Nyckelharpa History

stone carvings of nyckelharpa players

There is a church stone carving (left) on the Källunge church on Gotland, Sweden of what appears to be an early nyckelharpa from about 1350 AD. There is a fresco in Italy from 1408 with a nyckelharpa image. There are old church paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries that show what appears to be nyckelharpa-type instruments being played by angels. These paintings exist in Denmark, Swenden and Italy, but it has not been possible to determine where these instruments were actually played at this time. There are no historic instruments from this time period. The painting below is from the Ősterlövsta church in Uppland from around 1468.

The nyckelharpa has been continuously played in the Uppsala region of Sweden since the mid-1600s.

There is an early version instrument from the 1680s, called a Moraharpa. There are a total of two instruments of this kind, both were found in the Älvdalen Parish, near Mora. These appear to be made based on a publish drawing from 1620 by Pretorius. One is housed in the Zornmuseum in Mora, Sweden; thus the name. There is some debate about if they were even playable instruments.

There is another early nyckelharpa dated from around 1600 found in Esse Finland, and a similar on found in Vefsn, Norway.

angelic church painting

There are modern reproductions of both the Moraharpa and Esseharpa being made.

The first well documented instrument type is called a kontrabasharpa and appeared in the Uppsala region of Sweden between 1630 and 1640. This instrument was played all though the 1930's. This was a commoner's instrument and used for listening music and dancing. It was probably mostly played solo. This instrument could play in the keys of C, G and D. Due to length and tension issues, the gut strings could not be tuned to an E, so the highest string was tuned to an A. The highest melody string was of twisted silk and the highest drone of an overspun silk string.

In the 1860s, the Nyckelharpa got an extra row of keys for chords like the then new accordions.  The term Silverbassharpa for this version was coined by a journalist in 1899 but only came into modern use after 1967. The silverbasharpa could only play in the key of C.

In 1929, August Bohlin did some re-design and built the first 3-rowed fully chromatic nyckelharpa. This design was slightly revised by Eric Sahlström and is now considered the basis for the common 3-rowed chromatic nyckelharpa. Due to the large body of music available for this instrument, there was no perceived need for an E string to be added.

The nyckelharpa almost died out in the late 1950's, but was brought back through an intentional effort by the Swedish government. This tied in with the folk revival of the late 1970's.

The terms: Contrabassharpa and Silverbassharpa are modern terms for the older versions of the nyckelharpa.  There are also other early versions with names that often come from the location the instrument was found. 

Per-Ulf Ullmo is currently finishing up a comprehensive history of the Nyckelharpa.  We understand that a Swedish language version of this book is in final editing stages.  Per-Ulf provided editing/input to this brief history of the nyckelharpa.

The nyckelharpa is not what can be called a mature instrument. It is still evolving and developing.

There is additional information available about the history from the CADENCE and American Nyckelharpa Association web sites.

(Note: any text that is a different color and underlined is a link to another web page. Clicking on it will take you there.)

(Page last updated on 12/5/2015)