Here’s the story of the niftiest instrument that you think you’ve never heard play. But you have! It’s a beautiful-looking instrument with a strong drone component, the fabulous-looking back of a lute, and the facility of a small keyboard instrument.
This instrument seems to have appeared in the Middle Ages and it all but disappeared after them. Here is the story of a well-traveled and somewhat obscure instrument.
The hurdy-gurdy is a medieval stringed instrument in which the encased strings (both melody and drone strings) are bowed mechanically by a resin-coated wooden wheel, which is turned by a handle. The melodies are played on a simple keyboard mechanism that bends the melody strings as the wheel passes past them, making them sound.
In the Middle Ages, the hurdy-gurdy was used for teaching purposes and for accompanying songs. It has always been popular among minstrels, and remains in use (in certain areas) as a street or folk instrument until today. For a couple of hundred years, it was popular and played by kings. And then it quietly slipped out of the public eye.
You have to remember that the monophonic music of the time was mostly a capella, with the occasional accompaniment by a harp, fiddle, or hurdy-gurdy. Usually, the singer played the instrument, so it wasn’t a matter of accompaniment in the modern sense (no harmony, no second musician or instrument).
The hurdy-gurdy seems to have been well-respected. In the Portico della Gloria of St. Jago di Compostella, a painting with one of the richest representations of 12th century musical instruments, the hurdy-gurdy is given the highest place at the center. It’s probable that, because most paintings that feature the hurdy-gurdy place the instrument in the middle, that the leader of the group played it.
But by the end of the Middle Ages, the hurdy-gurdy was in decline both in popularity and in size. It had become small enough to be played by a single person when once it required two. It trickled out of popularity with the aristocrats and became the standard instrument of peddlers and blind beggars.
Michael Praetorius damned it in the late 16th century as an instrument fit only for peasants, and denies it a proper place among instruments in general. In the mid-16th century, the painter Pieter Brueghel painted a picture of a group of blind beggars who stumble into a river, one of whom carries a hurdy-gurdy, which was considered to be the badge of forlornness.
A Little Hurdy-Gurdy History
It was once supposed that the hurdy-gurdy originated in Arab lands and was brought to Europe through Spain, but surprisingly little evidence of the instrument in the Middle East appears. So now it’s thought to have been invented in Northern Europe, possibly Germany, around 1100 and spread to other countries around 1200. The organistrum, which is a simpler version, maybe slightly older, was used to help monastics learn chant by providing a drone against which the melodies could be sung or played.
The first mention of an organistrum in Europe was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911). Another mention is in an Arabic musical compendium written by Al Zirikli in the 10th century.
By the 13th century, the simpler form of the instrument, with a single player, underwent some development. The keys that had required a second person to play them were reduced in both number and size until they could be played by one person, whose left hand tickled the keys while the right hand turned the crank. The wide variety of shapes for these keys tell us that attempts were made to improve the acoustic abilities of the instrument.
The later versions of hurdy-gurdies had keys that were depressed from beneath rather than from above like an organ’s keys. Because these upward-pressed keys used gravity to release them, they were faster and easier to handle than those that needed to be pulled or pushed back up.
Although the organistrum was described in 10th century by Odo of Cluny, there are no images until the 12th century. It’s funny, though, that there are so many images of hurdy-gurdies after that, because its popularity seems to have gone from nothing to high to absent very quickly.
There are many depictions of hurdy-gurdies carved on buildings and painted into pictures and illustrated manuscripts. (Most of the stone representations seem to be in France and Spain.) There are lots of descriptions in literature and much discussion of tuning, almost all in German-speaking countries. In many of the paintings, the hurdy-gurdy is always at the center, which implies that its player was the leader of the group of musicians. A miniature from a 13th century French Bible shows four musicians playing at a feast, including a vielle, a three-stringed hurdy-gurdy, a harp, and a psaltery.
The hurdy-gurdy is the earliest mechanized string instrument to which the keyboard principle was applied. The bow of other stringed instruments was replaced by a hand-cranked wheel, which produces a continuous sound from all the strings. The fingering is also mechanized, each string being stopped at different points to create different notes by means of the keyboard.
This instrument was used like other stringed and bowed instruments to accompany monophonic music. It was used to play interludes between verses or to accompany a singer in unison, perhaps playing the melody more ornamentally and fancy than the voice.
The hurdy-gurdy was pushed out of the church by the portative organ toward the middle of the 13th century. In secular music, hurdy-gurdies were still used to play dance music, and in aristocratic circles, they would have accompanied monophonic songs (all melody, no harmonies).
After 1300, the hurdy-gurdy, now called the symphonia, was in every part of society. It took on symbolic meaning and appeared in paintings with supernatural and religious subjects. “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450-1516) has a detailed image of one.
Like the bagpipe, the hurdy-gurdy was popular in the Renaissance, changing its shape to have a shorter neck, a boxier body, and a curved end. And it could be played by one person. At this time, an asymmetrical buzzing bridge appeared, which rests under the drone string on the soundboard. When the wheel is cranked faster, one edge of the bridge lifts from lying flat against the soundboard and vibrates against the string. The buzzing bridge is thought to have been borrowed from—or made in imitation of—the tromba marina, or monochord, which was a bowed stringed instrument.
By the end of the 17th century, people wanted polyphonic capabilities from all of their instruments, and the hurdy-gurdy was relegated to the lower classes.
In the 18th century, the hurdy-gurdy enjoyed a brief resurgence of interest as the rococo tastes of Europe idealized all things pastoral, along with the bagpipe. It was thought that the bass drone, the very thing that made Renaissance people discard them, made these instruments seem more woodsy.
During the 18th century, the hurdy-gurdy was outfitted with sympathetic strings that moved as a result of the movement of neighboring strings (the effect that is so pleasing in the harp and the psaltery). The addition of a little bellows-like attachment to the wheel admitted a constant stream of air to tiny pipes like an organ.
More common, though, was a hurdy-gurdy with three to six strings, of which at least two act as drones. This was a pet instrument of the aristocracy, who had a somewhat leisurely idea of pastoral life, all draping gracefully on a blanket and eating from a basket and none of the work.
The most common 18th century style of hurdy-gurdy was the six-string vielle a roué, with two melody strings and four drones, tuned in such a way that by turning the drones on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys.
It’s also during the 18th century when Slavic countries, and German-speaking areas of Hungary picked up the hurdy-gurdy.
In the 20th century, hurdy-gurdies have mostly disappeared. In the Ukraine, blind hurdy-gurdy-playing buskers were purged by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. One was played in the film “Captains Courageous (1937), by Spencer Tracy’s character.
In our times, revivals have begun in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
The organistrum, symphonium, and hurdy-gurdy have a wooden wheel in the interior, turned by a crank, which presses on the strings from below and sets them all vibrating simultaneously. The strings are shortened with wooden pegs, called tangents, that operate by a system of keys with the player’s free hand (the other turns the crank) and changes the note played by some of the strings.
Before the 13th century, this instrument required two players—one turning the handle, and the other operating an unwieldy keyboard. It was called an organistrum and had a shape with a waist, like a modern guitar. Later versions were more compact, requiring only one player and capable of faster music. They were lute-backed or occasionally rectangular and boxy. These later versions had a single melody string and several fixed-pitch drone strings.
By the 16th century, the instrument had more strings and a chromatic keyboard, and was called a symphonium. Sadly, by this time, it was largely relegated to beggars and wandering minstrels and had been given up by trained musicians and musically inclined aristocracy.
The rosin-coated wheel acts like a bow on the strings as it turns. Single notes sound much like a violin. The wheel is made of wood, and is kept sticky with rosin, like a violin’s bow. This is the most precarious aspect of the instrument and is the hardest part to keep properly shaped because it tends to warp in warm or wet weather. Players can turn the wheel, called the coup, faster or slower for musical effect. It doesn’t change the pitch, but provides a rhythmic thrumming.
Small wheeled instruments (with wheels about 5.5 inches in diameter) are from central and eastern Europe. These have a broad key box with the drone strings running through it. These usually have only three strings: one melody, one tenor drone, and one bass drone.
Large wheeled hurdy-gurdies (with wheels of 6.6 inches in diameter) are from western Europe. These usually have a narrow key box with drone strings outside it. They can have doubling or tripling of strings (where the notes are the same). Some have as many as 15 strings, although the usual number is six.
The strings are historically made of gut, which is still preferred today. Metal strings have become common in the 20th century, especially for the heavier drone strings or for lower melody strings if octave tuning is used. Nylon is sometimes used.
The strings are wrapped in raw cotton. The cotton used on melody strings is quite light and is heavier on the drone strings. Improper cottoning results in a raspy tone, especially at higher pitches. The height of the melody strings is adjusted to be above the wheel’s surface by shimming small pieces of paper between the strings and the bridge. Shimming and cottoning can both affect the pitch of the instrument’s strings.
Melody strings can play an octave, with both a B-sharp and a B-flat, nine notes in all. Drone strings are tuned to the octave and a fifth, although there’s no specific identification of this in the literature.
The tangents are wooden pegs that change the notes by shortening all three melody strings simultaneously, providing the typical medieval sound of the octave, fourth and fifth all changing notes at the same time and playing in parallel. The lowest string is free so that it sounds without being touched by the tangents and provides the drone.
Tangents can be adjusted to tune individual notes, so any temperament is possible. Most contemporary hurdy-gurdies have 24 keys that cover a range of two chromatic octaves. Notes are played by dividing the string lengths by depression of the tangents against the string, called Pythagorean tuning. (A string divided exactly in half will play a fifth interval on one half and a fourth on the other. It’s how pianos and all stringed instruments function.)
Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses the tangents against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. The soundboard underneath the strings makes the vibrations of the strings audible.
Tuning is usually Pythagorean (where the intervals are not equal, in order to get perfect fifths), but later tunings offer equal temperament (where every note is an equal distance from the next, making it hard to tune octaves) for ease of playing with other instruments.
Most have several drone strings, which give a constant pitch, like a bagpipe’s drone, and provide accompaniment to the melody. Because of this similarity, the hurdy-gurdy is often asked to play bagpipe tunes, particularly in older French and contemporary Hungarian and Galican folk music.
Some hurdy-gurdies have a vibrating bridge that creates a buzzing noise. On the Hungarian instrument called the tekero, some control is achieved by using a wedge that pushes the drone string downward. The player uses his or her wrist to control the buzz.
To make the bridge buzz, the tail of the bridge is stuck into a vertical slot or held by a peg in Hungarian instruments. The free end of the bridge, called the hammer, rests on the soundboard of the hurdy-gurdy and vibrates freely. When the wheel turns, the pressure on the string holds the bridge in place, sounding the drone. When the wheel is turned faster, the hammer lifts up and vibrates against the soundboard, creating a rhythmic buzz used to make a percussive effect.
On French-style instruments, the buzzing bridge can be altered with a peg, called a tyrant, in the tailpiece of the instrument that is connected by wire or thread to the trompette, which is the highest-pitched drone string. The tyrant adjusts the pressure on the trompette based on the speed of the turning wheel.
These are the parts of a hurdy-gurdy:
· Trompette: the highest pitched drone sting that features the buzzing bridge, if any
· Mouche: the drone sting pitched a fourth of fifth below the trompette
· Petit bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the trompette
· Gros bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the mouche
· Chanterelle(s): melody string(s), also called chanters or chanter strings in English
· Chien: (literally the “dog”) the buzzing bridge
· Tyrant: a small peg set in the instrument’s tailpiece that controls the buzzing bridge.
It’s a mechanically complicated instrument for a medieval development and must be constructed with great precision. In addition, the player has to keep adjusting things to keep the balance between the sound produced by the drones relative to the melody.
There are relatively few makers today. It’s not too hard to find the box-like versions, but the really best lute-backed ones come from France. There are some kits here: Music Maker Kits if you want to try building one yourself.
There are folk music festivals in Europe that feature music groups with hurdy-gurdy players, with the most famous faire held in central France on Bastille Day.
In English, it’s a hurdy-gurdy, but it’s also called the organistrum or symphonia. “Hurdy-gurdy” is thought to be from the Scottish term for uproar and disorder; “hirdy-girdy” and “hurly-burly” are old English terms for noise or commotion. It’s sometimes called a wheel fiddle in English, but not by people who play it. (I suppose it’s like no one in San Francisco would ever call the town “Frisco.”)
Musicologist Robert Green says that the term organistrum is reserved for the three-stringed instrument played by two people in aristocratic and church settings, and symphonia is the smaller instrument played by one person in secular circumstances.
There was a misnomer in the 18th century, calling a barrel organ a hurdy-gurdy. The barrel organ is a cranked box with organ pipes, a bellows, and a barrel with pins that rotated and played the tunes. It functioned like a player piano. This was a common choice for street musicians because all that need be done was to turn the crank.
But I digress. In German, the instrument is called Baernleier (peasant’s lyre) and Bettlerleier (beggar’s lyre). The Dutch call it a draailier, much like the German name drehleier. In French, it’s a vielle a roué or simply vielle (although there’s another instrument with the same name).
In Hungarian, it’s a tekerlant and forgolant, both of which mean “turning lute.” It can also be called a nyenyere, which is thought to onomatopoeic with the sound of the wobbling wheel.
In Italian, it’s a ghironda or lira tedesca. In Spain, it’s called a zanfona, except in Catalan, where it’s known as a viola de Roda. In Basque, it’s called a brenka.
In the Ukraine, it’s a lira or relia, which means “wheel lyre.” There, they are still played by professional, often blind, itinerant musicians known as lirnyky. Their music sounds Baroque and vaguely religious.
Nicolas Chedeville (1705-1782) wrote “Il pastor Fido” for the hurdy-gurdy, which was wrongly attributed to Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote “Lira organizzata” not for the simple hurdy-gurdy with strings, but for the more complex instrument with the organ attachment (mentioned in the history section in the 18th century above). Haydn composed numerous nocturns and concertos for the instrument that pleased the King of Naples so much that he tried to convince Haydn to move to Naples. Haydn almost did, but at the last minute, he accepted the invitation to go to London.
Other composers for the hurdy-gurdy include Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828).
The pop star Donovan wrote a 1968 rock song, called “Hurdy-Gurdy Man.” No actual hurdy-gurdy was played during it, but it sparked a new interest in the instrument, particularly in the Olympic Peninsula area of Washington state.
Another modern hurdy-gurdyist is Giles Chabenat, who’s still playing, mostly in England.
· Faustin Santalices, currently playing in Spain
· Ethan James was a talented musician who hung out in San Francisco in the 1960s and became a recording artist in Los Angeles. He died in 2003.
· Patrick Bouffard is still performing in France.
· Giles Chabenat is still playing, mostly in England.
· Jean-Francois Dutertre is a French singer/songwriter.
· Regine Chassagne in Quebec performs with the band Arcadie Fire.
· David Miles plays with Metallica.
· Garmarna and Hedringarna are Swedish groups that specialize in the hurdy-gurdy.
· Nigel Eaton is the English son of hurdy-gurdy maker Christopher Eaton and has made his own name as a player.
· Jimmy Page played with Led Zeppelin.
· Brendan O’Brien played the hurdy-gurdy on a Bruce Springsteen album.
· Anna Murphy plays with folk metal band Eluveitie’.
· Sting plays the hurdy-gurdy.
· A hobo on top of the train plays a hurdy-gurdy in the movie “Polar Express”
People of this instrument are called hurdy-gurdyists or hurdy-gurdy players, except in France, where they’re called viellists.
“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1949.
“Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.
“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1940.
“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2010.
“Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.
“Women Making Music; The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.
“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000.