The hurdy-gurdy is a squat, pear-shaped fiddle played with strings rather than using a bow and using a wooden wheel turned by a handle at the instrument’s end to produce sound. Short wooden keys, pressing them with the fingers of the left-hand, are used to make notes on the one or two melody strings. There are up to four unstoppable strings, called bourdons, that can produce drones.
In the 10th century, the hurdy-gurdy was first mentioned as an instrument known as the organistrum. A church instrument of that time, it was played by two men, one fingering the keys while the other turned the wheel. It was in the 13th century when the first secular, one-man forms, called symphonies, appeared. From the reign of Louis XIV onwards it was known as the vielle à roue (“wheel fiddle”) and until the early 20th century it was often used by street musicians and folk musicians, notably in France and eastern Europe. The Swedish Nyckelharpa is a fiddle similar to a fiddle but it is played with a bow rather than keys.
A group of concerti and nocturnes composed by Joseph Haydn were composed for the lira organization, a variety of hurdy-gurdy that has several organ pipes attached to it. A hurdy-gurdy can be mistaken for other handle-operated street instruments, such as a barrel organ or a barrel piano, which are sometimes mistakenly called hurdy-gurdy.
The Tuning, structure, and playing techniques of the hurdy-gurdy:
Generally, a hurdy-gurdy consists of three basic structural elements: melody strings, drone strings, and a pear-shaped wood wheel covered with resin. tangents (small wedges typically made of wood and arranged in two or three rows, see below right) are pressed against one or more strings to change their vibrating length, and therefore pitch. Today, the strings are usually made of gut, but in the twentieth century, metal strings became popular, especially for heavier strings. It softens the sound and helps the drone strings “speak.” The melody strings pass through the keybox, where they are touched by the tangents, over the wheel and over a bridge that joins the wheel to the tailpiece, and are attached there.
A melody is played with the four fingers of the left hand (the thumb is not used), lightly but firmly touching the keys in a manner similar to playing the piano or accordion. There are no set rules saying that a particular finger must be used for a particular key. It is important to remember that fingering depends on the type of music being played, its tempo, and the succession of notes. In general, it is best to simply use the fingers that are most comfortable when playing a specific piece of music.
Hurdy-gurdy playing requires considerable skill. In order to allow the keys to fall back under their own weight, the instrument is hung around the neck or strapped to the body at an angle. Most solo instrumental works do not use more than three drone strings, four drones being too overwhelming. Normally only one chanterelle as well as fewer drones are used for song accompaniment, giving a softer, sweeter sound that blends easily with the human voice. There are many medieval and Renaissance compositions that have only one drone or none at all, depending on the style and taste of the player. To rotate the wheel, you use your right hand. Trampette drones and their buzzing bridge allow for clearly articulated percussive rhythms, which are especially beneficial for dance music to emphasize its particular rhythm.
It is not an easy instrument to master (many of the musicians who play more than one instrument believe it is one of the most difficult), and some even seem to be obsessed with it. In addition to being ideal for traditional folk music, it can also be incredibly beautiful when played well. Trampette-string produces a rhythmic sound when the handle is correctly turned.