The hurdy gurdy is a unique mechanical kind of fiddle, whose hallmark is an ‘eternal’ sound made by a wheel rotated along strings by a crank, and melodies played with tangents which shorten the melody strings, called chanters. The ‘eternal’ sound is the accompaniment by humming drones, rather like the parts of the bagpipe which stick upward. The oldest source giving a description of this instrument is a treatise called "Quomodo organistrum construatur" which has survived in a 13th century manuscript. Neither the author nor the origin of the treatise is certain, but it may have been written by Odone of Cluny of by Odon of Saint-Maur-des-Fosses. It is assumed that the work could have been created either in the Benedictan abbey of Cluny or any other of their cloisters. The origin of the hurdy gurdy itself is also uncertain. Again, the cloister of Benedictians might have been the birthplace of this instrument, but also possibly only its popularisation started there.

The hurdy gurdy portrayed in the earliest sculptures in church portals (when the actual name of the instrument was organistrum) is much bigger in comparison to modern ones. There were two musicians playing it simultaneously, the student turning the crank and the master pulling keys and so making the melody. In time, the frame of the instrument became smaller and smaller until only one musician could play it alone. The term symphonia refers to an instrument which has all the strings together with a wheel and tangents placed in a rectangular-shaped box out of which the crank and keys (used for shortening the played string length) protruded. 

The name hurdy gurdy is an instrumentological term. In Poland it was tradionally called ‘lyre’, ‘turned lyre’, ‘beggar's lyre’ or ‘rural lyre’; and now it is known as a lira korbowa, a ‘cranked lyre’.

Tlumaczenie: Andrzej Wozniak

THE HURDY GURDY - a historical overview

“The appeal of the Swedish hurdy gurdy that we use lies within its incompleteness. It's raw and unfinished. It wants to do everything but isn't quite fit to do so. The beauty of the music comes from how fragile it sounds when something so raw wants to sing something beautiful. I've never been very interested in the history of the instrument, just fascinated by its possibilities in music today. Nothing can replace it; nothing can sound so mysterious or powerful.” http://www.myspace.com/hurdygurdyprototyp

As a musicologist, I’ve always found the hurdy gurdy a cool instrument. It is one of the oldest keyboard instruments. It is a mechanical violin, with also a few strings that sound continuously, like a drone or bourdon, and this makes it comparable to bagpipes. It was the medieval synthesizer.

They don’t seem that fiendishly hard to play: the right hand turns a crank to roll a rosined wooden wheel along the strings, like a circular fiddle bow. The left hand presses up, through the keybox, one of about 25 wooden sticks, on which tangents are screwed, which in turn press against two of the strings to produce different notes. The drones simply drone on along the soundboard.

It is one of very few musical instruments that come originally from Europe. Over a thousand years ago, the first ones were monster-sized, two-man-operated bass boxes called organistrum. Then they became smaller (solo organistrum) and more refined but still box-shaped (symphonia). Troubadours started taking them on tour. In those days, a talented and ambitious wood worker’s apprentice, anxious to prove his mastery, would build a hurdy gurdy – it was the apex of nifty medieval engineering.

In the Renaissance they got stylishly curvaceous, and along with the bagpipes they epitomised the love for drones in the music of those days. An extra addition came into use: a loose vibrating bridge which gave off a rhythmical, trumpet-like sound when triggered by fast crank movements.

The main three types are lute-backed, violin-shaped and guitar-shaped. Only two countries have some historical continuity in hurdy construction: France and Hungary. In other countries the instrument died out some time after the Renaissance.

Around 1700 they were solidly out of fashion, and as a Bettlerleier (‘beggar’s lyre’), buskers and peasants used them, while the elite fancied more complicated harmonies. The mocking onomatopoeic English name hurdy gurdy stems from these times.

Fifty years later it all changed again and the Rococo love for peasantry rediscovered the hurdy. Now kings and courtiers got interested and started playing on them. Serious court composers like Vivaldi wrote pieces for the thing, and the far reach of monarchical power ensured its furthest-reaching popularity yet, deep into central and eastern Europe. It had a different name in each country: vielle a roué, wheel fiddle, tekerőlant, nyenyere, drehleier, ghironda, zanfona, draailier, lira korbowa.

But even court fads fade, and so another incarnation came when folk music adopted it for community dances. A lower-class toy, from 1820 till 1865, German girls from the Hessen area played them everywhere, officially to sell brooms. But here the instruments were accessories that meant “love for sale”. Paintings of maidens playing hurdy-gurdies abound during this period, and to this day it has remained an instrument favoured largely by women.

“Thus the girls of Hessen came to nearly all countries of Europe, especially England (where they were called ‘Hurdy-Gurdy girls’ and ‘Hessian Broom Girls’) and also to Australia, Cuba and North America – where California was a particularly desirable destination, as the gold fields there promised brisk business, and where, because of their origins, they were also known as ‘Rhinelanders’.” http://www.hotpipes.com/hggirls2.html

This indecency in Victorian times, the rise of the accordeon in folk music, and the fashion for soft, romantic sounding music, all conspired to press the hurdy gurdy again into near-extinction by 1900. Even its name was pinched and used for street barrel organs – this because these were also operated with a crank.

The blind troubadour caste of Ukraine, the lyrniki, still used them, now called lira or relia. Russian authorities suppressed their para-religious performances until 1902, when ethnographers convinced the Tsarist government to cut these colourful buskers some slack.

The lyrniki kept performing through the Revolution, now also voicing public discontent and criticising Stalin’s oppression in song. When the Georgian dictator got wind of this, he organised a large conference for these musicians. About three hundred showed up. They were executed straightaway.

Thus, the darkest hour of the instrument – indeed, of human history – had come. Only the French and Hungarians had kept their tradition of building hurdies alive, as they were still in demand for folk ensembles there.

Donovan’s Hury Gurdy Man, a spacey 1967 hippie song, actually featured no hurdy gurdy being played; but it sparked a western revival of the instrument. Grassroots fans started playing the hurdy. Today it is also courted by female gothic rock artists, who have rightly acknowledged the mythical feel of their amplified hurdies.

While violins the world over look very much the same, as do harps, trumpets, or harmonica’s; hurdies are all different and it is often relatively easy to determine the individual builder. So at vielle a roué-festivals, people will play a Gotschy, an Eaton, a Kelischek, a Nagy, a Grandchamp. Or a Nogaj.

Here again in brief, the players’ chronology: church people, troubadours, beggars, royalty, nobility, peasants, buskers, prostitutes, protest singers, hippies, re-enactment buffs, goth rock girls.

And, perhaps, you?

Mark Hoogslag, Toruń 2010