Thursday, October 27, 2016

Discovering Viking Music

Vikings aren't usually considered musical people, perhaps because very little of the music they created survived to be written down. Yet, there's plenty of evidence that dark ages Scandinavians performed music, perhaps even singing ancient poetry from Norse sagas. Recent scholarship has uncovered many of the musical instruments they may have used as well, including the Hedeby rebec and versions of ancient harps and lyres. Using the instruments found in Viking settlements and the few surviving Medieval melodies and musical descriptions, modern musicians are beginning to recreate the sound of Viking music.

For example, in their CD Ice and Longboats the musical group Ensemble Mare Balticum tries to recreate Viking music, using musical archeology, old Scandinavian folk songs, and early Medieval Christian music as a starting point. They improvise on Viking era instruments to capture the sounds of the age, and perhaps improvisatory melodies once accompanied recitations of epic poems like the great Norse sagas, or even the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. The musicians of Ensemble Mare Balticum conducted extensive research in partnership with the European Music Archeology Project to produce Ice and Longboats. With pure melodies sparsely accompanied with period instruments, this CD feels authentic. 

At a recent visit to a Viking and Celtic Festival in Oklahoma, I was lucky enough to meet a man who specializes in making ancient instruments like rebecs, lyres, and harps (check out his beautiful period instruments at Instruments of Antiquity). He had recently built an instrument modeled on the Hedeby rebec, an instrument discovered during archaeological digs at the Viking trading town of Hedeby. Unlike later rebecs, the Hedeby rebec lacked a fingerboard, so it's played by stopping the strings with just your fingers, not unlike how Chinese musicians play the erhu (the erhu is actually related to an even earlier instrument, the spiked fiddle, which may have been brought to Europe during the Crusades, if not before). The sound was soft, but it had a good variety of tonal colors, especially considering that the strings would have been plucked as well as bowed. Playing a recreation of the Hedeby rebec was a fun and fascinating experience, one that gave me some insights into how Viking music must have sounded.

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