Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Hurdy Gurdy

That's Melissa Kacalanosplaying her hurdy-gurdy November 14, 2006 on Canal Street
Looks like something Neal Hellman can play
The hurdy gurdy (also known as a wheel fiddle) is a stringed musical instrument in which the strings are sounded by means of a rosined wheel which the strings of the instrument pass over. This wheel, turned with a crank, functions much like a violin bow, making the instrument essentially a mechanical violin. Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangents (small wedges, usually made of wood) against one or more of these strings to change their pitch. Like most other acoustic string instruments, it has a soundboard to make the vibration of the strings audible.
Most hurdy gurdies have multiple "drone strings" which provide a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes. For this reason, the hurdy gurdy is often used interchangeably with or along with bagpipes, particularly in French and contemporary Hungarian folk music.
Many folk music festivals in Europe feature music groups with hurdy gurdy players, but the most famous annual festival is at Saint-Chartier, in the Indre département, in central France, during the week nearest July 14 (Bastille Day).
The hurdy gurdy is thought to have originated from fiddles in either Europe (e.g. the Byzantine lira) or the Middle East (e.g. rebab) some time prior to the eleventh century A.D.[1] The first recorded reference to fiddles in Europe was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911) describing the lira (lūrā) as a typical instrument within the Byzantine Empire.[2] One of the earliest forms of the hurdy gurdy was the organistrum, a large instrument with a guitar-shaped body and a long neck in which the keys were set (covering one diatonic octave). The organistrum had a single melody string and two drone strings which ran over a common bridge and a relatively small wheel. Due to its size, the organistrum was played by two people, one of whom turned the crank while the other pulled the keys upward. Pulling keys upward is a cumbersome playing technique, and as a result only slow tunes could be played on the organistrum.[3] The pitches on the organistrum were set according to Pythagorean temperament and the instrument was primarily used in monastic and church settings to accompany choral music. The abbot Odo of Cluny (died 942) is supposed to have written a short description of the construction of the organistrum entitled Quomodo organistrum construatur (How the Organistrum Is Made),[4][5] known through a much-later copy, but its authenticity is very doubtful. Another 10th century treatise thought to have mentioned an instrument similar to the hurdy gurdy is an Arabic musical compendium written by Al Zirikli.[1] One of the earliest visual depictions of the organistrum is from the twelfth-century ´Pórtico de la Gloria (Portal of Glory) on the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain, which includes a carving of two musicians playing an organistrum.
Later on the organistrum was reduced in size to allow a single player to both turn the crank and manipulate the keys. The solo organistrum was known from Spain and France, but was largely replaced by the symphonia, a small box-shaped version of the hurdy gurdy with three strings and a diatonic keyboard. At about the same time as the symphonia was developed, a new form of key pressed from beneath were developed. These keys were much more practical in faster music and easier to handle and eventually completely replaced keys pulled up from above. Medieval depictions of the symphonia show both types of keys.
During the Renaissance, the hurdy gurdy was a very popular instrument, along with the bagpipe, and a characteristic form with a short neck and a boxy body with a curved tail end developed. It was about this time that buzzing bridges first appear in depictions of the instrument. The buzzing bridge (commonly called the dog) is an asymmetrical bridge that rests under a drone string on the sound board. When the wheel is accelerated, one foot of the bridge lifts up from the soundboard and vibrates, creating a buzzing sound. The buzzing bridge is thought to have been borrowed from the tromba marina (monochord), a bowed string instrument.

During the late Renaissance, two characteristic shapes of hurdy gurdies developed. The first was guitar-shaped and the second had a rounded lute-type body made of staves. The lute body is especially characteristic of French instruments.
Detail of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, showing the first known depiction of a buzzing bridge on a hurdy gurdy

By the end of the 17th century changing musical tastes that demanded greater polyphonic capabilities than the hurdy gurdy could offer had pushed the instrument to the lowest social classes; as a result it acquired names like the German Bauernleier ‘peasant’s lyre’ and Bettlerleier ‘beggar’s lyre.’ During the 18th century, however, French Rococo tastes for rustic diversions brought the hurdy gurdy back to the attention of the upper classes, where it acquired tremendous popularity among the nobility, with famous composers writing works for the hurdy gurdy (the most famous of which is Nicolas Chédeville’s Il pastor Fido, attributed to Vivaldi). At this time the most common style of hurdy gurdy developed, the six-string vielle à roue. This instrument has two melody strings and four drones tuned such that by turning drones on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys (e.g., C and G or G and D).
During this time the hurdy gurdy also spread further east, where further variations developed in western Slavic countries, German-speaking areas and Hungary (see the list of types below for more information on these). Most types of hurdy gurdy were essentially extinct by the early twentieth century, but a few sorts have survived to the present day, the best-known of which are the French vielle à roue, the Hungarian tekerőlant, and the Spanish zanfona. In Ukraine, a variety called the lira was widely used by blind street musicians, most of whom were purged by Stalin in the 1930s. Revivals have been underway for many years in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Italy, and Portugal. The revival of hurdy gurdies has resulted in the instrument’s use in a variety of styles of music (see the list of recordings that use hurdy gurdy), including contemporary forms not typically associated with the hurdy gurdy.
The hurdy gurdy is featured and played prominently in the film Captains Courageous (1937) as the instrument belonging to the character Manuel, acted by Spencer Tracy.
The instrument came into a new public consciousness when Donovan released his hit rock song, "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in 1968. Although the song didn't feature an actual hurdy gurdy in the mix (but did feature three members of the later rock group Led Zeppelin), the repeated reference to the Hurdy Gurdy in the song's lyrics sparked a new curiosity and interest about the instrument by the youth at the time, eventually resulting in an annual hurdy gurdy music festival in the Olympic Peninsula area of the state of Washington each September.
In the eighteenth century the term hurdy gurdy was also applied to a small, portable "barrel organ" (a cranked box instrument with a number of organ pipes, a bellows and a barrel with pins that rotated and programmed the tunes) that was frequently played by poor buskers (street musicians). Barrel organs require only the turning of the crank, and the music is played automatically by pinned barrels, perforated paper rolls, and more recently by electronic modules.
This confusion over what the name hurdy gurdy means is particular to English, although similar confusion over other terms for the instrument occurs in German and Hungarian due to unfamiliarity with the hurdy gurdy. The French call the barrel organ the Orgue de Barbarie ("Barbary organ"), and the Germans Drehorgel ("turned organ"), instead of Drehleier ("turning lyre").
The hurdy-gurdy has a well developed tradition in Eastern Europe, in particular in Hungary, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. In Ukraine it is known as the lira or relia was played by professional, often blind, itinerant musicians known as lirnyky. Their repertoire was primarily para-religious in theme, although it included many historic epics known as dumy and folk dances. Lirnyky were catagorized as beggars by the Russian authorities and underwent harsh repressive measures if they performed in the streets of major cities until 1902, when the authorities were asked by ethnographers attending the XIIth All-Russian Archaeological conference to stop persecuting them. In the 1930s this tradition was almost totally eradicated by the Soviet authorities when some 250-300 lirnyky were rounded up for an ethnographic conference and executed as a socially undesirable element in contemporary Soviet society. Today the instrument is undergoing a revival and is also being used in various ethnographic ensembles.

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