Think of using a crank and some strings to produce music.
If that sounds unusual, rest assured that it’s possible. The instrument we’re about to present you is nothing like the ordinary musical mechanisms you’re used to seeing.
The hurdy-gurdy is a unique instrument—not only in its appearance but because of its interesting history.
For those who don’t know, the original hurdy-gurdies were mechanical, hand-cranked medieval instruments. They were enormous in the past—so much so that two people had to play it at the same time!
Allow us to first clarify that a hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument.
There is a small crank on the bottom of it and you’re supposed to turn it manually. When that’s done, a rosined wheel inside rubs against the strings, and you get a sound that’s very similar to a violin. The melodies are played on a keyboard on the side of the instrument, and the keys are made out of wood. Each one rubs against one or more strings to change pitch.
Most hurdy-gurdies have three strings, but there are some variations with four or five strings.
In all, the instrument has got 80 moving parts, and like most other acoustic stringed instruments, it has a soundboard and a hollow cavity to make the vibration of the strings audible. This interesting musical creation was first mentioned in the 10th century as the organistrum.
Then it was a church instrument in Medieval Europe, played by two men at a time.
One played the keys and the other turned the wheel. That’s how big the organistrum was!
Some call it a form of medieval rock’n’roll.
Traveling musicians in England realized that some modifications could be done to reduce the size of the instrument.
When it was done, the hurdy-gurdy became portable and in the later 17th-18th centuries, it was more a noble class musical instrument for the amusement of the rich.
It was fashionable during the reign of Louis XIV, and it was played into the 20th century by folk and street musicians in France and Eastern Europe.
Note that Joseph Haydn composed a group of concerti and nocturnes for a variety of hurdy-gurdies that had organ pipes attached to them. The instrument was widely used and very popular.
Though it’s thousands of years old, it can still sound new and hip in the hands of the right musician!
If you’re having any doubts about it, listen to Andrey Vinogradov playing his track “Aequilibrium” on the hurdy-gurdy.
It sounds amazing—like a flute, a violin, and bagpipes all at once! The sound is powerful, sharp and somewhat melancholic. Vinogradov is doing an amazing job with the hurdy-gurdy, and it doesn’t come as a surprise. This Russian musician experimented a lot with turning Russian traditional folklore into contemporary acts, and his latest album Distant Calls came out in 2020. For more information, check out the official website.
Even so, it’s an instrument with many names.
Spaniards know it as “viola de road, and “zanfona.” It’s “drehleier” in Germany, the “lira” in Belarus, the “ninera” in Moravia, the “forgolant” in Hungary, the “ghironda” in Italy and the “relia” in Ukraine. It’s an instrument that takes a lot of dedication and practice, and we must say that it sounds hauntingly beautiful. We would love to hear a hurdy-gurdy concert!
Check out the full performance in the link below:
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Source: YouTube/Andrey Vinogradov