Oliver Tyr from Faun plays it. Søren Hammerlund from Virelai plays it, too. I got in touch with him when I was in Denmark and I visited him. I told him that I was falling in love with the nyckelharpa. I asked if I could have a look, so I started playing on it and it worked out pretty well because of my background with piano and guitar. He said that I could buy it. I was super happy and I was like: Søren are you kidding me? It was so cool that I could by the nyckelharpa of the real Søren . That was my first nyckelharpa, but it was a bit of a crappy one. It was severely damaged but it was a good instrument to start with. I practised a lot on that and after a while I bought a second nyckelharpa from the instrument maker Hogar Funke in Germany.
 
I use the nyckelharpa in a slightly different way than people normally do. Most people play the instrument in a traditional way, with typical Scandinavian tunes. I use it a bit more like a backbone for music; more rhythmic and more chords. Most of the time I use it to create an atmosphere, so I don’t use a lot of melody. I could say that I use it a bit more like a guitar than a melody instrument.
 
I’m from the new generation of nyckelharpa players. I think that the entire folk scene in the Netherlands has grown in the last ten years. I think it has a lot to do with series like Game of Thrones, Vikings and Lord of the Rings. The fantasy genre is becoming more popular, because people are becoming more interested in the culture behind those movies and series. It has a lot to do with LOTR and GOT, the fantasy scene is becoming more popular. They then discover the music that comes with that, like traditional music and modern folk. And with that, the nyckelharpa, too. I hope that the instrument becomes more popular. It’s not used a lot right now, but I think it’s such a beautiful instrument. It deserves more attention.”
 
 

What tale will it tell next?

The nyckelharpa as of now isn’t very well known. Will that change in the future? Emelie Waldken doesn’t think so.
 
“I would say first that the instrument has become more and more well known in the past ten years. You can play anything you want on the nyckelharpa. Most of the top players of the nyckelharpa come from Sweden. There are a lot of amateurs -not only in Sweden- who don’t play or don’t want to play on stage. Also, bands and musicians that use the instrument play mostly traditional music. So if you’re not already into folk music, it’s likely you won’t know of its existence.
 
It’s also very hard to get one, especially outside of Sweden. Almost all the information about the instrument, how to play it and where to buy one is in Swedish. A few people, me included, are trying to give more information in English so the information can spread further. There is another problem though, and that is the amount of builders. There are some in the USA and Europe, but almost none on other continents. The players of the nyckelharpa are very builder-specific. You see that there are more players of the instrument who live near the builders.
 
I don’t think that the nyckelharpa will ever become a well known instrument. It’s not like a fiddle, it’s not like a guitar, it’s very hard to make and the sound is very specific. It’s hard to tune as well. The information and history is hard to find, so you have to be nerdy to want to find information about it. You probably have to travel to other countries and speak with people you don’t know the language of. So I don’t think that it is going to be very well known, but I hope it’s going to be a bit more well known.”

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About us

Alex Hi, I'm Alex. I am delighted to say that I am a co-founder of CeltCast. Starting this station has been a dream come true! ... read more
Arjan I'm Arjan. I'm proud to say that I'm a co-founder of CeltCast. Music was my first love, and it will be my last. Music of the future and ... read more