Discover 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 a unique, early version of the Medieval rebec discovered in archaeological digs around Hedeby, a prominent Viking settlement in Denmark. Other archaeological evidence shows the Vikings likely had versions of harps and lyres, which they may have both bowed and plucked. 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. It's a beautiful and fascinating resource for other musicians interested in Viking music.
In an effort to learn more about Viking-era music, I returned to the Viking and Celtic Festival in Heavener, Oklahoma, where I once again spoke to 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 through travelers on the Silk Road). 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, and what it would have been like to be a Viking-era musician. It was even more exciting to consider that there are only three re-creations of the Hedeby rebec in the entire world, so playing one was truly a unique experience.
Alexis Lantgen is a musician and writer who teaches violin and viola and plays in several local orchestras. She recently finished her first novel and had one of her short stories accepted into an anthology. In addition to her fiction writing, Alexis writes a blog, The Wise Serpent.