hurdy gurdy

Hurdy Gurdy players – Symphonia de Cantiga 160, Cantigas de Sta. María de Alfonso X El Sabio, Códice de El Escorial. (1221-1284)

Video: Scottish Medieval (Hurdy Gurdy / Drehleier & Tabla) – by Short Tailed Snails

Hurdy Gurdy

The Hurdy Gurdy, known in France as the Vielle a roue or vielle for short, is an ancient instrument which is undergoing a modern renaissance in Europe and America. First, to dispel a popular misconception: the hurdy gurdy was not played by the organ grinder or his monkey. They used a large music box operated by a crank. Today’s hurdy gurdy is roughly the same as those built in the Middle Ages. It has three to six strings which are caused to vibrate by a resined wheel turned by a crank. Melody notes are produced on one string, or two tuned in unison, by pressing keys which stop the string at the proper intervals for the scale. The other strings play a drone note. Some instruments have a “dog”, “trompette” or “buzzing bridge”. A string passes over a moveable bridge, which by a clever movement of the crank in the open hand, can produce a rasping rhythm to accompany the tune by causing the bridge to hammer on the sound board. The instrument is held in the lap with a strap to hold it steady. The case can be square, lute back, or flat back with a guitar or fiddle shape. Forms of the vielle a roue existed not only in France, but in Germany, Italy, Britain, Russia, Spain and Hungary.
An interesting related instrument is the Swedish nyckelharpa which was developed around the XVI century. It has keys and is played with a short bow. It is enjoying a revival of interest and new custom made instruments are now available. The origins of the hurdy gurdy are unknown but one theory says that when the Moors invaded Spain they brought with them many stringed and bowed instruments. There is no proof that the vielle a roue was one of them, but the possibility exists that something similar arrived in Spain at that time and dispersed throughout Europe along the pilgrim’s roads.

Collected notes by Graham Whyte


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