Made in America with Foreign Parts
Martin Cliff, 1895
Wood (maple, spruce, ebony), mother of pearl, metal, bone
Martin J. Cliff, a Norwegian immigrant spent the second half of his life in Mt. Horeb. Cliff was a devoted patron to his community, serving as a treasurer for the local parochial school, as well as treasurer of a cheese company closer to Blue Mounds. Cliff also found ways to give back through art and music. Having learned carpentry skills from his father, Cliff took up the trade as a pastime and cultural inheritance, crafting his own fiddle at the age of 19, around 1895. Accounts from Cliff’s former neighbors recall him playing the fiddle for members of the community on his front porch, as well as at family gatherings. (Click here to listen to a local Hardanger Fiddle recording)
For a complete essay on this object, click here.
The music of Norway is as rich with cultural heritage as it is beautiful. With a sound so unique that reflects the pride and prowess of its homeland, Norwegian music easily produces a sense of solidarity between those of Norwegian descent. One of the most important instruments that defines the sound of Norway is the Hardanger fiddle. Around the turn of the 20th century, with the mass immigration of Norwegian peoples to the United States, cultural unity was in need more than ever in order to preserve the ethnic traditions and customs of Norway in a novel and foreign land. Keeping these traditions close to heart, first generation Norwegian-Americans imbued the techniques of crafting these instruments to their successors in order to ensure that their homeland’s culture would persist over time with strength and dignity. Serving as a definitive cultural icon, the Hardanger fiddle represents not only the proud traditions of music and its importance to Norwegian culture, but as well the success of the establishment of a new, hybrid ethnic culture in America from the first Norwegians to arrive here seeking a better life for themselves and future generations to come.
I had the opportunity to research a Hardanger fiddle made by a Martin J. Cliff hailing from Blue Mounds, Wisconsin who spent the second half of his life in Mt. Horeb. Cliff was a devoted patron to his community, serving as a treasurer for the local parochial school, as well as treasurer of a cheese company closer to Blue Mounds. Cliff also found ways to give back through art and music. Having learned carpentry skills from his father, Cliff took up the trade as a pastime and cultural inheritance, crafting his own fiddle at the age of 19, around 1895. Accounts from Cliff’s former neighbors recall him playing the fiddle for members of the community on his front porch, as well as at family gatherings. The specifics of Cliffs fiddle in comparison to traditionally crafted styles reflect the ethnic changes of immigrant lifestyle and support a theory by Jean Baudrillard on the nature of objects made in the image of an original “model” object with variations to each “series” object to come from it.
In Baudrillard’s The System of Objects, he details a theory based on the notion that objects which are made and manufactured must derive from one original object: a model object. All objects to come after the model object are series objects, which differ from one other by slight variations that can be stylistic, cultural, functional, etc. In the case of Cliff’s Hardanger fiddle, he reduces some of the intricacies of detail to more basic fundamental aesthetics, reflecting both his age and the transmutation of cultural as part of being an immigrant. The personalization of this fiddle is the most critical element in understanding its relative cultural value as an iconic instrument and object of unity throughout the local community because each detail has something more to reveal about the considerations Cliff took into account in crafting one of his early achievements of carpentry.
Overall, this Hardanger fiddle represents much more than the local culture it embodies: it represents a sense of tradition and pride for one’s homeland and background heritage. Martin Cliff inherited a tradition of artistry which gave him the ability to continue a powerful lineage of Norwegian descendants. His impact on not only his bloodline, but as well his local community and the greater Norwegian-American population of Wisconsin runs deeply in his crafted fiddle, as well as the rich music he produced with it. The Hardanger fiddle elegantly embodies the history of a nation of proud of its accomplishments, whether domestically achieved, or done across the sea in a rural town in Wisconsin.