Friday 10 February 2023

Wheel Fiddle by Joan Lennon

Elders playing a two-person organistrum
Santiago de Compostela, Spain
12th century
(wiki commons)

What has more than 90 moving parts, was once the instrument of choice in churches, in its earliest version needed two people to play* and has been making music for over 1000 years?

It's the hurdy-gurdy. Aka the wheel fiddle, symphonia, organistrum, vielle a roue, zanfona. Its music is made by a rosined wooden wheel turned by a crank moving against melody strings, plus drone strings and a buzzing bridge or 'dog'**.

Illustration of two symphonia from the Canticles of Holy Mary
during the reign of Alfonso X of Castile El Sabio (1221-1284)
(wiki commons)

Are you reading or writing medieval historical fiction? Would you like a sound track? Try these (though there is a certain irony in the ones where there's an organ accompaniment ...):

Though the organ as we know it took over as the instrument of ecclesiastical music, the hurdy-gurdy remained popular in the secular world. Once you start looking you see it illustrated everywhere - Leonardo da Vinci, Hieronymus Bosch, Brueghel, Jacquet, Millais - not all on wiki commons, so sadly I can't show them here, but keep an eye out. It even makes a brief appearance on the film
The Polar Express.

The Hurdy-Gurdy Player
by Anne Claude de Caylus 1737
(wiki commons)

For a modern take on the hurdy-gurdy, here is a beautifully creative work by Guilhem Desq called Le chateau magique:

I couldn't resist leaving you with this version of the Game of Thrones theme played on hurdy-gurdy:

* The history of instruments that need more than one person to play them is a fascinatingly odd one, and includes 'the courting dulcimer' from the Southern States of the US in the 1850s. A protective mama was reassured by the sound of the music from the next room because the dulcimer required four hands to play, so the courting couple could be left alone without fear of hanky-panky taking place.

I'm also quite fond of the two person octobass, but that's a story for another day.

** It's called a dog because (to someone, not me) the noise it makes sounds like barking.

Joan Lennon website

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