The Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble and Becky Weis: Scandinavian Music in Minnesota
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The Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble and Becky Weis
Scandinavian Music in Minnesota
by Philip Nusbaum
In Minnesota, Scandinavian influences are easy to spot. Some towns name their annual festivals after a Scandinavian-related entity; you can see Scandinavian caricatures in print; and one hears Scandinavian dialect humor across the tables at cafes. Scandinavians began to arrive in Minnesota in the mid-1850’s, and while the era of greatest immigration is past, there has been a continuing trickle of immigrants arriving to the present day.
Playing music and dancing were among the major entertainments of the Scandinavian settlers. However, in Scandinavia, social dances and dance tunes handed down from earlier times were extremely regional in nature. For example, even though the springar was danced and played in many Norwegian locations, there were considerable differences in the way the springar was played and danced from place to place. Today, when these forms are performed, dancers and players are aware of the regional origin of the music and dance.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, a newer layer of dance forms took hold in Scandinavia, as the polka, waltz, and schottische were sweeping through Europe. In Scandinavia, these dances were adopted first by city people and then by people living in smaller places. While different styles of dancing to and playing for these newer steps emerged, the differences were not as dramatic as the differences between the older forms, as access to the waltz polka, or schottische was not limited by the dance or musical tradition of a specific place. Reminiscences of Scandinavian immigrants and their children display how the new forms were supplanting the older ones. By early twentieth century Minnesota, the older dances were increasingly presented as performance pieces, while the newer dances became part of social dancing.
Minnesota is currently experiencing a revival of the centuries-old regional dance forms. Becky Weis plays for special dance groups that meet to preserve these forms, and she is among a group of players developing the music to a concert level. Becky plays the Norwegian haranguer fiddle and the nyckelharpa, the Swedish key fiddle. The hardanger represents one of many medieval experiments to increase the volume of the violin. Its key tonal feature is the set of strings strung underneath the fingerboard of the instrument that vibrate sympathetically when the fiddle is bowed, creating a distinct timbre. The nyckelharpa is played with a small bow, but one stops the strings not directly with one’s fingers, but by depressing keys that depress tangents against the strings, stopping the string without contact with a fingerboard.
An ethnomusicologist trained at the University of Minnesota and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Becky has been a leader in teaching this once nearly extinct instrument, and there are now about twenty nyckelharpa players in Minnesota.
Leroy Larson and the Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble
Leroy Larson and the Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble play the “old-time” repertoire of waltzes, polkas, and schottisches that replaced the regional dance forms as social dances. Other upper Midwest European ethnic groups also perform “old time music.” However, the Scandinavian old times repertoire features a greater emphasis on waltzes, perhaps owing to the Scandinavian heritages of three-beat dance forms. Scandinavian old-time bands frequently feature both the accordion and the violin. Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble accordionist Mel Brenden and violinist Art Bjorngjeld each perform highly ornamented solos, and the group plays for both concerts and dances. A few decades ago, Leroy Larson, the leader of Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble, traveled through the state with a tape recorder, researching Minnesota Scandinavian old-time music, eventually receiving a Ph. D. in musicology from the University of Minnesota. Some of the tunes Leroy collected during his research now form part of the group’s repertoire, along with music from phonograph recordings of old masters of the genre, dialect songs, songs taken from Scandinavian-American vaudeville, and original compositions.
All of the forms represented both by Becky Weis and Leroy Larson and the Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble began as dance music. However, both Becky Weis and the Minnesota Scandinavian Ensemble have recognized the aesthetic dimensions of their music. They are representatives of two layers of traditional Scandinavian folk music--dance forms transformed into concert music-- that to Minnesota Scandinavian people symbolize their collective past.