November-December 2016

Funky Session Instruments:

Morgan O’Shaughnessey’s Nyckelharpa

By Roland Sturm

Morgan O’Shaughnessey
Morgan O’Shaughnessey

A nyckelharpa is a rather obscure traditional Swedish instrument. I have seen only a few of them in my life (and actually never in Sweden). It looks a bit like a hurdy gurdy, with wooden keys and many strings, but is played with a short bow rather than by turning a handle. Seems like a limiting instrument, but I met Morgan O’Shaughnessey playing his nyckelharpa at Irish sessions and there sure don’t seem to be any limitations when he plays.

Roland: Morgan, you are bringing a rather unusual instrument to Irish sessions. Can you tell us more about it?

Morgan O’Shaughnessey: It is a nyckelharpa, an instrument that stems from Uppland (the region around Uppsala) in Sweden. Mine is a chromatic or “three-row” nyckelharpa, the most modern version of this ancient family. “Nyckel” is an old word for “key” in Swedish, so it is literally a fiddle with a keyboard hanging off of it. There are many enjoyable jokes among Swedish fiddle players that refer to Grandpa and his rusted old typewriter when discussing the inner workings of this instrument. However, I refer to it as simply being “a viola that plays in tune.” Traditionally, you as a player would build your own instrument - but that is why there are so many unplayable ones hanging above mantles in Sweden. The playing and making traditions were slowly dying out in the mid 20th century until Eric Sahlström, started a school of building and playing that is still going to this day. Now, thanks to him and several other great artists such as Åse Jinder and Olov Johansson from Väsen, the instrument is having a renaissance. These days, one can even get a nyckelharpa performance degree from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm!

RS: How did you get started playing it?

MO’S: I got started three years ago when Olov Johansson gave a masterclass at a violin shop in Ashland, Oregon. I was managing the shop at the time and we had a forgotten old nyckelharpa lurking the closet, next to the crumhorns and the broken harpsichord. The night before the masterclass I Googled how to tune it and wound up staying up all night long playing the Bach cello suites, transfixed by the new sound that I had discovered. Olof taught me my first polska and left me with only one piece of advice: “You know, ALWAYS have a fingering, this instrument is most unforgiving…” I have never looked back since and have now been to Sweden twice on successful quests to purchase a beautiful instrument and to learn as much as I could directly from the primary cultural sources.

Here is a polska (not to be confused with a polka, they have nothing in common!) played on a nyckelharpa that was made by Bo Karlsson in Sweden.

RS: What is the main challenge?

MO’S: For guitarists it is the bow, for string players it is the fingering. I at first struggled with the fact that fingerings are mirrored in respect to the violin or viola. Say you’re playing along on the A string and you want to switch over to the D string. Fine and good, your bow tilts left towards your shoulder like it would on the violin but now your fingering hand dips down to the right, like it would be going to the E string! The older models of nyckehlarpa are even more confusing in this aspect, because they have only one row of keys to cover multiple melody strings. So it’s like playing a fiddle with your bow arm wandering all OVER the place but your left hand staying put on the same finger patterns. The more I get to know the instrument, the less I think of the fingerings in a fiddle frame of reference, and the more I find there are some tunes I play on nyckelharpa that I can’t play with remotely the same fingerings on fiddle. This has taken a great deal of time and a delicious serving of unconscious effort.

RS: Do you have recommendations for people to learning this instrument?

MO’S: Yes, the first is the tuning issue. In Sweden, an open C tuning is still widely regarded as the ONLY way to tune the instrument or to ever achieve the proper sound. Swedes are very passionate on this front, and they are also very fond of rules, law, and working by method to develop a skill. So I’ve learned it’s not only useless to argue for a different tuning, it’s also quite impolite. I justify my tuning of D-G-D-A (bass to treble) with written evidence that Sahström himself as well as August Bohlin, his predecessor and inventor of the modern chromatic instrument, explored other tunings including open A and E as well the 5ths C-G-D-A viola tuning that is much more practical for fiddle players. I keep it to myself and, if anybody in Sweden asks to borrow my instrument for a while, I quickly retune while they bring coffee!

Also, if you’re going to buy one, don’t spend less than $1200. It’s well worth the money to get one straight from the maker or a known dealer, otherwise you’ll likely wind up with one that is heavy, clumsy, finicky, bad-sounding, and has sticky keys. They tend to warp over time from all the pressure from the strings, so that’s a thing to watch out for as well.

Go through as much trouble as you can to have at least one embarrassing experience attempting to dance a polska and a schottis. Otherwise, you’ll never really understand how to comfortably feel the rhythm and paint artistically within its context.

Lastly, pay attention to ergonomics or else you’ll strain yourself. The instrument has to sit parallel to the ground with a 45-degree tilt of the keys toward the floor, back bottom bout stuck firmly in between your bottom ribs. Elbow on TOP of the tailpiece, and shoulder strap in front of both shoulders. Fine tuners near belly button, and bow it like gut strings: articulate-release, repeat. If you try dig the thing with a heavy bow like you’re pulling the guts out of a Wagner aria, it WILL scream. Gently does it, let the sympathetic strings do the resonating for you, and have a wonderful time!

RS: I trust Nyckelharpa is not your main instrument. What is your musical background?

MO’S: I’m a repressed cellist. When my parents started me off with music lessons at age 4, they knew I was a string player because of the way I liked to use my hands to express myself. They asked if I wanted to play an instrument and I said “YES, cello!” But the reply was “No way bub those are too expensive, here’s a violin.” I stopped hating it the moment I learned that you could play really fast on it so before long they signed me up for fiddle classes on top of my classical lessons. So in some ways when I switched to viola right when I hit puberty I think it was a little compromise towards my original muse. I still love the violin, I always will. I have a beautiful one; so flashy, sleek, easy, vain, and selfish. A hell of an attitude and a true preacher of passions, but not sociable.

I love the viola, the voice of cohesion and collaboration, the warm mourning witness of humanity’s absurd vanity. And the nyckelharpa has almost exactly the same range, register-wise. Playing it for the first time, experiencing the resonance of the sympathetic strings and exploring the heights and depths of the silvery tone—always a note of perpetual wind, snow, and winter—felt in some ways like an ancestral calling from the Swedish roots of my grandfather.

RS: Has playing Nyckelharpa also changed your attitude about classical music?

Yes, it has widened my definition of classical music. My viewpoint is that “classical” music is defined by the culture it came from and not by its intrinsic content. Whether I’m hearing Eric Sahlström playing his timeless old compositions via a crackly LP or Erik Rydvall or Josefina Paulson spinning them out live in concert, I hear “classical music (from Sweden).” This perspective clears all the baggage of technical perfection and stuffiness that has accumulated by now centuries of well-meaning music teachers and expectations for concert performance. I went through a time where I HATED hearing Beethoven, Schoenberg, Brahms, so soaked in formaldehyde. However, as I began to approach the classical canon of nyckelharpa music, I found it to be inseparable in a most visceral sense from the people, places, and dances I’d discovered in Sweden. As soon I launch into “Byggnan Polska” or “Eklunda no. 2”, I’m instantly transported to a different place on earth and to people who love this music and relate to it from the heart. They also hit with me from a deep place of cultural generosity over a superhuman amount of coffee in the land of mosquitoes. Now I am slowly exploring this rebuilding my relationship to western European art music. Mozart as heard live at the harpsichord by a 2am mob of eccentric coffee-crazed opera partiers, Bach as he moodily pumps away at the organ with a raging hangover, his army of kids raising hell in the church pews and his neighbors digging potatoes out of nearly-frozen turf. Mahler as he stands over Rome with Strauss, overwhelmed by the twin beauties of works of nature and works of humanity, his heart breaking with the simple realization that he can’t possibly fit it all into a symphony before it all dies and is forgotten. Nyckelharpa has connected me on a more vital level to the inner pulse and living origins of it that are recreated completely fresh every time somebody invites them to our ears. That having been said I now almost never listen to recordings, especially of western European art music: I must hear living music live!

Morgan’s webpage is at:

Ridmarsch efter Byss-Calle and Golden Keyboard Hornpipe

Roland Sturm is Professor of Policy Analysis at the RAND Graduate School and usually writes on health policy, not music. He is the talent coordinator of the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest. These days he mainly plays upright bass and mandolin.


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