by Rita Leydon ©1998
Chris and I had had a great rendezvous in Sweden and were winding it up with a few days with my family in Västergötland. These modern Swedes are mystified and amused by our fascination with their old tunes. “They even play nyckelharpa,” they tell their friends. When Cousin Jonas called the local tourist bureau with an inquiry on our behalf he offhandedly mentioned our musical interest. “We have a nyckelharpa maker right here in Skövde,” said the tourist bureau. Jonas dialed the maker’s number. Time was tight and no common slot could be found. Too bad. Maybe next trip. We were not really in the market for harpas anyway. We both had what we considered perfectly serviceable harpas. I say “perfectly serviceable” because we had begun to realize that we were bowing on solid Model A Fords while out there in the world there also exists nimble and exotic thoroughbreds to be had in exchange for slightly bigger piles of money—Ferraris and Maseratis so to say. We had longingly gazed onto the speedway knowing full well that the skill of the driver is of paramount importance. Only two weeks earlier, I had a hard time remembering to breathe after drawing a bow over the strings of a new harpa made by Sören Åhker for our friend Rob from Chicago. So I knew. Chris knew too. It was only a matter of time and we were consciously biding ours.
Early in the morning on the day of our departure the phone rang. It was the harpa maker. “I’m coming over. I have to meet the Americans.” At ten o’clock Tage Larsson arrived with his wife Siv and a car full of nyckelharpas. Tage was my gnarled and stooped uncle’s age. My uncle and Siv took a hard look at each other. Then they smiled and embraced like long lost friends. We were all confused. Turns out that Siv’s first husband and my uncle had been best friends in their youth. The husband had died of tuberculosis, leaving Siv a young widow in her twenties. They hadn’t seen each other in all that time. Small world.
Then came the next surprise. Tage had noted the name at the end of the farm entry—Ullberg. The name jostled memories. “I flew gliders with a Gun-Britt Ullberg in the 40s. Any relation?” All warmed up and smiling, my uncle pointed to me. “That's her mother.” My mother was quite famous for her flying prowess. She set multiple Swedish records. To this day, no one has broken her female record for distance flight. My mom died last year. Tiny world. Such improbable links.
No longer strangers, we all marched into the house where both my mother and uncle were born and raised, carrying eight harpa cases between us. Chris and I also fetched our own harpas. Then we played some tunes with Tage and made mental note to schedule time with him on our next trip to learn some of his Västergötland tunes.
It takes your breath away to see so many nyckelharpas spread out all at once. The instruments were beautiful and exquisitely made. It was obvious that Tage knew what he was doing. Chris discovered small details that delighted his engineer self. “This man is thinking, look how cleverly he solved this.” Being basically novices, we’re not really up to speed on how to even look critically at harpas. “Close your eyes and trust your ears,” said Chris. We both independently gravitated to a specific harpa with a voice all its own. Chris and the harpa excused themselves, retiring to another room to commune privately together.
While Chris was away, Tage—who speaks only Swedish—told me that Markus Svensson, the young man who only a month or so earlier had become the reigning Nyckelharpa World Champion, recently purchased his third harpa from him. This impressed me. “How many have you made?” He guessed about 130, give or take a few. I asked how much he charged for his instruments, and was quoted a number smaller than I expected. Then he sweetened it a bit, smiled and said “today only.” I smiled back. Chris reappeared, obviously totally besotted with the harpa. I whispered numbers in his ear. His eyes opened fully. “Really?” I nodded.
My aunt announced coffee and ushered us into “fin rummet.” No harpas allowed, only civilized conversation while munching her delectable cakes and sipping strong brew from transparent bone china. Eight elegantly extended little fingers wondered how this impulsive meeting would conclude. With his last sip, Chris declared that he would like to buy the harpa in question, having clearly forged a tight bond. “The price is very fair,” he said, “but we don’t have that much cash on hand.” With that, my resourceful aunt tiptoed up to her mattress and brought forth the required sum. Sale consummated, Chris became the custodian of a fine new thoroughbred nyckelharpa. Tage was excited because it is his first harpa to go to America. We left the old harpa with Tage who shipped it to us later, and flew home. Anybody need a slightly used harpa?
Published in Nyckel Notes, February 1999.
Tage Larsson passed away in November 2012.