And now for the jewel in our crown – we’re delighted to present the largest collection of hurdy-gurdies in the world. If you’ve ever seen a hurdy-gurdy being played, you probably know that it’s a mechanical instrument – and in that sense it’s not unlike a barrel organ. But the two instruments are actually quite unrelated. With a barrel organ (which you may have seen at the seaside), the music is encoded. The appropriate keys are activated – either by a barrel studded with pins, or by a punch card – and the desired melody is played. As on this Swedish organola:
The hurdy-gurdy is completely different – it’s actually a kind of semi-mechanized violin. With the violin, the left hand applies pressure to the strings, shortening them, while the right hand wields the bow, drawing it up and down. On the hurdy-gurdy, the latter operation is performed by a wheel.
It’s amazing how similar the sound is to that of the bagpipes. However, the hurdy-gurdy has an additional feature called a buzzing bridge, which is a kind of built-in rhythm device, a small, loose piece of wood that creates a buzzing effect on the soundboard from a vibrating drone string. You can hear it quite clearly in this piece, the "Turlututu Waltz".
That’s really something, isn’t it! A hurdy-gurdy gives you a single-player orchestra – with melody, harmony and rhythm, all in one instrument!
In the Middle Ages, people built fancy bodies, though they were often simply boxes. Later, in Russia, violins were converted into hurdy-gurdies. It wasn’t a perfect solution, because the small body meant that the crank remained an add-on. It was unsatisfactory from an aesthetic point of view. The Renaissance brought a return to fancy bodies. Later instrument makers took the bodies of guitars and lutes and converted them into hurdy-gurdies.
This early upcycling trend came about because instrument makers had to respond quickly when the nobility demanded hurdy-gurdies during the fashion for the pastoral. Lutes and guitars were piling up in the warehouses, and suddenly hardly anyone wanted to play them.
All depictions: © Dagmar Trüpschuch