Definitions

hurdy gurdyist

Hurdy gurdy

[hur-dee-gur-dee, -gur-]
A hurdy gurdy (also known as a wheel fiddle) is a stringed musical instrument in which the strings are sounded by means of a rosined wheel which the strings of the instrument pass over. This wheel, turned with a crank, functions much like a violin bow, making the instrument essentially a mechanical violin. Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangents (small wedges, usually made of wood) against one or more of these strings to change their pitch. Like most other acoustic string instruments, it has a soundboard to make the vibration of the strings audible.

Most hurdy gurdies have multiple "drone strings" which provide a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes. For this reason, the hurdy gurdy is often used interchangeably with or along with bagpipes, particularly in French and contemporary Hungarian folk music. Many folk music festivals in Europe feature music groups with hurdy gurdy players, but the most famous annual festival is at Saint-Chartier, in the Indre département, in central France, during the week nearest July 14 (Bastille Day).

Origins and history

The hurdy gurdy is thought to have originated in either Western Europe or the Middle East some time prior to the eleventh century A.D. One of the earliest forms of the hurdy gurdy was the organistrum, a large instrument with a guitar-shaped body and a long neck in which the keys were set (covering one diatonic octave). The organistrum had a single melody string and two drone strings which ran over a common bridge and a relatively small wheel. Due to its size, the organistrum was played by two people, one of whom turned the crank while the other pulled the keys upward. Pulling keys upward is a cumbersome playing technique, and as a result only slow tunes could be played on the organistrum. The pitches on the organistrum were set according to Pythagorean temperament and the instrument was primarily used in monastic and church settings to accompany choral music. The abbot Odo of Cluny (died 942) is supposed to have written a short description of the construction of the organistrum entitled Quomodo organistrum construatur (How the Organistrum Is Made), known through a much-later copy, but its authenticity is very doubtful. Another 10th century treatise thought to have mentioned an instrument similar to the hurdy gurdy is an Arabic musical compendium written by Al Zirikli. One of the earliest visual depictions of the organistrum is from the twelfth-century ´Pórtico de la Gloria (Portal of Glory) on the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, which includes a carving of two musicians playing an organistrum.

Later on the organistrum was reduced in size to allow a single player to both turn the crank and manipulate the keys. The solo organistrum was known from Spain and France, but was largely replaced by the symphonia, a small box-shaped version of the hurdy gurdy with three strings and a diatonic keyboard. At about the same time as the symphonia was developed, a new form of key pressed from beneath were developed. These keys were much more practical in faster music and easier to handle and eventually completely replaced keys pulled up from above. Medieval depictions of the symphonia show both types of keys.

During the Renaissance, the hurdy gurdy was a very popular instrument, along with the bagpipe, and a characteristic form with a short neck and a boxy body with a curved tail end developed. It was about this time that buzzing bridges first appear in depictions of the instrument. The buzzing bridge (commonly called the dog) is an asymmetrical bridge that rests under a drone string on the sound board. When the wheel is accelerated, one foot of the bridge lifts up from the soundboard and vibrates, creating a buzzing sound. The buzzing bridge is thought to have been borrowed from the tromba marina(monochord), a bowed string instrument.

During the late Renaissance, two characteristic shapes of hurdy gurdies developed. The first was guitar-shaped and the second had a rounded lute-type body made of staves. The lute body is especially characteristic of French instruments.

By the end of the 17th century changing musical tastes that demanded greater polyphonic capabilities than the hurdy gurdy could offer had pushed the instrument to the lowest social classes; as a result it acquired names like the German Bauernleier ‘peasant’s lyre’ and Bettlerleier ‘beggar’s lyre.’ During the 18th century, however, French Rococo tastes for rustic diversions brought the hurdy gurdy back to the attention of the upper classes, where it acquired tremendous popularity among the nobility, with famous composers writing works for the hurdy gurdy (the most famous of which is Nicolas Chédeville’s Il pastor Fido, attributed to Vivaldi). At this time the most common style of hurdy gurdy developed, the six-string vielle à roue. This instrument has two melody strings and four drones tuned such that by turning drones on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys (e.g., C and G or G and D).

During this time the hurdy gurdy also spread further east, where further variations developed in western Slavic countries, German-speaking areas and Hungary (see the list of types below for more information on these). Most types of hurdy gurdy were essentially extinct by the early twentieth century, but a few sorts have survived to the present day, the best-known of which are the French vielle à roue, the Hungarian tekerőlant, and the Spanish zanfona. In Ukraine, a variety called the lira was widely used by blind street musicians, most of whom were purged by Stalin in the 1930s. Revivals have been underway for many years in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Italy, and Portugal. The revival of hurdy gurdies has resulted in the instrument’s use in a variety of styles of music (see the list of recordings that use hurdy gurdy), including contemporary forms not typically associated with the hurdy gurdy.

The hurdy-gurdy appears to tbe the instrument played by Der Leiermann, the melancholy last song of Schubert's Winterreise

The hurdy gurdy is featured and played prominantly in the film Captains Courageous (1937) as the instrument belonging to the character Manuel, acted by Spencer Tracy.

Other instruments called hurdy gurdies

In the eighteenth century the term hurdy gurdy was also applied to a small, portable "barrel organ" (a cranked box instrument with a number of organ pipes, a bellows and a barrel with pins that rotated and programmed the tunes) that was frequently played by poor buskers (street musicians). Barrel organs require only the turning of the crank, and the music is played automatically by pinned barrels, perforated paper rolls, and more recently by electronic modules.

This confusion over what the name hurdy gurdy means is particular to English, although similar confusion over other terms for the instrument occurs in German and Hungarian due to unfamiliarity with the hurdy gurdy. The French call the barrel organ the Orgue de Barbarie ("Barbary organ"), and the Germans Drehorgel ("turned organ"), instead of Drehleier ("turning lyre").

The hurdy gurdy in Eastern Europe

The hurdy-gurdy has a well developed tradition in Eastern Europe, in particular in Hungary, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. In Ukraine it is known as the lira or relia was played by professional, often blind, itinerant musicians known as lirnyky. Their repertoire was primarily para-religious in theme, although it included many historic epics known as Dumy and folk dances. In the 1930s this tradition was almost eradicated by the Soviet authorities when some 250-300 lirnyky were executed as a socially undesirable element in Soviet society. Today the instrument is undergoing a revival and is also being used in various ethnographic ensembles.

Terminology

A person who plays the hurdy gurdy is called a hurdy gurdyist, hurdy gurdy player, or (particularly for players of French instruments) viellist.

Due to the prominence of the French tradition, many instrument and performance terms used in English are commonly taken from the French, and players generally need to know these terms to read relevant literature. Such common terms include the following:

  • trompette: the highest-pitched drone string that features the buzzing bridge
  • mouche: the drone string pitched a fourth or fifth below the trompette
  • petit bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the trompette
  • gros bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the mouche
  • chanterelle(s): melody string(s), also called chanters or chanter strings in English
  • chien: (literally "dog"), the buzzing bridge
  • tirant: a small peg set in the instrument’s tailpiece that is used to control the sensitivity of the buzzing bridge

Names of the instrument

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the term hurdy gurdy is onomatopoetic in origin, after the repetitive warble in pitch that characterizes instruments with solid wooden wheels that have warped due to changes in humidity or after the sound of the buzzing-bridge.

Some have suggested other origins for the term, including the following folk etymology:

hurdy = a person's backside + gurdy = a reel with a crank, used to reel in fishing nets on a boat. This pejorative name was applied to the French instrument in England, during the eighteenth century.
(There are a number of problems with this putative etymology. Among them are (1) hurdy is not known as an English term, and (2) the term for the crank (hurdy gurdy, not gurdy) was first recorded in 1883, based on the term for the instrument.)

An alternative folk etymology suggests that the term comes from an anglicized form of the French harpe de gourde.

The instrument is sometimes more descriptively called a wheel fiddle in English, but this term is not in general use among players of the instrument. The Hungarian name tekerőlant and the alternate forgólant both mean "turning lute." An alternate German name, Bauernleier, means "peasant's lyre". (Leier, lant, and related terms today are generally used to refer to members of the lute or lyre family, but historically had a broader range of meaning and were used for many types of stringed instruments.)

Another Hungarian name for the instrument is nyenyere, which is thought to be an onomatopoeic reference to the repetitive warble produced by a wheel that is not even. Note that this term was considered derogatory in the Hungarian lowlands, but was the normal term for the instrument on Csepel island directly south of Budapest.

Design

There is no standardized design for the hurdy gurdy today, although the six-stringed French vielle a roue is the best known and most common sort. A number of regional forms developed, but outside of France the instrument was considered a folk instrument and there were no schools of construction that could have determined a standard form.

There are two primary body styles for contemporary instruments: guitar-bodied and lute-backed. Both forms are found in French-speaking areas, while guitar-bodied instruments are the general form elsewhere. The box form of the simphonia is also commonly found among players of early music and historical reenactors.

Strings

Historically, strings were made of gut, which is still a preferred material today, but metal strings have become common in the twentieth century, especially for the heavier drone strings or for lower melody strings if octave tuning is used. Nylon is also used, but is frowned upon by many players.

The drone strings produce steady sounds at fixed pitches. The melody string(s) (French chanterelle(s), Hungarian dallamhúr(ok)) are stopped with tangents attached to keys that change the vibration length of the string, much as a guitarist uses his or her fingers on the fretboard of a guitar. In the earliest hurdy gurdies these keys were arranged to provide a Pythagorean temperament, but in later instruments the tunings have varied widely, with equal temperament most common in order to allow for easier blending with other instruments. However, because the tangents can be adjusted to tune individual notes, it is possible to tune hurdy gurdies to almost any temperament as needed. Most contemporary hurdy gurdies have 24 keys that cover a range of two chromatic octaves.

In order to achieve proper intonation and sound quality, each string of a hurdy gurdy must be wrapped with cotton or similar fibers. The cotton on melody strings tends to be quite light, while drone strings have heavier cotton. Improper cottoning results in a raspy tone, especially at higher pitches. In addition, individual strings (in particular the melody strings) often have to have their height above the wheel surface adjusted by having small pieces of paper placed between the strings and the bridge, a process called shimming. Shimming and cottoning are connected processes since either one can affect the geometry of the instrument’s strings.

Buzzing bridge

In some types of hurdy gurdy, notably the French vielle à roue ('fiddle with a wheel') and the Hungarian tekerőlant (tekerő for short) have added a buzzing bridge, chien (French for dog) or recsegő (Hungarian for buzzer) on one drone string; modern makers have increased the number of buzzing bridges on French-style instruments to as many as four. This mechanism consists of a loose bridge under a drone string. The tail of this buzzing bridge is inserted into a narrow vertical slot (or held by a peg in Hungarian instruments) that holds the buzzing bridge in place (and also serves as a bridge for additional drone strings on some instruments). The free end of the dog (called the hammer) rests on the soundboard of the hurdy gurdy and is more or less free to vibrate. When the wheel is turned slowly the pressure on the string (called the trompette on French instruments) holds the bridge in place, sounding a drone. When the crank is accelerated, the hammer lifts up and vibrates against the soundboard, producing a characteristic rhythmic buzz that is used as an articulation or to provide percussive effect, especially in dance pieces.

On French-style instruments, the sensitivity of the buzzing bridge can be altered by turning a peg called a tirant in the tailpiece of the instrument that is connected by a wire or thread to the trompette. The tirant adjusts the lateral pressure on the trompette and thereby sets the sensitivity of the buzzing bridge to changes in wheel velocity. There are various stylistic techniques that are used as the player turns the crank, speeding up the wheel at various points in its revolution. Each sped-up "hit" produces a distinct buzzing sound. These hits are under the control of the player, and are not automatic, having to be put in with each complete turn of the wheel.

On the Hungarian tekerő the same control is achieved by using a wedge called the recsegőék (control wedge (literally "buzzer wedge") that pushes the drone string downward. In traditional tekerő playing, the buzzing bridge is controlled entirely by the wrist of the player and has a very different sound and rhythmic possibilities from those available on French instruments.

Comparison of French and Hungarian buzzing bridges

Regional types

Regional types of hurdy gurdies since the Renaissance can also be classified based on wheel size and the presence or absence (and type) of a buzzing bridge.

Small wheel

Small-wheeled (wheel diameter less than 14 cm, or about 5.5 inches) instruments are traditionally found in Central and Eastern Europe. They feature a broad keybox and the drone strings run within the keybox. Because of the small size of the wheel these instruments most commonly have three strings: one melody string, one tenor drone and one bass drone. They sometimes have up to five strings.

  • String-adjusted buzzing bridge
    • German pear-shaped Drehleier. Two to three drone strings and one or two chromatic melody strings. Characteristic V-shaped pegbox. Often extensively decorated. The type of buzzing bridge found on this instrument usually has the adjustment peg set in a block next to the string, rather than in the tailpiece (as is typical of French instruments).
  • Wedge-adjusted buzzing bridge
    • tekerőlant (Hungarian). Usually two drones (sometimes three) + one or two chromatic melody strings. The broad keybox is often carved or decorated extensively.
    • Tyrolian Drehleier (Austria). Very similar to the tekerőlant, but usually has a diatonic keyboard. May be the historical source for the tekerő.
  • No buzzing bridge
    • lira korbowa (Poland). Guitar-shaped. Two drones + one diatonic melody string.
    • lira/лира (Russia). Guitar-shaped. Two drones + one diatonic melody string. Evenly-spaced keyboard.
    • lira/ліра (Ukraine). Guitar-shaped. Two drones + one diatonic melody string. Two body types: carved from a single piece of wood and guitar-shaped with transverse pegs and mult-piece construction with vertical pegs. Evenly spaced keyboard.
    • ninera/kolovratec (Slovakia). Guitar-shaped. Two drones + one diatonic melody string. Broad keybox. Superficially similar to the tekerő, but lacks the buzzing bridge.
    • grodalira/vevlira (Sweden). Revived in the twentieth century based on historical examples. Two body forms: an elongated boxy shape and a long pear shape. Usually diatonic, but has been extended with a chromatic range with the additional keys placed below the normal diatonic range (the opposite of most chromatic hurdy gurdy keyboards)
    • German tulip-shaped Drehleier. Three drones + one diatonic melody string

Large wheel

Large-wheeled instruments (wheel diameters between 14 and 17 cm, or about 5.5 - 6.6 inches) traditionally are found in Western Europe. These instruments generally have a narrow keybox with drone strings that run outside of the keybox. They also generally have more strings and doubling or tripling of the melody string is common. Some modern instruments have as many as fifteen strings played by the wheel, although the most common number is six.

  • String-adjusted buzzing bridge
    • vielle à roue (French). Usually four drones + two melody strings, but often extended to have more strings. Two body forms: guitar-bodied and lute-backed (vielle en luth). French instruments generally have a narrow key box with drone strings that run on the outside of the key box. Traditional French instruments have two melody strings and four drone strings with one buzzing bridge. Contemporary instruments often have more: the instrument of well-known player Gilles Chabenat has four melody strings fixed to a viola tailpiece, and four drone strings on a cello tailpiece. This instrument also has 3 trompette strings.
    • Niněra (Czech). Guitar-shaped. Two forms: one has a standard drone-melody arrangement, while the other runs the drone strings between the melody strings in the keybox. Both diatonic and chromatic forms are found. Other mechanisms for adjusting the amount of "Buzz" on the trompette string.
  • No buzzing bridge
    • Zanfona (Spain). Typically guitar-shaped body, with three melody strings, and two drone strings. Some older examples had a diatonic keyboard, and most modern models have a chromatic keyboard. Zanfonas are tuned to the key of C major, the melody strings are in a unison on the middle-C on the piano. The drones are a baritone C (1 octave lower) and a bass drone C (2 octaves lower). The drones can be wound up to a higher tension to tune to D, while the melody strings remain the same. This allows for both minor and major lead tones (C and C sharp) to be played below the D keynote on the melody strings.
    • niněra (Czech). Guitar-shaped. Two forms: one has a standard drone-melody arrangement, while the other runs the drone strings between the melody strings in the keybox. Both diatonic and chromatic forms are found.

See also

Notes

External links

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