A Hurdy Gurdy is a musical instrument that is played by turning a crank, which rotates a wheel that rubs against strings, creating a sound similar to that of a violin or a bagpipe. It is sometimes also called a wheel fiddle or a vielle à roue. The instrument dates back to the medieval period and was commonly used in European folk music, particularly in France, Germany, and Scandinavia. The Hurdy Gurdy has a distinctive, rich sound that can be quite haunting and is often used in traditional and experimental music today.
The history of the hurdy-gurdy
The hurdy-gurdy has a long and fascinating history, dating back to at least the 10th century in Europe. Here’s a brief overview of its evolution:
- The hurdy-gurdy is thought to have originated in the Middle East, where it was known as the “organistrum”. It was a large instrument played by two people, with one turning a crank while the other played a keyboard.
- The organistrum made its way to Europe via Spain in the 11th century, where it was adapted and transformed into the hurdy-gurdy we know today. It became popular among traveling musicians and minstrels, who used it to accompany singing and dancing.
- By the 16th century, the hurdy-gurdy had become a fixture of European folk music. It was particularly popular in France, Germany, and the Low Countries, where it was often played in ensembles with other instruments like bagpipes and fiddles.
- The hurdy-gurdy went through several changes in the 18th and 19th centuries, as instrument makers experimented with different designs and added new features like sympathetic strings and drone strings.
- By the 20th century, the hurdy-gurdy had fallen out of favor in mainstream music, but it continued to be played by traditional musicians and was also adopted by experimental musicians who were drawn to its unique sound and capabilities.
Today, the hurdy-gurdy remains a fascinating and unique instrument, with a rich history and a growing community of players and enthusiasts.
The Hurdy Gurdy explained
The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument played by turning a crank that rotates a wheel that rubs against the strings. The player typically sits with the instrument on their lap or held against their shoulder, and uses their left hand to press the keys or frets on the neck while using their right hand to turn the crank.
The main components of the hurdy-gurdy include:
- Body – The body of the hurdy-gurdy is typically made of wood, with a curved shape that tapers at both ends. It is hollow and contains a soundboard, which amplifies the sound of the strings.
- Strings – The hurdy-gurdy typically has six or seven strings, which are made of gut, nylon, or metal. The strings are divided into melody strings and drone strings and are tuned to different pitches.
- Wheel – The wheel is a wooden or plastic cylinder that is turned by the crank. It is covered with a material that creates friction against the strings, producing sound.
- Keys/Frets – The keys or frets are located on the neck of the hurdy-gurdy, and are used to change the pitch of the melody strings. The number of keys or frets can vary depending on the design of the instrument.
- Bridge – The bridge is a small piece of wood or bone that supports the strings and transmits their vibrations to the soundboard.
- Pegs – The pegs are used to tune the strings, and are located at the top of the instrument’s neck.
- Resonant cavity – The interior of the instrument contains a hollow resonant cavity, which helps to amplify and shape the sound produced by the vibrating strings.
The unique sound of the hurdy-gurdy is created by the combination of the drone strings, melody strings, and the buzzing or humming sound produced by the wheel as it rubs against the strings. The player can also adjust the tone and volume of the instrument by manipulating the keys and crank speed, and by using techniques like vibrato and glissando.
Variations of the hurdy-gurdy
The hurdy-gurdy has a long and diverse history, and over time, many different types and styles of the instrument have emerged. Here are some of the most notable variations of the hurdy-gurdy:
- Vielle à roue: The vielle à roue, or “wheel fiddle,” is the earliest known variation of the hurdy-gurdy. It was developed in medieval Europe and was a key instrument in the development of polyphonic music. The vielle à roue has a box-shaped body, a wooden wheel that acts as a bow, and typically four strings.
- Dudy: The dudy is a type of hurdy-gurdy that is commonly used in Polish folk music. It has a pear-shaped body, a shorter neck than other hurdy-gurdies, and typically two melody strings and several drone strings.
- Kontra: The kontra is a type of hurdy-gurdy that is used in Hungarian folk music. It has a box-shaped body and typically three melody strings and several drone strings. The kontra is often played in a standing position, with the instrument held in front of the body.
- Bock: The bock is a type of hurdy-gurdy that is commonly used in Bavarian folk music. It has a small, compact body and typically two melody strings and several drone strings. The bock is often played in a sitting position, with the instrument held on the lap.
- Electro-acoustic hurdy-gurdy: Modern variations of the hurdy-gurdy often include electronic components, such as pickups, effects pedals, and amplifiers. These instruments are often used in experimental music and avant-garde compositions.
- Modern variations: Modern luthiers have experimented with different materials, shapes, and designs to create unique variations of the hurdy-gurdy. Some examples include hurdy-gurdies with carbon fiber bodies, electric hurdy-gurdies with MIDI interfaces, and hurdy-gurdies with modular components that can be easily customized and repaired.
- Regional variations: Many different regions and cultures have their own unique variations of the hurdy-gurdy, including the Swedish nyckelharpa, the Moroccan gimbri, and the Indian esraj. These instruments have their own distinct sounds, playing techniques, and musical traditions.
Hurdy Gurdy artists
The hurdy-gurdy is commonly associated with traditional European folk music, particularly in France, Germany, and Scandinavia. However, the instrument has also been used in a variety of other musical genres and styles, including experimental, avant-garde, and world music.
Here are some artists and groups that are known for their use of the hurdy-gurdy:
- Gilles Chabenat – A French hurdy-gurdy player who has performed with a variety of traditional and contemporary musicians.
- Valentin Clastrier – A French hurdy-gurdy player who has pushed the boundaries of the instrument with his innovative playing style and use of electronic effects.
- Stéphane Casalta – A Corsican musician who has incorporated the hurdy-gurdy into his traditional music.
- Efrén López – A Spanish musician who has worked with a variety of instruments from around the world, including the hurdy-gurdy.
- Andrea Capezzuoli – An Italian hurdy-gurdy player who has performed with a variety of traditional and contemporary musicians.
- Wolfstone – A Scottish band that incorporates the hurdy-gurdy into their folk-rock sound.
- Faun – A German band that blends traditional European folk music with elements of rock, metal, and world music, often featuring the hurdy-gurdy prominently in their arrangements.
- Omnia – A Dutch band that combines traditional European folk music with elements of world music and pagan spirituality, often featuring the hurdy-gurdy in their arrangements.
- The Dolmen – A British band that blends traditional Celtic music with elements of rock and world music, often featuring the hurdy-gurdy in their arrangements.
- Duo Berger-Fillion – A Canadian duo that performs traditional French-Canadian music on hurdy-gurdy and guitar.
The hurdy-gurdy has been used in a wide range of musical genres, from medieval and traditional folk music to contemporary experimental and avant-garde compositions. Here are some notable compositions that feature the hurdy-gurdy:
- “La Folia” by Marin Marais: This Baroque-era composition is a set of variations on a popular dance tune, and features a virtuosic hurdy-gurdy solo.
- “Le Bon Truc” by Bruno Le Tron: This traditional French folk tune has been arranged for hurdy-gurdy and is a popular piece among hurdy-gurdy players.
- “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” by Donovan: This psychedelic folk song from the 1960s features a prominent hurdy-gurdy riff and is one of Donovan’s most famous songs.
- “Les Cinq Reins” by Gilles Chabenat: This modern composition for hurdy-gurdy and orchestra features a mix of traditional and contemporary playing techniques and has been performed by many orchestras around the world.
- “In C” by Terry Riley: This minimalist composition for an ensemble of musicians features a repeating series of melodic and rhythmic patterns. The piece has been arranged for hurdy-gurdy and is a popular choice for experimental and improvisational performances.
- “Pentagram” by Stevie Wishart: This contemporary composition for hurdy-gurdy and electronics features a mix of ambient and experimental soundscapes.
- “Arabesque” by Jean-Luc Ponty: This jazz fusion composition features a prominent hurdy-gurdy solo by Gilles Chabenat.
Today, the hurdy-gurdy is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, particularly in experimental and avant-garde music. It has been used in a wide range of genres, including rock, jazz, and electronic music. The craftsmanship and tradition of building and playing the hurdy-gurdy has been passed down through generations of craftsmen and musicians, and remains an important part of many cultural traditions.
Hurdy gurdy playing techniques
Playing the hurdy-gurdy requires a combination of manual dexterity, coordination, and physical strength. Here are some basic techniques used in playing the instrument:
- Holding the instrument: The hurdy-gurdy is typically held between the player’s legs, with the crank handle facing to the right. The left hand is used to press the keys or frets on the neck of the instrument, while the right hand turns the crank to create the bowing motion on the strings.
- Cranking: The crank handle should be turned smoothly and steadily to create a continuous, sustained sound. The speed and pressure of the crank can be varied to produce different tonal effects and dynamics.
- Key pressing: The left hand is used to press the keys or frets on the neck of the instrument. The keys are typically arranged in a chromatic scale, with each key corresponding to a specific note.
- Melody playing: To play a melody, the left hand presses the appropriate keys while the right hand turns the crank to create a bowing motion on the strings. The speed and pressure of the crank can be adjusted to produce different dynamics and phrasing.
- Chord playing: The hurdy-gurdy can also be used to play chords, either by pressing multiple keys simultaneously or by using drones (sympathetic strings that are not stopped by the keys).
- Vibrato and ornaments: Vibrato and ornaments (such as trills and mordents) can be used to add expression and variety to the melody. Vibrato is produced by moving the left hand back and forth while pressing the key, while ornaments are produced by quickly alternating between two or more notes.
- Pedal notes: Pedal notes are sustained tones produced by turning the crank while holding a single key or fret with the left hand. Pedal notes can be used to create a rhythmic pulse or to provide a sustained harmonic foundation for the melody.
- Bowing techniques: The right hand can use different bowing techniques (such as bouncing the bow, using a tremolo, or using a staccato attack) to produce different tonal effects and dynamics.