A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Hurdy Gurdy

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HURDY GURDY (Fr. Vielle; Ital. Lira tedesca, Ghironda ribeca, Stampella, Viola da orbo; Germ. Bauernleier, Deutscheleier, Bettlerleier, Drehleier; Latinised, Lyra rustica, Lyra pagana). Has a place among musical instruments like that of the Dulcimer and the Bagpipes, as belonging to rural life, and quite outside modern musical art. It is true that in the first half of the last century the Hurdy Gurdy or Vielle contributed to the amusement of the French higher classes, but evidently with that affectation of rusticity so abundantly shown when mock shepherds and shepherdesses flourished. Mr. Engel ('Musical Instruments,' 1874, P. 235) gives several titles of compositions wherein the Vielle formed, in combination with Bagpipes (Musette), Flutes (of both kinds), and Hautbois, a Fête Champêtre orchestra. M. G. Chouquet ('Catalogue du Musée du Conservatoire,' Paris, 1875, p. 23) adds, for the instrument alone, sonatas, duos, etc., by Baptiste and other composers, and two methods for instruction by Bouin and Corrette. This music of a modern Arcadia seems to have culminated about 1750 in the virtuosity of two brothers, Charles and Henri Baton, the former playing the Vielle, which he had much improved, the latter the Musette. Their father, a luthier at Versailles, was a famous Vielle maker, who about 1716–20 adapted old guitars and lutes and mounted them as hurdy-gurdies. Other eminent makers were Pierre and Jean Louvet, Paris, about 1750; Lambert, of Nancy, 1770–80; Delaunay, Paris; and Berge, Toulouse.

The Hurdy Gurdy is an instrument the sound of which is produced by the friction of stretched strings, and the different tones by the help of keys. It has thus analogies to both bowed and clavier instruments. It is sometimes in the shape of the old Viola d'Amore (a viol with very high ribs), of the Guitar, or, as in the woodcut, of the Lute. Four to six tuning-pegs in the head bear as many strings of catgut or sometimes wire, two of which only are carried direct to the tailpiece, and tuned in unison, and one or both are 'stopped' by a simple apparatus of keys with tangents, which directed by the fingers of the player's left hand, shortens the vibrating length to make the melody. The chanterelle has two octaves from the tenor G upwards; the drones are tuned in C or G; G being the lowest string in either key.

[App. p.683 "When in the key of C, the lowest drone is tenor C. The lowest drones are called Bourdons, the next higher open string is the Mouche. The Trompette which is again higher, a copper string next the two melody-strings, may be tuned as indicated and used at pleasure.

{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 6/4 << { g'1 } \\ { g' } >> }
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 6/4 << { g'1 } \\ { g' } \\ { d' } >> }
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 16/4 \new RhythmicStaff s1. c'1 }
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 10/4 \new RhythmicStaff s1. }
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 8/4 \clef bass s8.. <g c g,>1 }
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \time 8/4 \clef bass s4 <g c g,>1 }

One or other of the bourdons is omitted, according as the key is C or G."]

In the cut showing the wheel and tangents one string only is used as a melody string. The ebony keys are the natural notes, the ivory the sharps. From the position in which the Hurdy Gurdy is held the keys return by their own weight. The longer strings, deflected and carried round the ribs or over the belly and raised upon projecting studs, are tuned as drones or bourdon strings. All these strings are set in vibration by the wooden wheel, which, being rosined, has the function of a violin bow, and is inserted crosswise in an opening of the belly just above the tailpiece, the motor being a handle at the tail-end turned by the player's right hand. There are two soundholes in the belly near the wheel. The Hurdy Gurdy here represented is a modern French instrument ('Vielle en forme de luth'), 27 inches in length without the handle. Two of the drones are spun strings, and one, the so-called 'trumpet,' is of copper, and is brought upon the wheel at pleasure by turning an ivory peg in the tail-piece. There are also four sympathetic wire strings tuned in the fifth and octave. Like lutes and other mediæval instruments, the Hurdy Gurdy was often much and well adorned, as may be seen in South Kensington Museum; fancy woods, carving, inlaying and painting being lavishly employed. The Hurdy Gurdy has been sometimes called Rota (from its wheel), but the Rote of Chaucer had no wheel, and was a kind of half fiddle, half lyre, with an opening (as in the Crwth) for the hand of the player to touch the strings from the back. The old Latin name for a Hurdy Gurdy was Organistrum, and this large form of the instrument it took two persons to play, as it was so long as to lie across the knees of both. The artist touched the keys; the handle-turner was no more important than an organ bellows blower. The summit of the arch of the Gate of Glory of Santiago da Compostella, a cast of which is at South Kensington, is occupied by two figures playing an Organistrum. The date of this great Spanish work is 1188. There are other early representations, especially one in the museum at Rouen, but the earliest, dating in the 9th century, was copied by Gerbert from a MS. in the monastery of St. Blaise in the Black Forest, and published by him (De Cantu et Musicâ Sacrâ) in 1774. Mr. Engel has reproduced this drawing in the work already referred to (p. 103). The instrument had eight keys acting on three strings, tuned either in unison or concord. The 'Symphonia' or 'Chifonie' was the Hurdy Gurdy in the 13th century. As for the name Hurdy Gurdy it was probably made merely for euphony, like 'hocus pocus,' 'harum scarum,' but it may have been suggested by the peculiar tone. The Hurdy Gurdy was the prototype of the Piano Violin, and all similar sostenente instruments, and we may perhaps see in its simple action the origin of the Clavichord.

Donizetti's 'Linda di Chamouni' (1842) contains two Savoyard songs with accompaniment for the Hurdy Gurdy. In recent performances violins and violas, and even the concertina, have been substituted for the original instrument, which however remains in the score.

[ A. J. H. ]