Station: [4] Organistrum and Symphonia

In our museum the sky is full of flutes. Take a look up there! Just below the flute-studded sky, you’ll notice three instruments that hark back to the world of 11th century music. The instruments in question are an organistrum and two symphonias, and all three are members of the large hurdy-gurdy family. Both the organistrum and the symphonia originated in the Middle East; the North African Berbers brought them to Spain, and from there they spread throughout Europe.

The handsomely carved wooden instrument is the organistrum. It is the spiritual precursor of the hurdy-gurdy. That you are able to see and hear this instrument at our museum is solely thanks to Kurt Reichmann. It’s based on an original carved in stone on the portal of the famous cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. At the top of the arch above the entrance, there’s a carving of two clerics playing the organistrum together. One is operating the crank, while the other raises the keys to change the musical pitch of the strings. Reichmann measured the relief, related the instrument to the size of the players, and reproduced it in wood. It is the second-oldest form known. And if you’re wondering what the instrument sounds like – here’s a piece in which it accompanies monks chanting a hymn associated with Saint Boniface: “Praesulis exultans".

The secular forerunner of the hurdy-gurdy is the symphonia, which is much simpler in design. There are two examples hanging on the left-hand side of the organistrum. They’re box-shaped and were played by a single person. This was the instrument on which troubadours and balladeers accompanied their love songs. The symphonia was especially popular in France, where it was frequently played.

The larger symphonia model is a world exclusive. It is a special variant made by Kurt Reichmann for a collector – who bequeathed it to our museum after he died. Listen to its unique sound in the piece "Ce fu en mai" by the 13th century French composer Moniot d'Arras.

The smaller model of the symphonia also originated in Kurt Reichmann's workshop. He based it on originals he’d seen in medieval engravings. Enjoy the sound of the symphonia as you make your way to the next stop. This is a medieval dance called a ductia.

All depictions: © Dagmar Trüpschuch