bout the Hurdy Gurdy

The hurdy gurdy is best described as a form of fiddle. However, the strings are agitated by a wheel, instead of being bowed. The wheel is turned by a crank on the end of the instrument, very much like a street organ. The strings are stopped by keys. Given this description you may think that the hurdy gurdy is a relatively modern instrument. This is not the case. The first descriptions date back to the writings of Odo de Cluny, an abbot who lived during the first half of the tenth century. He called the instrument the organistrum. Thus, the hurdy gurdy was present in Europe as early as the first fiddles.

The first illustrations of hurdy gurdies come from the twelfth century. At that time, the instrument was quite large, measuring five to six feet in length. Its body took the form of a large fiddle. It was played by two musicians, who would lay it across their laps. One would crank the wheel and the other would stop the strings. At this time the strings were stopped by levers that could depress against the string. Each lever was connected to a rod that would activate the lever when it was turned. The large size of the instrument would have made it impractical to play with a bow or by stopping the strings with the fingers, and thus provides an explanation as to why the instrument employed a wheel and keys.

By the thirteenth century the hurdy gurdy underwent substantial changes. It was made much smaller, now only as large as a fiddle. This allowed it to be played by a single person, and made it much easier to transport. The means by which the strings were stopped was also changed. Instead of using rods, keys were now employed. On the back of the key was a tanget which would stop the string when the key was depressed. The key would return to its original position from the tension of the string, as well as by the effects of gravity. With all of these changes the instrument acquired a new name, the symphonia.

The hurdy gurdy was a Medieval instrument and fell out of favor in the Renaissance. It was still depicted in early sixteenth century art, but was considered antiquated. By the seventeenth century its use was used solely as a folk instrument. Drones were added to the instrument. These make it sound like a bagpipe in harmony and timbre.

Page Design Copyright 2010 Michael Berger

Clip Art Copyright 2002 Dover Publications