A Short History of the Hurdy-Gurdy.

The hurdy-gurdy is a fascinating instrument which dates back to medieval times, but which is today enjoying a popular revival in many countries, particularly France, both as a folk instrument and for the performance of medieval and 18th- century music.

The hurdy-gurdy is a string instrument with a wheel (or circular bow) which sets several melody and drone strings vibrating together. The melody strings are stopped by tangents attached to sliding keys. The familiar and rather derogatory term “hurdy-gurdy”, with its comical overtones, only came into use during the 18th century and suggests that the instrument was not held in very high esteem in England at that time. Confusion was caused by the later use of the name “hurdy-gurdy” for the barrel organs and street pianos of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Other countries have bestowed more beautiful and dignified names on the instrument. The French call it “ la vielle roue” (wheel fiddle) or simply “ vielle” , while in Italy it is the “ghironda” or “lira tedesca”.

During the 12 and 13th centuries, the hurdy-gurdy is described as either an organistrum or a symphonia. It was usually figure of eight shaped, and was obviously a modification of the bowed instruments of the period. These names suggest that the music played on the instrument was polyphonic, either with a constant drone or with a melody strengthened by parallel organum at the 5th.


The organistrum appears first in Spain about 1150 in stone carvings on the portals of the cathedrals of Soria and Santiago de Compostela. It was a large, bass-sounding instrument, made for two players, one of whom turned the handle while the other used both hands to operate the keys.


This type of instrument, which would have been suitable for slow and fairly fast-moving melodies, appeared also in England and France, but disappeared in the 13th century and was replaced by smaller instruments, which were played by one musician.  

During the period between the 14th and 16th centuries, music underwent great changes. With the growth and development of harmony with its vertical chord sequences, the inflexible hurdy-gurdy with its constant drone found itself obsolete, and it had no place in the art music of the renaissance.


Although it seems that professional musicians at that time did not use the hurdy-gurdy, clearly it never ceased to enjoy great popularity among folk musicians and peasants. It is often shown in pictures together with bagpipes, an instrument often associated with shepherds. Thus it became one of the fashionable instruments taken up by the aristocracy at the courts of Louis XIV and XV during the vogue for pastoral entertainments.


During the 17th and the first half of the 18th centuries, the hurdy-gurdy underwent refinements and improvements and its compass was increased to two octaves. An enormous amount of music was written and several tutors were published.

 After the French revolution, the vielle in France again retired to the relative obscurity of the countryside where the brilliant style of playing which was developed in the 18th century has been carried on in an unbroken tradition to this day.

With thanks to Doreen and Michael Muskett for this extract from the excellent “Method for the Vielle”.

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