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Hurdy Gurdy

Updated on February 5, 2012

Hurdy-gurdy, musical instrument, bowed with a rosined, wooden wheel. Originally, like the 10th century organisrrum, a two-man instrument, one turning the wheel and the other operating the keys which stopped the strings. It was improved by the 13th century so that it could be played by one man. By the 16th century there were four or six strings in all, but only the treble ones, called the 'chanterelles', were reached by the movable keys, by means of which it was possible to play a melody.

The other strings were tun ed as drones and all the strings made to vibrate simultaneously by the friction of the wheel. The hurdy-gurdy was known in France as the vielle-a-roue. Tuned to the chords of C or G major, it could support the singing voice or make music by itself.

In course of time it acquired a reputation for rusticity, and was much used by blind beggars since 11 was easy to find the correct keys by touch. Its only place in society was at the French court, where its use continued in the 18th century. Methods existed for its study, and sonatas for one or two hurdy-gurdies were composed by Lully and Clther composers, while the popularity of mock rusticity at the court of Versailles in the time of Marie Antoinette gave rise to the iete champetre orchestra, which included the hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes, flutes, recorders and oboes.

Lavishly ornamented and jeweled instruments were made, some of which are to be seen today in museums. The vielle-a-roue continued to appear intermittently during the 19th century; thus it was employed in Donizetti's opera Linda di Chamounix , 1842, to give local colour to two arias. It st ill survives as a folk instrument.


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      Fiddleman 5 years ago

      I met a man who lives her in WNC who makes these instruments and has one which he made in a museum. Interesting instrument.