European Nyckelharpa Cooperation

The European Nyckelharpa Cooperation aims to preserve the outstanding musical instrument "nyckelharpa” (key fiddle), to promote future trends based on the tradition and to train instrument builders and musicians, so the use of the nyckelharpa is kept alive.

In 2004, the European Nyckelharpa Cooperation started to enhance the nyckelharpa teaching in more countries and to broaden the use of the nyckelharpa in many musical styles. The cooperation was established by three institutes for musical adult education in Sweden, Germany and Italy. The European Nyckelharpa Cooperation is a collaboration of institutions and persons, related by their enthusiasm for the outstanding musical instrument nyckelharpa as a unique part of the European cultural heritage.

The three educational institutes, Eric Sahlström Institute in Sweden, Academy Burg Fürsteneck in Germany, and Scuola di Musica Popolare di Forlimpopoli in Italy came in contact in 2004 due to their nyckelharpa teaching. Outside Sweden a structured long-term training for the nyckelharpa only exists in these two adult education institutions in Italy and Germany. In Sweden the Eric Sahlström Institute holds a very prominent position in teaching nyckelharpa as a national institute. This particular connection was the reason to start the cooperation.

Additional institutes like musical libraries and archives, musical festivals, musical colleges and universities and other educational institutions in even more European countries support the cooperation or participate in selected projects. Expansion of the cooperation is aspired and welcome at any time. The common work is done by officials of the institutes, by freelance nyckelharpa teachers, players and instrument builders, by musicologists and by some other aficionados of nyckelharpa music.

Aims of the Cooperation

Aims of the cooperation are:

  • to preserve the nyckelharpa from oblivion,
  • to promote future developments based on the tradition and thus to keep the use of the nyckelharpa alive,
  • to animate more people to play this wonderful instrument,
  • to train musicians to teach and to play it in different styles and genres at an advanced level,
  • to support instrument builders and encourage them to build nyckelharpas professionally,
  • to interconnect the Swedish tradition with the new occurrence of a "Continental” nyckelharpa scene,
  • to spread the knowledge of the nyckelharpa and to raise the awareness for this item of the European musical heritage.

Cultural heritage is manifested not only by large architectural structures but also in small perishable occurrences like musical traditions. While buildings often outlive changing preferences during different ages by their material substance, musical instruments can fall into oblivion more easily when fashions are changing. Later, when the interest might arise again, it takes luck, passionate people and sometimes a little support to make a revival successful. The partners of the European Nyckelharpa Cooperation believe that awareness of the European heritage referring to music must include European instruments and genres beyond the mainstream music business.

Europa Nostra Award

Regarding the above, we applied for a Europa Nostra Award 2013. As this award is usually only for architectural heritage, and all other projects are architectural ones, we did not win - as expected. But we received a "SPECIAL MENTION" of the jury:

"The European Nyckelharpa Cooperation was chosen amongst those entries which receive a SPECIAL MENTION of the Jury. Indeed, the outstanding contribution which your entry clearly makes to the conservation and enhancement of heritage was recognised and particularly appreciated by the Jury.
Bringing back enthusiasm for and knowledge about the Nyckelharpa instrument is a great accomplishment of the European Nyckelharpa Cooperation. The success of reviving this uniquely European instrument can be judged for instance by the extensive YouTube presence. Although musical traditions are not the main focus of the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage/Europa Nostra Awards, the jury feels it is appropriate to convey their admiration for the project." Read more. See the certificate.

History of the Nyckelharpa

Nyckelharpas are string instruments, played with a bow. The pitches of their two to four melody strings are determined by sliding keys with tangents that stop the string, in contrast to the violin with its fingerboard. The principle is the same as that of the hurdy-gurdy.

We know about early forms of the "nyckelharpa” ("Schlüsselfidel”, "viola d’amore con chiavi”, "key fiddle”) from depictions from the Late Middle Ages. The earliest known evidence is a small stone relief in Sweden, dated about 1350. Paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries are preserved in church ceilings in Italy, Denmark and, above all, in Sweden. But art historians assume that artists coming from Central Europe depicted instruments they had seen in their home countries. We also know a wooden relief on the headquarter of the butchers’ guild in Hildesheim, Germany. Some of the depictions have only been identified to be a nyckelharpa recently, as the instrument has not been known to all the beholders before. In the Renaissance, the instrument has been drawn and described as "Schlüsselfidel” in the two German musical encyclopaedias of Martin Agricola and Michael Prætorius as one of the well-known instruments of their time.

However since the Baroque, there are no more records of the nyckelharpa except the ones in Sweden. Nearly at the same time when the instrument disappeared everywhere else, somebody in Sweden made two fiddle-type nyckelharpas. These so-called "Moraharpas”, built around 1680, are the earliest real nyckelharpa instruments that still exist. They are copied a lot by nowaday’s instrument builders. Since that time, many different types of nyckelharpas are preserved, and thus we know that it had been played in a continuous tradition as a folklore instrument mostly in a small Swedish region around Uppsala.

From the 1930s, some nyckelharpa players began to modify the instrument, according to new musical ideas. The most important was Eric Sahlström (1912-1986). With his own improved nyckelharpa type, capable to play more different kinds of music, he started to revive the instrument at a time when even in Sweden only very few old players were left. With support of the Swedish government, many new nyckelharpas could be built in public courses during the European folk revival of the 1970s. Without the engagement of Eric Sahlström and some of his friends we might have lost the nyckelharpa completely, even in the recent past. August 2021, Eric Sahlström’s 100th anniversary was celebrated in a huge musical event in Uppsala. Nowadays there are quite some possibilities to learn to play nyckelharpa in Sweden, and one can even study the instrument at the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm.

An essay on the history of the nyckelharpa by the Swedish researcher Per-Ulf Allmo can be found in different languages >here.

From the late 1970s a few inspired and very well-trained European musicians even outside of Sweden rediscovered the nyckelharpa and found it very suitable for a lot of musical genres besides Swedish folk music. Some musicians from their audience started to play themselves and thus a growing nyckelharpa community emerged in Europe and all over the world.

In his dissertation the musicologist Jan Ling predicted in 1967 that the Swedish nyckelharpa would not survive. In 2011 he stated that this pessimistic forecast was totally wrong. Instead, thanks to Eric Sahlström and a few other enthusiasts and to projects like the European Nyckelharpa Cooperation and CADENCE, he now describes the dissemination of the nyckelharpa as an "example of musical globalisation”: (…) "the instrument is no longer a disappearing relict from a small region of Sweden but a living force in the choir of music from different parts of the world, voices which together create good hope for the future of the mankind.”

Regarding the nyckelharpa not only as a traditional Swedish folk instrument or a medieval heritage but to explore its capability for most other musical genres makes its future use much less reliant from musical fashion trends. However, careful historical researches on the history of the nyckelharpa, done especially by the Swedish researchers Jan Ling and Per-Ulf Allmo, are the necessary base of the on-going evolution.

The European Nyckelharpa Cooperation shows in an exemplary manner how a musical instrument of the European cultural heritage can be preserved and developed at the same time.

Results of the Cooperation

Besides lots of informal contacts and exchanges between the institutes, their management, and their teachers, the European Nyckelharpa Cooperation has several more institutional components differing in organisation though closely related in content.

One year nyckelharpa courses in Sweden

Since its foundation in 1998 the Eric Sahlström Institute in Tobo, Sweden, offers one-year-courses for nyckelharpa playing with full accommodation. The curriculum is based on the Swedish tradition of nyckelharpa playing, and the courses are supported by the Swedish government. An impressing number of today's professional nyckelharpa players in Sweden completed this training. Due to the European cooperation more and more participants from outside Sweden attend these courses.

International Days of the Nyckelharpa

The European cooperation started in October 2004 with the "1st International Days of the Nyckelharpa” at the Academy Burg Fürsteneck in Germany. Since then this event happens each October, so in 2012 we are organising it for the 9th time. Simultaneous workshops are offered on different musical genres and at different levels. Beginners are welcome and if needed they can hire an instrument for the course. In 2004, we started with almost 40 participants, but since many years there are about 80 nyckelharpa players attending the International Days of the Nyckelharpa, which is the maximum Burg Fürsteneck can host. The participants are amateurs as well as professional musicians, children as well as seniors. Until now they have been coming from about 15 different European countries and from Australia, Japan and the USA. An exhibition of historical and modern nyckelharpas is always an integral part of the International Days of the Nyckelharpa. Part of the event is also a yearly conference with reports and discussions on important developments of the nyckelharpa scene and a public nyckelharpa concert.

European Nyckelharpa Training

2005, we started with the European Nyckelharpa Training first in Italy and one year later in Germany. Regarding the increasing number of musicians beginning to play the nyckelharpa, we realised, that there will be a need of well-trained nyckelharpa players and teachers. In Sweden some good possibilities to study the nyckelharpa exist, especially related to traditional music. But outside of Sweden and related to other musical genres there had been a gap. We developed a curriculum with a duration of minimum 2 but normally 3 years, covering history and maintenance of the instrument, playing technique, elements of a repertoire in different musical genres and didactical issues. Teachers from several European countries are training the students. Since we started, we have permanent classes in Italy and Germany, each with 8 - 14 students every year. This year a new class started additionally in Paris, and another one is about to start in Toledo.

See detailed information on the curriculum at

EU Grundtvig Partnership

CADENCE - Cultural ADult Education and Nyckelharpa Cooperation in Europe

- teaching music to adults with special emphasis on the nyckelharpa (key fiddle)
A European Grundtvig learning partnership

To increase the direct exchange of nyckelharpa players from different countries the three partner institutes established the CADENCE co-operation as a "Grundtvig Learning Partnership” in 2009 - 2011. Thanks to the support of the European Commission, an international study-group, 18 permanent participants plus guests, could visit the three institutes between January and October 2010 to exchange their ideas and experiences of the organisation, methods and activities of adult education with emphasis on musical education and especially nyckelharpa teaching.

The study visits to the three countries, each of 5 to 6 days duration, consisted of detailed presentations of the host institutes and their local specialities, teaching and learning music to discover typical approaches in musical adult education, public conferences and concerts to unveil the project and the nyckelharpa, meetings with local authorities and short historical tourist trips.

The final concert of the CADENCE study group in Germany was broadcasted by the German radio "Deutschlandfunk” in a concert feature of two hours duration. The Deutschlandfunk had sent a one-hour feature about the nyckelharpa in cooperation with the European Nyckelharpa Cooperation before. This feature was broadcasted again by the German radio WDR.

The CADENCE project was officially finished with a printed report of 80 pages and an audio CD of the CADENCE concert. This report is also available for free download at the project’s website. In addition, 24 articles have been published by the participants and additional guests on the website. They cover history, building and maintenance of the nyckelharpa, musical education in the participating countries, didactical issues of music and especially nyckelharpa teaching, musical topics and management questions. Sheet music for nyckelharpa ensemble composed or arranged by participants of the CADENCE study group is available on the website, too. All articles and sheet music can be downloaded free of charge either separately or as one eBook consisting of more than 400 pages.

The publishing work goes on in cooperation with two professional editors in Germany and Sweden. A book with etudes for nyckelharpa has just been printed in English, German and Italian. A beginner’s handbook for nyckelharpa will be printed in a few weeks in English and German. A book about maintenance and repairs is nearly finished. Publications with new sheet music for nyckelharpa are planned for next year.

The CADENCE project was honoured as an example of "good practice” of a Grundtvig learning partnership by the European Commission. For more information on the CADENCE project and its outcomes see:

Training for instrument making in Sweden

Eric Sahlström Institutet offers trainings for nyckelharpa builders with a duration of two years. The curriculum covers detailed information on the history of the instrument, basic knowledge in woodworking and specific skills in instrument building and know-how on the different types of nyckelharpas. Every participant is building at least one old style nyckelharpa (gammelharpa) and one modern nyckelharpa (chromatic nyckelharpa). Participants join in from all over the world.

EU Grundtvig Workshop

ENCORE - European Nyckelharpa Cooperation - ORchestral Experience"

- between European folk music and contemporary compositions

In summer 2013, a workshop in Italy has been granted by the European Grundtvig programme. It connected nyckelharpa players and composers of contemporary music based on folk tradition. After one week of musical work and rehearsal, a public nyckelharpa concert has been presented 10th August 2013 at the cathedral of Bertinoro, Italy (between Bologna and Ravenna) as part of an Italian music festival. Participants of the workshop will be more than 20 nyckelharpa players from 10 European countries. The national German radio "Deutschlandfunk" featured the event. An audio-CD of the concert is available.

Additional short and distance workshops

Additional nyckelharpa workshops are organized or supported by the cooperation in several European countries throughout the year.

Professional Instrument Making

Due to the engagement of and in close cooperation with the project skilled instrument makers started to build nyckelharpas at a professional level latterly in addition to the well-established craftsmen. Reconstructions of instruments known only from the medieval pictures could be initiated, too.

Public Relations

The European Nyckelharpa Cooperation sets a high value on public relations as an essential part of the common work in order to achieve public awareness for the nyckelharpa.

The European Nyckelharpa Cooperation is already considered by other musical communities as an example of how to develop a common basis for playing and teaching rare musical instruments. The use of more than only the usual orchestral instruments enrich the musical spectrum. Our publications can be used not only for nyckelharpa but will affect other instruments, too. The CADENCE project as part of the European Nyckelharpa Cooperation was regarded as one of very few examples of "good practice” of a Grundtvig Learning partnership, thus beaming into other subjects beyond music.

The starting cooperation of the three institutes set of an additional partnership between their respective home municipalities, which on their part are supporting and supplementing the nyckelharpa cooperation.

The next events

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