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The hurdy-gurdy or “wheel fiddle” is an ancient stringed instrument from Europe. It operates by means of a hand-cranked wheel covered with pine resin which rubs over the strings (much like a violinist’s bow). The hurdy-gurdy has “chanter” strings which continuously hum a single note (much like bagpipe chanters) and it has a keyboard by means of which the modulating frequency of strings can be altered to change their pitch–so that a melody can be played. Because of the vagaries of the English language the phrase “hurdy-gurdy” was also once used for cheap barrel organs (which played a predetermined tune–like a music box) which proliferated in the hands of the most dégoûtant buskers and street performers. The hurdy-gurdy addressed in this article is a wheel-fiddle–which requires considerable musical skill.
When played properly the instrument combines the haunting qualities of bagpipes with the lyrical voice of the violin. Here is a movie of hurdy-gurdy player Neil Brook playing an Italian Renaissance era dance melody “Amoroso” from 1451. For additional fun, here is a link to Chuck Norris playing a winsome tune on the hurdy-gurdy (actually that might just be a Chuck Norris doppelganger).
The instrument and its antecedents have a long history. Medieval musicians developed a large fiddle with a hand-crank wheel called the organistrum based on rebecs and medieval fiddles. The organistrum was played by two musicians (one to play the melody and one to turn the wheel and adjust the strings) for the purpose of accompanying liturgical chants. By the twelfth century the organistrum had evolved into a one player instrument sometimes called the symphonia which can be thought of as the first hurdy-gurdy.
In the late Middle Ages and throughout the early Renaissance, the hurdy-gurdy was popular for dances, pageants, and chamber music. It became a favorite instrument for troubadours and wondering minstrels. Its fortunes declined as chamber music grew more complex and polyphonic. At the same time, the upheavals shaking Europe produced more and more maimed, blind, and impoverished itinerants (who came to be associated with the instrument). By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the hurdy-gurdy came to be regarded as a rustic instrument for farmers, bumpkins, and beggars. This was fortunate in France where the upper-classes became obsessed with pastoralism and Arcadian fantasies. The hurdy-gurdy or “vielle à roué” underwent a major revival in France where it has remained an esteemed national instrument.
Minstrels and other travelers had also carried the instrument to Central and Eastern Europe where it developed deep roots. Hungary, like France, esteems the hurdy-gurdy where it is known as the tekerőlan. In Poland, the Baltic States, and Ukraine the tradition of the blind hurdy-gurdy players persisted into the twentieth century. This ancient tradition came to an abrupt and dismal end in the Ukraine where the instrument was called the lira and the players called lirnyky. In the 1930s, the Soviet authorities invited (or coerced) the entire population of lirnyky musicians to an “ethnographic conference” and then executed them all for compromising a “socially undesirable element”.
Aside from France and Hungary (which, as mentioned, maintain a vital hurdy-gurdy tradition) the instrument remains popular at folk festivals and Renaissance fairs. It even gained some broader traction during the sixties thanks to Donovan! Period movies and costume dramas frequently use the hurdy-gurdy for dance and festival scenes. The hurdy-gurdy also has an extremely interesting place in visual art–which is the subject of my next post.