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HURDY-GURDY (Fr. vielle à manivelle, symphonie or chyfonie à roue; Ger. Bauernleier, Deutscheleier, Bettlerleier, Radleier; Ital. lira tedesca, lira rustica, lira pagana), now loosely used as a synonym for any grinding organ, but strictly a medieval drone instrument with strings set in vibration by the friction of a wheel, being a development of the organistrum (q.v.) reduced in size so that it could be conveniently played by one person instead of two. It consisted of a box or soundchest, sometimes rectangular, but more generally having the outline of the guitar; inside it had a wheel, covered with leather and rosined, and worked by means of a crank at the tail end of the instrument. On the fingerboard were placed movable frets or keys, which, on being depressed, stopped the strings, at points corresponding to the diatonic intervals of the scale. At first there were 4 strings, later 6. In the organistrum three strings, acted on simultaneously by the keys, produced the rude harmony known as organum. When this passed out of favour, superseded by the first beginnings of polyphony over a pedal bass, the organistrum gave place to the hurdy-gurdy. Instead of acting on all the strings, the keys now affected the first string only, or “chanterelle,” though in some cases certain keys, made longer, also reached the third string or “trompette”; the result was that a diatonic melody could be played on the chanterelles. The other open strings always sounded simultaneously as long as the wheel was turned, like drones on the bag-pipe.

The hurdy-gurdy originated in France at the time when the Paris School or Old French School was laying the foundations of counterpoint and polyphony. During the 13th and 14th centuries it was known by the name of Symphonia or Chyfonie, and in Germany Lira or Leyer. Its popularity remained undiminished in France until late in the 18th century. Although the hurdy-gurdy never obtained recognition among serious musicians in Germany, the idea embodied in the mechanism stimulated ingenuity, the result being such musical curiosities as the Geigenwerk or Geigen-Clavicymbel of Hans Hayden of Nuremberg (c. 1600), a harpsichord in which the strings, instead of being plucked by quills, were set in vibration by friction of one of the little steel wheels, covered with parchment and well rosined, which were kept rotating by means of a large wheel and a series of cylinders worked by treadles. Other instruments of similar type were the Bogenclavier invented by Joh. Hohlfeld of Berlin in 1751 and the Bogenflügel by C. A. Meyer of Görlitz in 1794. In Adam Walker's Celestina (1772) the friction was provided by a running band instead of a bow. (K. S.)