The Langeleik, or Norwegian Zither

Norway - Scott #736 (1978)
Norway – Scott #736 (1978)

Sometimes, it is difficult to find information about the items, places or even people pictured on postage stamps. I’m fairly good at finding enough material to expand even the skimpiest of topics but I actually had to reject several possibilities today for there being far too little information available for today’s “random stamp”. I had wanted to use a different stamp in Norway’s 1978 musical instruments set and came close to just providing YouTube recordings of somebody playing that instrument.  Simply switching to a different stamp seems a bit more satisfying, however.

Scott #736 pictures a  stringed instrument used in Norwegian folklore called the langeleik or the langleik. It’s a droned zither (Scott calls it a “Norwegian zither”). These have few (sometimes only one) melodic strings and a greater number of drone strings. The oldest known form of drone zither is the Scheitholt. A traditional American form of the droned zither is the Appalachian dulcimer. The word zither is a German rendering of the Greek word cithara, from which the modern word “guitar” also derives. Zithers are played by strumming or plucking the strings, either with the fingers (sometimes using an accessory called a plectrum or pick), sounding the strings with a bow, or, with varieties of the instrument like the santur or cimbalom, by beating the strings with specially shaped hammers. Like a guitar or lute, a zither’s body serves as a resonating chamber (sound box), but, unlike guitars and lutes, a zither lacks a distinctly separate neck assembly. The number of strings varies, from one to more than fifty.

The langeleik has only one melody string and up to 8 drone strings. Under the melody string there are seven frets per octave, forming a diatonic major scale. The drone strings are tuned to a triad. The langeleik is tuned to about an A, though on score the C major key is used, as if the instrument were tuned in C. This is for simplification of both writing and reading, by circumventing the use of accidentals.

Since the instrument cannot play a chromatic scale nor be easily tuned to other pitches, it is very limited in its ability to play along with other instruments and/or more harmonically complex music. The combination of the lone melody string and the multiple drone strings gives the langeleik a distinctively rich sound.

The German scheitholt and the Swedish hummel have been suggested as the predecessor of the langeleik. However, in 1980 a langeleik dated as early as 1524 was uncovered on a farm in Vibergsroa, Gjøvik, Norway. This instrument predates any documented occurrences of the scheitholt, the hummel or any other similar instrument.

The older langeleik types were tuned after Pythagorean fashion, based on pure fifths and octaves, with variable smaller intervals. Thus, the pitches could easily be moved between more sombre “low” intervals and the more bright major ones. The fixed langeleik with a recognizable major scale is dated to after 1850. After this change in tonation, many players had to change their melodies, or find new ones, as the older repertoire no longer fitted into the new system.

Early langeleiks are basically rectangular in shape, and often have an open bottom. They usually have five or six strings. They often had unique traditional scales other than the modern major scale (using 3/4 tones, etc.). Especially the third and seventh tend to be different; the third is often neutral (between a major and minor third) and the seventh tends to be lower than the modern leading tone. Modern langeleiks are somewhat curved, being wider at the middle, as it is the experience of modern instrument makers that this makes the instrument sound louder. They are all tuned to a major scale.

Langeleiker på Eiktunet. Photo taken on May 26, 2013.
Langeleiker på Eiktunet. Photo taken on May 26, 2013.

In playing the langeleik, the right hand holds a long plectrum, and with this plectrum it strikes the beat, the basic rhythm. The left hand utilizes only its index, middle and ring finger. When a desired melody note is to be executed on the basic beat, the left hand only need to hold down the melody string, and the right hand will strike it with the plectrum. When a note is wanted in between the basic rhythm, the index or middle finger needs to hammer-on or pull-off the melody string.

Valdres and Vardal are the only areas where the langeleik has a living (and thus more developed) tradition, with more melodies available, especially of the more recent, more complex kind, made for arguably better instruments. It is also home of the valdres springar dance. Telemark is another distinct area of Norway, home of the Telemark springar. The Telemark langeleik is distinct from the Valdres kind in that the sound-box is thin and straight-walled whereas the Valdres-langeleik curves to a broader lower part, and it does not have a board at the bottom and thus is more dependent on a good table for amplification. Also the head looks all different.

The langeleik has had a renaissance, and while there are players in most part of Norway, there are not many places where the instrument is being played officially. This is perhaps mostly due to that it is a solo instrument. Gjøvik Spelemannslag (the folk musician guild of Gjøvik) has a steady group of langeleik-players which meets every Wednesday. They also build langeleiks and a lot of other kinds of instruments.

Scott #736 was issued on October 6, 1978, part of a set of four stamps (Scott #34-737). There were
2,732,000 copies of the 1.80 krone dark violet blue stamp recess printed, perforated 13.

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