Logo The historical development of the hurdy gurdy

König david mit Organistrum

The Hurdy-Gurdy from ca. 1000 post Chr. till the end of the 20th century

The Organistrum
(since ca. 1000)

Musical figures can be seen on the Prtica de la Gloria of the cathedral in Sanitago de Compostella (1168-1188). Two of them play what is called the organistrum.

One person turns the wheel, the other operates keys which tilt or move horizontally to stop the strings. Three strings can be seen which are probably plucked parallel.

Other representations can be seen in Spain, for example on the cathedrals from Toro, San Miguel in Estella, Leone and on the churches of Ahedo de Bruton and Santo Domingo in Soria. Illustrations can be seen in France in the abbeys and cathedrals of St. Georges de Boscherville in Rouen, in St. Denis, Charters and Bourges as well as in the churches at Vermanton (Brittany) and St. Nicholas (Civray).


(since ca. 1180)

The sinfonia a small rectangular hurdy gurdy is depicted in numerous English miniatures. This is a closed instrument with a key box located on the top whose keys are fingered from the front, It is played by one person.

The illustrations are:- the ceiling paintings of Peterborough Cathedral, The Belvoir Psaltery of the Duke of Rutland, the Apocalypse with Miniatures, in the British Museum, the Cantigas of Santa Maria and the Luttrell Psaltery.

The hurdy gurdy of Hieronymus Bosch
(about ca. 1500)

A five stringed hurdy gurdy is depicted in the Triptych "The Garden of Earthly Desires" by Hieronymus Bosch. A bend can be seen in one string. This is produced by a string that leads to a string holder.

This is assumed to be an adjustable trumpet bridge. It is the first diagram of this type.

Two bourdons (drone-strings) are visible. The dimensions of the key box suggest however that there was an additional, higher bourdon, the Vox Humana, next to two melody strings.

Hieronymus Bosch's Hurdy-Gurdy
Allerley Bawren Liren

Allerley Bawren Liren
"All kinds of peasant hurdy gurdies", 1619)

The "Syntagma Musicum" from Michael Praetorius was published in Leipzig in 1619. In this he describes, amongst others "all sorts of amazing instruments as well as peasant's and women`s hurdy gurdies" ("Allerley umblauffende Bawren und Weiber Lyren")

According to the illustration, there is an instrument with two melody strings and three bourdons. A trumpet bridge does not appear, but it is conceivable.

French hurdy gurdies from the
Baroque Period (from 1716)

The first hurdy gurdies with guitar or lute shaped bodies appear in the work of the instrument maker Baton. The instruments were indeed chromatic and had two melody strings, three bourdons with trumpet bridge(s).

The pegboxes were richly provided with artistically carved heads and the sound board was decorated with marquetry and ornamentations.

The hurdy gurdies appeared at the French court and numerous composers such as Boismortier, Baton, Nicholas Chedeville and Michelle Corette and also W.A. Mozart and Antonio Vivaldi composed music for the hurdy gurdy.

The most important hurdy gurdy makers of this period were Louvet and Lambert.

French hurdy gurdies from the Baroque Period (from 1716)
French hurdy gurdies in the Bourbonnais<BR>
(from approximately 1850)

French hurdy gurdies in the Bourbonnais
(from approximately 1850)

The hey day of the hurdy gurdy in France came to and end after the French Revolution. The instrument retreated to the Berry and the Bourbonnais in Central France with a traditional repertoire suited for the dance.

It has survived here until present day. Hurdy gurdies from this period carry stamps from Pimpard and Pajot, amongst other makers.

The revival of the hurdy gurdy
(since approximately 1960)

The French musician, Rene Zosso was so fascinated by the sound of a hurdy gurdy that he decided to have this type of instrument made again. The first hurdy gurdy makers of the modern period were the Swiss Jacot brothers and Kurt Reichmann in Frankfurt.

He has inspired a large number of instrument makers in Germany and abroad into dedicating themselves entirely to the hurdy gurdy so that its future could be assured in the final years of the 20th century. The instrument has been introduced over the years to a wide group of interested audiences at concerts and festivals where the traditions and music of the hurdy gurdy is nurtured.

In this way, the hurdy gurdy has found a permanent niche in many groups of musicians playing mediaeval music, folk music groups, solo singers and actors in the theatre.


Modernisation of the hurdy gurdy
(since approximately 1980)

The musical repertoire has been steadily extended since approximately 1980 and the players soon encountered the technical limitations of the hurdy gurdy. Innovative instrument makers have made many improvements and additions to the instrument in response to wishes of the musicians.

The number of melody strings has been extended from two to three and sometimes even four strings. Instead of one trumpet bridge, the modern instruments have two or three and the number of bourdons is limited through lack of space.

Elaborate sliding bridge systems have been developed therefore in order to increase the tonal possibilities. These can shorten the bourdons almost limitlessly to alleviate the limitations of playing in only one key.

Electronics have also made inroads into hurdy gurdies so that they can be amplified for modern music such as rock and jazz. Complicated electronic separation of ducts provides a clean sound and even allows sound effect devices and MIDI systems to be used.