Bizarre: The Hurdy Gurdy

In this series, we’re taking an in-depth look into the weird, wonderful and often forgotten instruments; some old, some new, but always bizarre! Hopefully, through our mini-profiles of these instruments, they will inspire you to find some new sounds or get creative with some obscure charity shop finds.

 
Most people's only exposure to the term ‘Hurdy Gurdy’, would be from the song ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’, written by Donovan in the late 60’s; which has its own folklore in and of itself. Having either been written whilst studying Transcendental Meditation with the Beatles in Rishikesh, India, or, in a Rum and Ganja-infused haze in Jamaica (he can’t remember which), it also has a lost verse, written by George Harrison, as well as features from Jimmy Page and John Bonham as musicians on the record, pre-Led Zepellin!

In the song he references the Hurdy Gurdy man as a troubadour who speaks a timeless truth and the Hurdy Gurdy is indeed an ancient instrument, with its earliest incarnations being traceable back to the 10th century.

History of The Hurdy Gurdy



The Hurdy Gurdy is a stringed instrument that produces sound via hand-cranked wheel that bows the strings from underneath, which, when played well, can be used to add a slight rhythmic element to the sound. At the other end is a keyboard, which is used to create the melodies by pressing tangents—small wedges, the press against the strings to change the pitch. This is also combined with multiple drone strings, which give the melody a constant-pitched accompaniment, similar the bagpipes.

The Organistrum is the earliest ancestor of the Hurdy Gurdy family, dating back to the end of 10th or beginning of the 11th century. The Organistrum differed from the Hurdy Gurdy, in that it required two people to play it. Being larger than a regular Hurdy Gurdy, one person would turn the crank, whilst the other pressed the keys to create the melody.

Through the Ages



Known in France as the ‘vielle a roue’ (wheel fiddle), it was one of the most popular instruments in Europe, becoming a staple in folk tradition in countries such as Poland, Belarus, Hungary, Ukraine and beyond. One of the key factors that could have led to its popularity was the fact that it was the first stringed instrument to have the keyboard principle applied to it.

Its spread was also proliferated by wandering troubadours who found employment in courts and towns and their acceptance into religious processions and similar events. In this way, the instrument found its way into every strata of society, from nobility to peasants. However, when it arrived in Britain, it was known derogatorily as the ‘hurly burley’.



The Hurdy Gurdy was very much in vogue during the reign of Louis XIV, with music being written by popular composers in the baroque period, including Vivaldi and Mozart, with its popularity continuing through to the end of the reign of Louis XV. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the instrument underwent some modifications, increasing its range to two octaves and thus catalysing a lot of new music to be written on it.

After the French revolution, the instrument drifted off into relative obscurity, save for the renditions of traditional Baroque-era songs, which if you’re lucky enough, you can catch street musicians still playing on the castle walls of St. Malo to this day.



The Hurdy Gurdy in the Modern Day



In the early 20th century, the instrument is played by Der Leiermann, in the last song of Schubert's Winterreise and also featured in the film ‘Captains Courageous’ in 1937.




After this, levels of intrigue in the folk community were piqued by Donovans’ song as mentioned at the start of the article, which, ultimately, led to annual hurdy-gurdy music festivals in Washington, USA and Saint Chartier, France (to name a few) each year and a museum in Montluçon, France.

Technical Aspects


Traditionally the stings were made of gut, which they sometimes still are, although you will also find metal strings now as well, especially for the heavier ‘drone’ strings, with cotton wool being spun around them where they meet the wheel, to soften the sound. The most common, French-style, of the instrument, is tuned to C or G, with the melody strings being tuned to G1, with the odd regional exception (tuning in A or E), most likely to be found in or around Hungary.




The Hurdy Gurdy is a challenging instrument to master; hanging around your neck at an angle that allows the keys to fall back in place after being pressed from playing the melodies, whilst meticulously turning the wheel to draw out percussive rhythms makes it quite a skill to produce a good sound!

Whilst the sound of the Hurdy Gurdy will definitely not be to everyone’s taste, it holds a fascination in people that has never quite faded away. The allure of being able to play an instrument that has been around since Medieval times will always endure. There could be something in there that taps into an ancient part of your brain and inspires you to push your palette of sounds that little bit further than is normally comfortable!





     

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