Originally published on Open Culture | December 19th, 2018
Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” may be the creepiest song ever written about an obscure medieval instrument (made all the more so by its use in David Fincher’s Zodiac), but the Hurdy Gurdy did not give his recording its ominous sound. Those droning notes come from an Indian tanpura. Yet they evoke the title instrument, an ingenious musical invention “set up primarily for the purpose of making drones,” Case Western Reserve’s College of Art and Sciences explains. “In the Middle Ages, it was known in Latin as the organistrum and the symphonia, and in French as the vielle à roue (the vielle with the wheel).”
With a sound produced by a “rosined wooden wheel, turned by a crank” that set “a number of strings in continuous droning vibration,” the hurdy gurdy can, it’s true, give off a bit of a folk horror vibe. From its very early, maybe 10th or 11th century origins in liturgical music, hurdy gurdy expert Jim Kendros tells us in the video above, the instrument became associated with European folk music, shrinking from a beast played by two people to more portable dimensions, about the size of a large guitar and resembling a hand-cranked violin with keys for playing melodies on certain strings.
Though it grew smaller and more maneuverable, however, the instrument grew no less complicated. Kendros calls it “the equivalent of a medieval spaceship,” with its more than 80 moving parts.
The hurdy gurdy, or “wheel fiddle,” played in the TED Talk above by Caroline Phillips looks less like a fiddle, or a spaceship, and more like a medieval keytar—just one of the many shapes the instrument could take. All of them, however, had one important feature in common: the hurdy gurdy is “the only musical instrument that uses a crank to turn a wheel to rub strings like the bow of a violin to produce music.” Historically, it was used in medieval dance music “because of the uniqueness of the melody combined with the acoustic boom box” of its large body. Try not to shake your body, or to shiver, when Phillips plays a haunting, droning Basque folk song.
The Hurdy Gurdy spread all over Europe, from Britain to France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Sweden, where stringed-instrument enthusiasts The Stringdom caught up with virtuoso Hurdy Gurdy player Johannes Geworkian Hellman. He tells us how the hurdy gurdy and its droning sonic cousin, the bagpipes, set off “an early folk revival” as composers took inspiration from peasant music. The interest from medieval upper classes meant better luthiers and higher-quality hurdy gurdies. Now modern interest in the Hurdy Gurdy is growing. While it may take two to three years to handcraft one, “a lot of new instruments are getting made,” says Hellman.
Should you doubt that the 1000-year old hurdy gurdy can still sound hip, listen to Hellman play an electrified version in his hurdy gurdy/accordion duo, Symbio, or hurdy gurdy/dulcimer two-piece, Maija & Johannes. He coaxes from the instrument such a range of rhythms and timbres that it’s easy to see why it was so immensely popular for so long. Yet for all its musical appeal, it is a complex machine, difficult to tune and subject to any number of mechanical problems. Not for the casual amateur, the instrument still requires a dedicated Hurdy Gurdy man or woman to make it sing—a much more common sight than in Donovan’s day but an exceedingly rare one compared to the many centuries of the hurdy gurdy’s heyday. See more hurdy gurdies at the Vintage News.