What is a Hurdy-Gurdy?
The hurdy gurdy, known in
France as the vielle a roue or vielle for short, is an ancient instrument which is
undergoing a modern renaissance in Europe and America. First, to dispel a popular
misconception: the hurdy gurdy was not played by the organ grinder or his monkey. They
used a large music box operated by a crank. Today's hurdy gurdy is roughly the same as
those built in the middle ages. It has three to six strings which are caused to vibrate by
a resined wheel turned by a crank. Melody notes are produced on one string, or two tuned
in unison, by pressing keys which stop the string at the proper intervals for the scale.
The other strings play a drone note. Some instruments have a "dog",
"trompette" or "buzzing bridge" A string passes over a moveable
bridge, which by a clever movement of the crank in the open hand, can produce a rasping
rhythm to accompany the tune by causing the bridge to hammer on the sound board.
The instrument is held in
the lap with a strap to hold it steady. The case can be square, lute back, or flat back
with a guitar or fiddle shape. Forms of the vielle a roue existed not only in France, but
in Germany, Italy, Britain, Russia, Spain and Hungary.
An interesting related
instrument is the Swedish nyckelharpa which was developed around the sixteenth century. It
has keys and is played with a short bow. It is enjoying a revival of interest and new
custom made instruments are now available. The origins of the hurdy gurdy are unknown but
one theory says that when the Moors invaded Spain they brought with them many stringed and
bowed instruments. There is no proof that the vielle a roue was one of them, but the
possibility exists that something similar arrived in Spain at that time and dispersed
throughout Europe along the pilgrim's roads.
The Hurdy-Gurdy's Ancient Roots
The earliest known form of
the vielle a roue was called an organistrum and bore little resemblance to the modern one.
It was so large that one person turned the crank and another played the keys. The wooden
keys were arranged in various ways depending on whether secular or religious music was to
be played. The organistrum was only capable of playing slow melodies and simple harmony
because of the hard key action. It's main use was in the medieval church.
The first mention of the
organistrum was in a construction manual by Odo of Cluny, which was discovered in the
twelfth century and possibly written in the tenth century. There are also other depictions
dating from the twelfth century.
During the thirteenth
century, the organistrum was redesigned to be playable by one person, which encouraged use
by blind and itinerant musicians. The improved key action with drone accompaniment made it
ideal for dance music. It was adopted for popular and folk music of the day, and use in
the church diminished. Even the name organistrum had died out by the fourteenth century.
In France, it was known as a symphonia until it was abandoned for popular music in the
late fifteenth century. One can surmise that, at this time, the name changed to vielle a
roue, which is still used today.
The vielle was used only
for folk music by peasants and street musicians. It was known all over Europe by about
1650 but remained a peasant instrument for the next one hundred years. By this time the
design had standardized to the size and shape familiar today.
The Vielle A Roue's Rebirth
Although the vielle a roue
was mentioned frequently as a beggars instrument in the early seventeenth century, it
appeared occasionally at the royal court along with the musette (bagpipe), providing music
to accompany the new pastoral plays. Gradually, courtly diversions about the Arcadian idea
of rural bliss gained favor at court. Shepherds and milkmaids were portrayed passing away
pleasant hours together.
During the reign of Louis
XIV, 1660 to 1715, Arcadian pastimes greatly increased because the king enjoyed them and
all his court followed suit. Music for the vielle a roue and musette were written by
popular composers such as Vivaldi in the baroque period and later by Mozart. Many
aristocrats became accomplished performers on these instruments.
During the mid-seventeenth
century, writers like Jean Jacque Rousseau castigated the corruption and lax morals at
court. He advocated a return to the simple rural life where virtue and integrity came
naturally with the hard work of the peasant life. He also encouraged the display of
sentiment and emotion to further enhance the delicacy of one's character. His ideas gained
favor at court but became twisted. The simple life continued to be portrayed in pastoral
plays by highly decorated persons impersonating rural folk playing traditional instruments
but behaving as no peasant would.
During the vielle a roue's
favor at court, Paris instrument makers started to make elegant instruments with fancy
inlay and carving. The mechanism was built into guitar and lute bodies, giving the
instrument a better tone. Many fine instruments were manufactured during this period.
This renaissance of the
hurdy gurdy continued until the reign of Louis XV was over in 1778. The next king, Louis
XVI, was rather puritanical and did not participate in the diversions of the court. The
amusements continued under Marie Antoinette but her tastes changed to the neo classical.
She abandoned her milkmaid roles for Sappho with her harp. The hurdy gurdy had no logical
place in this type of entertainment but it did not disappear entirely from the court scene
until the French Revolution. At this time, it simply was left to the streets where it had
always been. Use of the instrument for more than a beggars tool gradually retreated into
central France in the areas of Auvergne, Berry and Limousin, where the tradition has
remained to this day.
After the French
Revolution, around early 1800, the peasants began to leave the place of their birth and
migrated to Paris to find work. They typically became first water carriers then coal
carriers. Many set up store fronts in conjunction with the coal business, where they sold
wine from their native areas. By the 1850's, there were many homesick peasants in Paris.
They gathered at the wine shops, sitting on benches and wine barrels, to drink, dance and
play the familiar old folk tunes on the hurdy gurdy and cabrette (bagpipe).
About 1880, the diatonic
accordion began to be added at these sessions, and gained in popularity rapidly because it
was easier and less troublesome. The hurdy gurdy had to be tuned carefully and was subject
to constant problems from dampness. Originally, the diatonic accordion played a simple
melody line but about 1890, a chromatic model was developed which could play a fast melody
with runs and grace notes. Starting about 1850, the bagpipe was often played without the
drone because of the conflict with the new chromatic music. The hurdy gurdy was not so
versatile playing this music, so it's use decreased while the accordion increased in
popularity. The small groups of homesick peasants dancing traditional dances gradually
grew larger as more people became interested. By 1910, the dances had grown so large in
Paris that large halls were built to accommodate as many as 400 dancers. The
instrumentation had changed solely to chromatic accordion and drones cabrette. A whole new
style of music and dance was created by the changing times. The polka, mazurka, waltz and
musette are some of the creations of that period. The new dance and music gradually
trickled back to central France where traditional music was still played and the hurdy
gurdy was still appreciated. This time the accordion did not displace the hurdy gurdy, but
was merely added. The cabrette, hurdy gurdy and accordion are still playing traditional
music in this area today.
The term hurdy gurdy was
not coined in England until the eighteenth century. The instrument still occurred as a
street instrument in many places throughout Europe till about the twentieth century.
During the eighteenth century a variation of the vielle was developed. The Lira
Organizzata was a hurdy gurdy with a bellows and organ pipes inside which were operated by
the crank and keys respectively. The pipes had a very high squeaky sound. These
instruments are being made today and are enjoying a revival of interest.
In the early 1960's France
showed an enormous interest in American folk songs and singers such as Bob Dylan and Pete
Seeger. In a few years, when this material was digested, something new was needed. French
musicians noted how the Irish and English were reviving their own ancient and beautiful
folk traditions and were reminded of their own traditional songs and instruments. This
rekindled interest has now swept France and is the rage of Paris.
There are many new records
of both traditional and modern music which feature the hurdy gurdy. Classes in vielle a
roue, cabrette, bagpipe, dancing and accordion are very popular. Fifteen years ago, one
had to go to Switzerland to get a hurdy gurdy. Now there are more than 50 makers in
France. The instrument is now being investigated by the latest research methods. You can
get an electronic hurdy gurdy in bright green or candy apple red. By the addition of
electronic pickups and other gadgets, the hurdy gurdy is joining rock and roll, jazz and
other music. It has been chromatic for years but the drones have to be turned off to play
modern music. Now there are electronic drone changers which can instantaneously change the
key of the drones, making the instrument much more versatile. There are many groups
writing new material for the hurdy gurdy.
The current fad is to
syncopate the buzzing bridge in a jazz rhythm. Ireland, England, Italy, Spain and Hungary
are a few of the countries where musicians are adapting the vielle to their newly composed
Meanwhile, the hurdy gurdy
has come to the United States, no doubt in the hands of traveling Frenchmen. It is said
that around 1850, there were a few hurdy gurdys being played in New Orleans. There is
mention of one in New York about around 1940. There is an early California dance tune
discovered in Watsonville, California, which is actually a French tune called La
Valso-vienne. No one knows how it originally arrived from France. A friend of mine
remembers a man coming to town with his hurdy gurdy back in the Oklahoma oil days. Any
information on the use of the hurdy gurdy in the United States which anyone would like to
share with us is welcomed.
Many fine hurdy gurdys,
both antique and modern, are to be found at Lark In The Morning in Mendocino, California.
by Astra Thor