Harmonia Early Music

Questions for Robert Green

Robert Green, musicologist and performer on the hurdy-gurdy, answers questions about his chosen instrument.

man holding a hurdy gurdy

Photo: Bernard Gordillo

Robert Green plays an original French baroque hurdy-gurdy built by François Feury (Paris, 1752).

Robert Green is a musicologist and a performer on the hurdy-gurdy. He recently talked to us about his chosen instrument, its background, and his book on the history of the French baroque hurdy-gurdy.

What is a hurdy-gurdy?

A bowed string instrument.

A rosin-covered wheel functions like a violin bow. It is turned by a crank using the right hand. Tangents attached to keys are pushed into the string by the fingers of the left hand, and fall back in place from gravity.

In addition to melody strings, there are drone strings which create a sound similar to a bagpipe. The classic French [baroque] instrument has a range of two chromatic octaves.

Do a lot of people play it?

The hurdy-gurdy (vielle in French, drehleier in German) is a very popular folk instrument in Europe. The “classic” instrument was developed in France in the eighteenth century and is particularly popular in central France, while Hungary and Eastern Europe have a type quite distinct from the French instrument.

Because of its strong rhythmic qualities, created by a piece of wood that vibrates against the top creating a percussive accompaniment, it is often used for folk dances.

What drew you to the instrument?

In the early 1980s I was researching French chamber music and instruments which were played primarily by women, such as the pardessus de viole. I found hundreds of pieces for hurdy-gurdy and continuo, two hurdy-gurdies, hurdy-gurdy and violin (or flute), and hurdy-gurdy and orchestra composed in a period roughly from 1730-1760.

I had to find out how this music sounded.

While working in Paris, I found a very fine luthier who made me a copy of an eighteenth-century instrument. In order to learn to play the instrument I attended several workshops in France where the folk style was taught. I studied the eighteenth-century methods to discover how the technique had changed over two hundred years.

Now every summer I teach a workshop in classic hurdy-gurdy technique in France. It attracts folk players who want to learn about the eighteenth-century repertory and period performance practice.

Tell us about the book you wrote?

My book “The Hurdy-Gurdy in Eighteenth-Century France” discusses the period during which the instrument was played by the upper classes, roughly 1730-1790.

It was an instrument often associated with women, because it required no bodily distortions of the type associated with wind instruments or the violin. It was played by members of the royal family including the queen, the wife of Louis XV, so it was very fashionable.

Beautifully decorated instruments by the finest makers were created to meet the demand. The drones of the instrument evoke pastoral associations which it shared with the musette, a gentleman’s bagpipe played with bellows pumped by the arm.

Composers, such as Boismortier, Corrette, and the Chedevilles, created an extensive repertory for it, although most people devoted themselves to popular tunes and dances.

Bernard Gordillo

Bernard Gordillo was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and raised in New Orleans. He holds degrees from Centenary College of Louisiana, the Early Music Institute at Indiana University, and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). Bernard also writes and hosts the Harmonia Early Music Podcast.

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