Replica of a six-stringed hurdy-gurdy showing the keys and the handle.

Replica of a six-stringed hurdy-gurdy showing the keys and the handle.

A 17th-century hurdy-gurdy player in Georges de la Tour's Le Vielleur.

A 17th-century hurdy-gurdy player in Georges de la Tour's Le Vielleur.

Orginally known as an organistrum, the hurdy-gurdy is a mechanical stringed instrument played by turning with the right hand a rosined wheel which serves as a bow, whilst the left operates a small keyboard with a few finger-keys like those of a piano. Two of the strings (one or the other of which is allowed to vibrate at any given moment according to the key of the music) produce the low key-note, so resembling the drone of a bagpipe. Some instruments have sympathetic strings. Music has been provided for this instrument by serious composers, including Haydn.


Although it was built for use in churches and monastery schools to teach music and provide correct intonation for singers, by the end of the 13th century the organistrum had lost its ecclesiastical position to the newly developed portative organ. Known from at least the 10th century, these early instruments, which had three strings, were up to 2 meters (6 feet) long. To play, they were set horizontally across two players' laps. One turned a handle to rotate the wheel that set the strings into vibration, while the other operated the keys that determined the pitch. For singers, the advantage of the organistrum over other conventional stringed instruments was that the stopping mechanism ensured an exact, invariable pitch, while the disadvantage was that only slow playing was possible.



By 1300, the organistrum had become much smaller and was played by one musician. It now had a higher pitch, a range of over an octave, and could be played much faster than before. It became fully established as a minstrel instrument and was played suspended by a strap around the neck, in particular by blind musicians and beggars. Its use as a beggar's instrument continued, for in the 17th century the French were referring to it as an instrument de truand, while those still writing in Latin called it the lyra mendicorum. Its name also changed in England, the name "hurdy-gurdy" first appearing in 1749. In Italy it was known as the lira tedesca, possibly signifying that the instrument had been imported from Germany.


The hurdy-gurdy as a "serious" instrument

In 18th-century France, where it was known as the symphonie (a name that could be applied to almost any instrument that could emit two or more tones simultaneously) or the vielle, the hurdy-gurdy achieved heights not reached elsewhere when it became accepted as a fashionable court instrument during the vogue for fêtes champêtres. The variation favoured by the aristocracy was the bra organizzata, an instrument that had two ranks of organ pipes and bellows housed in its body. There were many French virtuosi of the hurdy-gurdy, and many composers wrote music for it. The most notable of them were Henri Baton (died 1728), who redesigned the virile, and his son Charles (died 1754), who composed a number of suites for it and also wrote a history of the instrument in 1741. As with many other things associated with the aristocracy, the popularity of the hurdy-gurdy in France ended with the Revolution.