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The Humble Hurdy-Gurdy

An image of a hurdy-gurdy from the Syntagma musicum.

This week on Harmonia we explore one of the most fascinating and complex instruments that was ever misunderstood: the hurdy-gurdy. You just turn the crank, right? Hardly! It’s bowed strings, drones, keyboard, and tricky percussion, all rolled into one. Later, in our featured release segment, we’ll hear some music from Piffaro’s 2017 release Back Before Bach.

18th-century French composer Nicolas Chédeville’s unusual arrangement of “Autumn” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, featuring Matthias Loibner performing on hurdy-gurdy.

The Humble Hurdy-Gurdy

The humble hurdy-gurdy is an instrument that has been in use since the 11th century. Many think of it as a folk music instrument, and indeed it is used in many varieties of traditional music; but it’s also been used in many other musical contexts, from classical music to rock and roll.

The hurdy-gurdy is actually a very complicated and sophisticated instrument, as we’ll talk about in a moment. One of its singular characteristics is the use of drone strings, including one in particular, called the trompette, which produces a buzzing sound. A skillful player can controls this string with the right-hand crank, producing wonderfully complex rhythms. Here is a traditional tune, “Malashevska” performed on hurdy-gurdy by Nigel Eaton.

“Malashevska” arranged for hurdy-gurdy and performed by Nigel Eaton.

Hurly burly, vielle à roue, zanfoña, ghironda, tekerolant—these all refer to the instrument commonly known as the hurdy-gurdy. Its sound is produced by a rotating, rosined wheel that contacts the strings, sort of like a circular bow. This continuous contact is nicely encapsulated in the instrument’s French name, “vielle á roue,” or “wheel fiddle.” Most hurdy-gurdys have multiple strings. On the side of the instrument there is a keyboard. The vibrating string produces a drone, and the player depresses wooden keys to produce melodies. With this combination of drones and melody, the hurdy-gurdy behaves like (and is often used interchangeably with) bagpipes.

Let’s hear the 13th-century English hit song, “Sumer is icumen in,” performed by the Dufay Collective. This is a smaller, medieval hurdy-gurdy sometimes called Simphony or sinfonia.

“Sumer is icumen in,” featuring William Lyons on hurdy-gurdy, performing on the Dufay Collective’s 1995 CD “Miri it is: Songs and Instrumental Music from Medieval England.”


The medieval troubadours from the South of France were well-known for sung poems (chansons) about courtly love. By the 13th century, many of these songs had reached the trouveres of northern France. Often these songs use Spring as a time of love, connecting it to classical themes like Cupid and Arcadia. Typical of these songs, Gontier de Soignies’ “Contre la Douce Saison,” speaks to the pleasure and pain of unattainable love.

We heard the trouvere song “Contre la Douce Saison,” or “In the sweet springtime," featuring vocalist Sabine Lutzenberger and Tobie Miller on hurdy-gurdy.

Speaking of the world of great song repertoire, Franz Schubert refers to the hurdy-gurdy in “Der Leiermann,” the last part of Winterreise, with its melancholy portrait of the old hurdy-gurdy player cranking away in the snow, alone on the outskirts of town, the local dogs barking at him. “Strange old man, shall I go with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?” Here is it performed by Natasa Mirkovic-De Ro, soprano and Matthias Loibner, hurdy-gurdy, from the 2010 release, Winterreise.

Natasha Mirkovic-De Ro, soprano and Matthias Loibner, hurdy-gurdy from the 2010 release, Winterreise.


The hurdy-gurdy (and instruments like it!) saw a rise in popularity in art music in Europe in the 18th century. Nostalgia about the past manifested in audiences that yearned to hear sounds of a “simpler” time, and, like the musette, the hurdy evoked pastoral themes. Some music was written for the “lire organizzate,” which combined elements of the organ with those of the hurdy-gurdy.

This is the “Andante” and prestissimo “finale” from a Nocturne in C by Ignace Pleyel. The piece was written for Ferdinand IV, “king of the two Sicilies." Ferdinand was an amateur hurdy-gurdy player himself!

Two movements from the Nocturne in C, by Ignace Pleyel, performed by Ensemble Baroque des Limoges featuring Matthias Loibner and Thierry Nouat on hurdy-gurdys.

Founded by Jonathan Swayne and Bill O’Toole while studying historical instrument making at the London College of Furniture, the group Blowzabella has been at the forefront of the revival of European dance music in England since 1978. In addition to almost single-handedly propelling the English bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy revivals, they’ve had an enormous impact on music in the rest of Europe, placing contemporary English folk dance music firmly in the context of the greater European revival. They continue today and will be celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2018. Here’s a tune called “The Man in the Brown Hat,” featuring hurdy-gurdy virtuoso Nigel Eaton, from Blowzabella’s CD A Richer Dust. 

“The Man in the Brown Hat,” from the CD A Richer Dust by the English group Blowzabella, featuring hurdy-gurdy master Nigel Eaton.

Back Before Bach

Our featured recording this week is the summer 2017 release Back Before Bach by the renowned Renaissance Wind Ensemble Piffaro. They describe the CD as a musical journey through some of the musical influences that were “brought to bear on the formation, creativity, and imagination” of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s father was himself a trumpet and shawm player, a civic musician or Stadpfeiffer in Lubeck and Arnstadt. Here is a Suite of German dances by Michael Praetorius and Johann Hermann Schein, arranged by Joan Kimball.

Piffaro, from their 2017 release Back Before Bach: Musical Journeys. Here are three more dances from that same recording — a Passameze, Allemande, and Volta.

Three dances: a Passamezze, Allemande, and Volta, played by Piffaro, from their CD Back Before Bach, a summer 2017 release on the Navona label.

Break and theme music

:30, Le Roman de la Rose, Per-Sonat, Christophorus, Tr. 13 La Tor de jalousie 

:60, Hurdy-gurdy recital: Stapleton, Cliff, Cliff Stapleton & Nigel Eaton, Saydisc 1988, Tr. 10 Bourree / The Crocodile

:30, Back Before Bach, Piffaro, Navona 2017, Tr. 13 Latin Hymn: A solis ortus cardine

Theme: Danse Royale, Ensemble Alcatraz, Elektra Nonesuch 79240-2 1992 B000005J0B, Tr. 12 La Prime Estampie Royal

The writers for this edition of Harmonia were Sarah Huebsch and Angela Mariani.

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