In-depth Object Studies

66 Martin Cliff’s Hardanger Fiddle: An Epitomic Norwegian Cultural Icon

by Alexander Davis

Hardanger Fiddle
Martin Cliff, 1895
Wood (maple, spruce, ebony), mother of pearl, metal, bone
Museum acquisition
MHAHS 2003.028.0001

The music of Norway is as iconic as it is rich with cultural history, tradition and aesthetic appeal. Passed down from generation to generation, having traveled and transformed from its origins in Scandinavia to the Midwest region of the United, Norwegian musical culture carries a complex narrative ripe for scholarly analysis and educational discovery. A prime example of an object for analysis is one of the most prominent symbols of Norwegian music, the Hardanger fiddle. The Hardanger fiddle is arguably representative of the country’s musical heritage for its unique, recognizable form and style, as well as its historical connections to the cultivation of musical culture in Norway as a whole. I had the privileged opportunity of being able to engage with a Hardanger fiddle from Mt. Horeb hands on for this class and see for myself the mythical qualities this object is said to possess. This specific fiddle was crafted by none other than a Mt. Horeb resident of the former half of the 20th century, Mr. Martin Cliff. In this paper, I will examine the essential qualities of the Hardanger fiddle as an object of folk art and folk music history and argue that the Hardanger fiddle serves as the defining cultural symbol for Norwegian music culture and is significant in the realm of material culture because it is a model object, defined by Jean Baudrillard in his work The System of Objects . I will rely on Baudrillard’s work, as well as the works of Kristian Lange and Theodore C. Blegen, who both wrote extensive works on Norwegian music, in order to further support my thesis.

I would like to first detail the process of my research into the life of the maker of this fiddle, Martin Cliff, discuss my findings, then later on examine the formal aspects of the object itself after providing a foundation for which key artistic choices may be more easily understood. Afterwards, a comparison between the closest to the original model of the Hardanger fiddle to Cliff’s Hardanger fiddle series object, another term defined by Baudrillard, will serve to distinguish Cliff’s fiddle from the model object based on differentiating aspects and personalizations that prove to be useful in arguing for the Hardanger fiddle as an important cultural material object. Having then identified the unique qualities of Cliff’s fiddle, I will broaden the scope of my approach and examine the larger-scale tropes of Norwegian music culture as a whole and present my research respectively. By blowing up the scale of my argument, then narrowing in on the consistent qualities found in Cliff’s narrative and his fiddle’s narrative, I will be able to fluidly maneuver my example and further support my claims. Finally, after going sufficiently in-depth about the object, its maker, and the culture it represents, I will connect Cliff’s Hardanger fiddle and its individual narrative to the greater narrative of the Hardanger fiddle as a significant material object in Norwegian music culture. The representation of Cliff’s heritage will be made clear through the deeper analysis of this fiddle and hopefully shed light on the importance Norwegian music culture has on the American Midwest, specifically in Wisconsin.

The research that went into this project began with first asking the question: what is it I want to achieve in studying this object as art? After actually seeing and handling the fiddle myself the answer to that question began to seem more clear. In wanting to connect this object of beautiful craftsmanship to its crafter on a personal level, I gathered all available information I could on Martin Cliff. Unfortunately, the only viable information I was able to find was from the Mt. Horeb Historical Society. Most of his closest relatives were also deceased, and I did not have the means, nor the use of contacting any living ones. However, the information the historical society had was more than sufficient for the argument I was trying to make. Son of Norwegian emigrants Siri and Arne Klevgaard, later adapted to Sarah and Arne Cliff, Martin Cliff was born in the township of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin on March 3rd, 1876. His parents were pioneers to the settlement of Blue Mounds, one of the first settlements in the state of Wisconsin. Martin spent the majority of his life in Blue Mounds, originally being a carpenter but later transitioning to a life of farming that he would sustain until he died. In 1904, he married Miss Clara Kompelien and they settled down as farmers in Blue Mounds. He had 4 children 4 children. Cliff also held multiple positions in the departments of treasury in local bureaucratic establishments, from a communal cheese company in the Blue Mounds area to the Mt. Horeb Parochial School in the latter half of his life. However, he excelled in the area of farming, being detailed as an “artist farmer, doing everything with perfection” by a former neighbor of his, Alvin Thompson, who lived next to him in Blue Mounds. In 1936, Martin moved with his family to Mt. Horeb after retiring from farming to settle down once more on a farm, this time with a larger family and in a new location. Martin died on the 18th of December, 1950, on his farm and was buried in Mt. Horeb. He lived a wholesome life involved in his community and devoted to his family, humbly in tradition.

It would have been at the age of 19 that he made his Hardanger Fiddle, aforementioned a cultural icon in the realm of music in Norwegian tradition. A young adult engaging in the trade of carpentry, eager to craft a piece reflective of the efforts of his studious labor and training. Examining the formal aspects of his fiddle and trying to make assumptions based in his artistic choices, in this case, has its limits that should not be exceeded, or else incorrect judgments based outside of fact would be made. For instance, a safe observation paired with an interpretation can be made about the neck of the fiddle . Compared to a professionally crafted traditional Hardanger fiddle, which exudes a more native Norwegian ornamentation aesthetic, the flowered designs of the abalone shell which run down the neck to the tailpiece on Cliff’s fiddle appear to be crafted by someone not traditionally trained in apprenticeship of Hardanger fiddle making; that is to say the design was done by eye and done in the style Martin produced, not a traditional style he fabricated verbatim after years of intense training. The spirit of this detail represents the very nature of folk art itself, being the translation of tradition and heritage by second generation individuals of first generation artistic traditions. The omitting of artistic details from the model in a series object is one of the few safe assumptions one can make in examining series objects in comparison to their respective model objects they take design from. In order to better understand the intricacies and observable artistic choices Cliff could have made in the crafting of this fiddle, and the significance of these observable differences let us further explore this idea of model and series, presented by Jean Baudrillard in The System of Objects.

The idea of the first Norwegian Hardander fiddle being a model for all other Hardanger fiddles to come after it is distinguished by Jean Baudrillard by its visible qualities compared to the varied personalization of its modeled series objects. To directly quote Baurdillard, “the psycho-sociological dynamic of model and series does not operate at the level of the object’s primary function, but merely at the level of a secondary function, at the level of the ‘personalized’ object” (Baudrillard 151). This jargoned sentence broken down simply means that the difference in “operation,” or social function of the object comes down to the level of personalization a series object has inherited distanced from its original model object it was based off of. Examining Cliff’s fiddle under this theoretical lens, let us critically compare it as a series object to examples of the closest known traditional Hardanger fiddle model objects.

The model Hardanger fiddle, colloquially described by the Hadanger Fiddle Association of America (HFAA) as “sort of like a violin, but it has a whole lot of pegs, the top is carved funny, it has pearl and bone inlay, and is decorated with flowery drawings,” is easily identifiable and distinguishable as a unique model object in terms of cultural operation. Although some may argue that it is a series object of the violin, for the purpose and scope of this paper, no such comparison will be engaged with. The traditional Hardanger fiddle presents physical qualities identifiable of the cultural heritage of Norway: light brown woods, rosemaled designs in carvings, shellfish shell ornamentation, the carving of a dragon/lion in the scroll, and hand-carved pegs in the head of the scroll as well. Each traceable quality has originated from centuries of inherited artistic tradition, from the mysterious, oldest traceable fiddle back to 1651. Personalization over time has adapted in tandem with changing cultural norms, for instance the massive emigration of Norwegian peoples to America brought the Hardanger fiddle to America, which would be sure to have drastic impacts on the personalization of second generation’s crafting of the fiddles (like Cliff’s). Each following deviation in variable combination strays the series objects further away from their model foundations, yet connects them more deeply to the model just as easily. Any personalization that seems so outrageously deviant from the model can be seen as paying homage to the cultural foundations the model was founded on, yet simply incorporating contemporary elements in order to personalize and internalize the object. The objective of personalization is not to separate the series from the model, rather connect the series object, the model object, and an individual together through commonalities found in the cultural aspects of each agent. The important question to ask is who the individual is in this transaction, for it may differ depending on the situation. In the case of the consumer, personalization allows for the individual to feel deeper connected to the spirit of the model object in the form of a series object that is personalized better to accommodate to the varying qualities of the subjective consumer. In the case of the crafter of a personalized object, the crafter must first understand what he/she is changing from the model when personalizing their series object in order to confer any subjective meaning in their personalization of the object. And in terms of the original creator of the model, being able to see the cultural differences between personalized series objects and the model object displays the infinite variability of subjective interpretation from others onto a work of art, proving its unlimited connective power in forming such complex cultural potential. These relationships form the aspects underlying the foundation of grander concepts in material culture and consumerism, and can further aid in interpreting the cultural significance of the Hardanger fiddle.

The personalized aspects of Cliff’s fiddle show not only the deviation from the model Hardanger fiddle, but as well the care and consideration towards Norwegian cultural tradition. Although the fiddle was restored by renowned Hardanger fiddle craftsman Ron Post in 2003, the key parts that reflect the aforementioned homage to Norwegian culture are still in tact. For instance, the carved scroll of the fiddle in the shape of a dragon/lion , an identifiable icon of royalty and pride in Norwegian culture, gives perhaps the most insight into the personalization of this object. Although it nearly identical to the model Hardanger fiddle scroll, incredible detail in the form of wood carving and abalone inlay is found on the back of the dragon’s head. Cliff succeeds insurmountably in his use of the abalone on this object; the careful placement of each fragment and its relation in location to each other fragment of shell gives the neck downward, as well as the back of the scroll ornamentary focal points for the aesthetic of the object. It is in this style, where the identical aspects of the series object to the model object deviate, yet remain consistent on a level of the cultural identification of specific artistic components, that Martin Cliff is able to claim artistic ownership and individuality of his fiddle while still paying homage to Norwegian artistic tradition.

However, in order for one to clearly see said discernable traits and differences between the model fiddle and Cliff’s fiddle, some basic level of Norwegian culture, specifically musical culture, must be understood. Given that Norwegian musical culture dates back before the common era and is extremely diverse and somewhat pedantic, let us focus on only the essential history for this argument: the cultural history and development of the Hardanger fiddle and its classifiable Norwegian sound. In his work, Norwegian Music: A Brief Survey, Kristian Lange details carefully these words on the Hardanger fiddle:

“The youngest of the essentially Norwegian instruments is the Hardanger fiddle. It is believed to have developed in its present form between 1550 and 1650—the oldest specimen persevered is to be found in the Museum at Bergen and is dated 1651. The special feature on the Hardanger fiddle is that apart from the four strings found on an ordinary violin there is another set of strings set below, which vibrate in sympathy. The origin of these sympathetic strings can be described as traditional but it might also have been borrowed from abroad, where there were several types of instruments with similar undertones, such as the Scottish bagpipes, the Drehleier from Central Europe, and the Viola d’Amore. These sympathetic strings on the Hardanger fiddle have made the shape of the instrument somewhat different from that of an ordinary violin. The neck is broader and a little shorter, while the peg box is longer in order to make room for the four extra pegs. The back is more arched and the belly higher. The fiddle is usually much more ornate than an ordinary violin, both neck and soundbox being richly decorated with inlaid silver and mother-of-pearl, and the end of the tail-piece is often elegantly carved. Finally, the bridge is higher than that on a violin, to allow for the underlying strings, but it also has a less pronounced curve on top, to enable the player to use the bow on as many as three strings at once” (Lange 15-16).

Lange’s focus on the comparison of the Hardanger fiddle to the traditional violin is not simply a comparison between the fiddle and its closest instrumental relative, but as well an opportunity for comparison between cultures. Each difference and similarity can be used to delineate key tropes of Norwegian culture that differ from other European cultures. Lange’s most essential difference he writes about is the additional set of strings that “vibrate in sympathy” (Lange 15). The most important aspect of an instrument is arguably how it sounds and because of these additional sympathetic strings the fiddle becomes individually unique and separate from the violin. An instrument conceived in the traditional styles of music from ancient Norway, although it is young in comparison, still equally, if not more significantly is recognizable of Norwegian culture. Given its further cultural history in music writing and songs, the Hardanger fiddle is an icon of Norwegian musical culture.

Now, another concept to consider when trying to understand the greater history of Norwegian music and tradition is the turning point of mass emigration to America in the 19th century. Understanding the culture in Norway is one thing, but the translations and transformations of certain cultural ideals, traditions and tropes is particularly prevalent and important to the case of the Hardanger fiddle. Lange writes “the years between 1814 and 1905 were essentially a period of fermentation, a time of striving towards national self-expression, both intellectually and politically” (Lange 21). In a period of cultural development in the spirit of national pride and growth, Norwegian music saw great advancements and spectacles that would be carried over from Norway to America via emigrants. The translation of the home culture of Norway to America created a unique desgin of rich traditional foundations inspired by the novelty of a new homeland and the establishment of pioneer cultures rooted in the duality of Norwegian and American lifestyles. The Hardanger fiddle would take part in an evolution in design and sound that would firmly establish a Norwegian cultural presence most significantly in the upper Midwest.

Sarah Cliff, Mother of Martin Cliff, having emigrated from Norway in 1836, falls neatly under the scope of this Norwegian cultural revolution. It would be a safe assumption to surmise that she, being a first generation pioneer of Blue Mounds, as well as a matriarchal figure, would want to continue to uphold the rich tradition of her homeland. Martin’s father, Arne, who was also a fiddle player, would have most like inspired Martin to follow in his footsteps as a fiddle player, however this statement is more of a reach given the lack of factual information. Martin’s brothers were both fiddle players as well, according to the information from the Mt. Horeb historical society archives, so this assumption might be more solid after all. The combined mother-father impartment of cultural knowledge and tradition onto Martin would have made his reasoning for crafting his own fiddle much more objectively significant because it would mean he was not simply practicing skills in carpentry or wanting to play some random instrument as a hobby. The crafting of one’s own culturally important object at an age where one is still learning, experiencing, doing things for oneself objectively adds on to the greater narrative of the culture of origin he or she descended from. Martin’s coming-of-age testament as a Norwegian emigrant young adult is his self-made fiddle. It is actually more just that his series object deviated further from the original model Hardanger fiddle. This is a clear indication and support of the cultural shift from his parents’ home country, as well as his life as a maturing individual having a profound impact on the art he made in homage to his family’s ethnic culture. And for the greater scope of the narrative of the Hardanger fiddle as an essential Norwegian cultural icon, Cliff’s story is a wholehearted case study that beautifully represents the impact the Hardanger fiddle has had on Norwegian culture as a whole.

The aesthetic of Norwegian emigrant culture in itself is unique and deviated from original Norwegian culture. Much like the model and series in the realm of objects, culture too bears the similarities and differences of personalization from adapted and translated traditions, customs and norms from the “model” culture. In the context of music, Norwegian emigrant culture carries with it from Norway the traditional sound of the nation developed in the 19th century infused with the perspective of freshly arrived persons to America, making a new life for themselves and their families. Theodore C. Blegen writes in his work Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads,

“Like every great folk movement, the nineteenth century emigration from Norway to America produced its own literature…It would be strange if so great a movement had not produced a literature of songs and poems. All the world knows that the Norwegians have a native love of music and form. They cannot—or at least they could not before the age of steam and electricity—embark upon a popular movement without singing about it in one way or another, either in praise or in condemnation” (Blegen 5).

The narrative of the Norwegian emigrant translated into song reflects an artistic mode of expression and perspective on such a grandiose life event. The transformation of a pilgrimage, a journey to something hopefully greater, or perhaps more novel, into art is a powerful statement of passion and tradition that embraces the values of Norwegian culture according to Blegen. The various ballads and songs depicting aspects of emigrant life and dealing with the daily motions are a window into the vast history and culture of Norway that is open to interpretation, understanding and exchange. A noble value reflective of a noble, wholesome cultural rich with cultural prowess.

For the Cliff family, Norwegian emigrant culture was fully embraced and cultivated. With the continuing of traditions like fiddling and farming in Blue Mounds and Mt. Horeb, the Cliff family is a prime example of Norwegian emigrant life in the Midwest. Cliff’s former neighbor, Alvin Thompson recalled that Martin would “be playing the fiddle at family and community get-togethers.” The spirit of fostering community through art and championing cultural heritage, as well as sharing said heritage with others is well representative of the strong sense of unity Norwegian emigrant culture embraces. Sharing the songs of Norway, possibly certain popular emigrant ballads and songs from the time would not only have been a form of empathetical music but also an engaging pastime, as simple as it sounds. Being able to share music from a self-crafted instrument would be sure to bring a high level of satisfaction and pride. The multi-faceted levels of operation the Hardanger fiddle produces in tandem with Norwegian culture further support from yet another approach for the argument of the hardanger fiddle being a Norwegian musical icon.

The exploration of the model Hardanger fiddle’s origins, which led to examining the personalization of Martin Cliff’s handmade fiddle, has now lead us to thinking about these objects and their significance in a contemporary context. For starters, the fiddle, after the passing of Cliff, found its way to a garage sale in Illinois for an extremely low price of $25. Given that it had not been restored yet, the condition it must have been in must not have been very high quality. The fiddle was later purchased by a volunteer from the historical society after bidding for $1030, and restored for an additional $100. The question is this: does this mark the end of the narrative of Martin Cliff’s fiddle? The answer is a stout no. If anything, thanks to the actions of the Mt. Horeb historical society, the fiddle’s narrative as an object will soon be immortalized with its addition to the new museum installation in Mt. Horeb. Placing the fiddle in its own limelight may pique the interest of the uninformed museum goer to do their own individual research on the vast intricacies this fiddle carries in its own personal object narrative. Although Martin may not have thought of his object as such a valuable addition in his time, the cultural significance this fiddle represents is deserving of its own pedestal to engage with an audience eager to understand the culture of Norway.

The Hardanger fiddle has served as a symbol of Norwegian musical culture for centuries, iconic in its appearance, sound and style. Easily discernable as a feat of Norwegian excellence in music and art, the Hardanger fiddle carries on its back the weight of rich tradition and profound artistic passion. From its soft, yet bellowing sound that played the songs of emigrants wanting to make a new life for themselves and their families in a new, unfamiliar land, to the wonderfully nationalistic and prideful anthems of the early Norwegian musical revolution in the 19th century, the Hardanger fiddle has yet to feign it is boisterous appeal. The contemporary effort to honor the wholesome tradition of making, playing and educating about the Hardanger fiddle has been spearheaded by the Hardanger Fiddle Society of America for the past 30+ years. Their devoted effort into ensuing the continuance of what some may call a “lost culture” or “dying instrument” is precisely in the spirit of Norwegian pride in their country and their desire to make it known to the world through music. Such a noble effort is one of the leading reasons why this instrument is given such intent attention by scholars today.

Martin Cliff’s legacy left in his Hardanger fiddle is one of great familial pride and prowess that will surely be known for many years to come in the Mt. Horeb area. Being such a devout contributor to his community, from serving on the parochial school board to being the treasurer of a local cheese company, Cliff genuinely cared about his local community and wished to see it grow, as it reflected the cultural traditions he grew up in and those which preceded him by his mother and father. Carrying the weight of a nation’s heritage in a foreign land is no easy task, but undeniably I would argue it is best handled via expression through art. Raised as a carpenter, Martin Cliff wished to make an object representative of both his country of origin and his skills in the trade, and did so with effervescent success. His Hardanger fiddle is unique to his craft, a series object made with the personalization of a young second generation Norwegian emigrant looking to make an impact of expression to his homeland, America. The greater scope of folk art recognizes the patterns of tradition through culture, passed down from generation to generation, looking for themes which vary from culture to culture, all for the sake of creating significance for that culture in the form of physical artistic objects. Folk art calls for the object as a symbol, a defining symbol of heritage, of nationality, of home. The strong familial ties which folk art represents are incredibly prevalent in Norwegian folk art, especially in this case in the Hardanger fiddle. Fiddling as a coming of age tradition kept its niche from Norway to America, adapting with the journey new songs expressing the profound emotions that came with such a mass exodus. The culture of a people affectionate towards musical expression is not only embodied, but also symbolized by the Hardanger fiddle in Norway and America.

In conclusion, one cannot separate the concept of Norwegian musical culture from the Hardanger fiddle. The two are necessarily bounded together by the evolution of the culture over time and space. The growth from the earliest dated unique musical recognitions in Norway to its contemporary translation into American society while still paying tribute to its roots is so critical to understanding the narrative of Norwegian culture as a whole. Martin Cliff’s individual subjective experience of the birth of his fiddle is a contribution to the greater objective narrative of Norwegian musical culture that ultimately makes for a great piece for analysis and appreciation from a scholarly perspective. The richness behind the fiddles identifiable journey as an object of folk art, as well as a musical instrument surely confers a greater meaning and purpose to the fiddle itself. An icon well representative of Norwegian culture, the Hardanger fiddle, although young in comparison to its instrumental predecessors, leaves a bigger footprint. Martin Cliff did not just simply make an instrument to play music as a hobby, he made his own personalized version of an object which epitomizes Norway, its greatness, its artistic achievement, and most importantly, its fiery, passionate heart and soul.


Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. Verso, 2005, pp. 147-168

Blegen, Theodore C. Norwegian Emigrant Songs and Ballads.The University of Minnesota Press, 1936

Lange, Kristian. Norwegian Music: A Survey. Dobson, 1958

Hardanger Fiddle Association of America. Hardanger Fiddle Association of America Website., 2011


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Creators, Collectors & Communities Copyright © 2017 by by Alexander Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book