Medieval   Renaissance   Baroque   Modern

Originally known in the middle ages as a "Symphony" or "Chiffonie", the hurdy-gurdy remained until the end of the 16th century an instrument generally associated with wandering singers and the especially the blind.

Détail d'un tableau de Jerome Bosch 'Le Jardin de Délices' (1503)/   Détail d'un tableau de Jerome Bosch 'Le Jardin de Délices' (1503)

It was during the 18th century that the instrument had its moment of glory, and like the musette, the hurdy-gurdy was adopted by the French aristocracy to interpret their 'pastoral' baroque music . During this epoque the hurdy-gurdies were decorated with elaborate marquetery, incrusted with ivory and precious jewels and their keybox was terminated with a finely sculpted head like the viols of the period.

The keyboard was extended, the drones were perfected and each one was identified with a name; "la Trompette", "la Mouche", and "Grand Bourdon and Petit Bourdon". The last refinement was to add a small mobile bridge to the "Trompette" drone (a design copied from the ancient Marine Trumpet). This modification allowed the player to add rhythm by accelerating the crank; a technique known as "coup de poignet".

Une vielle à roue baroque (Varquin 1751)

Important composers have left works to witness the glory of this epoque; a period that was destroyed by the development of the pianoforte at the end of the century.

Various models of the hurdy-gurdy presented here have been built by Bryan Tolley. The hurdy-gurdy at the top of the page is an instrument from the early renaissance; a copy of a design illustrated in Jerome Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" (1503).

The hurdy-gurdy (above) is a baroque model copied from an instrument built by the French luthier Varquin in 1751.

A French hurdy-gurdy typical of the 19th Century complete with a carved head of George Sand. A copy of an instrument by Nigout

Une vielle à roue électro-acoustique

The futurist hurdy-gurdy (above) is a design from Bryan Tolley's imagination. It is an electro-acoustic instrument made from various exotic woods and from modern materials. The body is of fibre-glass and the wheel is from carbon-fibre. This instrument was chosen for the "Facteurs des Vielles" exhibition in 2002 organised by the Festival of Saint Chartier. It was an exhibition of the work of professional hurdy-gurdy makers in France.

          Une vielle à roue électrique

The yellow hurdy-gurdy (above) is a prototype electric instrument capable of playing many styes including rock and jazz. A laser system monitors the wheel speed to trigger an electronic chien giving the instrument the capability to modulate without the usual inhibition of the drones that are inherent with the traditional hurdy-gurdy. Four octaves of drones and various effects for the chien are available from synthesizer modules mounted within the maple solid body.

"La Vielle à Rouge" is an electro-acoustic hurdy-gurdy constructed in a similar manner to the black instrument shown above. The red model however is far more elaborate with three melody strings and with capodastres fitted on all the drones and rythmn strings. The keyboard has an original design that allows the player to descend two semi-tones below the normally fixed note of the open string; a typical playing technique with bagpipes but not previously possible with a hurdy-gurdy.