Monday, January 7, 2013

Noteworthy Instruments: the hurdy-gurdy

It's time for Noteworthy Instruments, where I talk about musical instruments that aren't your normal western orchestral fare. While I like the traditional clarinet, viola, electric guitar, and glockenspiel, there are lots of other instruments that deserve attention. In October, I wrote about the shamisen (if you didn't watch the Yoshida Brothers video, you really missed out). 

This week's treasure: the hurdy-gurdy.

The hurdy-gurdy is about a thousand years old. Also called a wheel fiddle, the player produces sound by turning a crank which rubs a wheel against the strings. A hurdy-gurdy has several strings, a couple of which are drones, making this instrument sound a lot like bagpipes. It's amazing how many old instruments in many traditions have drones.

Caroline Phillips gives a great introduction to this lesser-known instrument in this six-minute TED talk, which is also embedded below (the last few minutes are a commercial):

Watch the talk! As an added bonus, she sings a song in Basque. Here's another playing demonstration with a different hurdy-gurdy; there's no standard way to construct them (for more detailed info on the hurdy-gurdy, see wikipedia). I love how the comments below the video are in three different languages.

Classical music has its own famous hurdy-gurdy song, Franz Schubert's "Der Leiermann" (the Hurdy-Gurdy Man) from his song cycle Winterreise. Although the accompaniment for this song was written for piano, the whole song could be played with a drone. Sting did a strange English version of Schubert's song on his album If On a Winter's Night, but accompanied by an accordion instead of a hurdy-gurdy. Which is weird, because knows how to play one—he played a hurdy-gurdy for the 2004 academy awards:

Photo credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Images

So for those of you who watched the academy awards that year and wondered "what the heck is that unusual-but-awesome instrument?", which I'm sure is what most people were thinking, now you know—the hurdy-gurdy.

Next week, I'm going to tackle the music of Les Mis.

Vocab: drone


  1. I saw the Page/Plant Led Zeppelin reunion tour when I was in high school, and midway through the concert they brought out a hurdy-gurdy player, explained what the instrument was, and then let him play solo for several minutes. He was amazing, and the entire stadium was rocking out. Page/Plant then joined him for a rendition of the folk song "Gallows Pole." It was the most memorable thing from the whole concert. I found some footage from 1995 from one of their concerts:

    One more art song named for the hurdy-gurdy: Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos ends his song cycle Seréstas with a song called "Realejo" ("Hurdy-Gurdy"). This may be a nod to Schubert's Winterreise - both end with a song about a hurdy-gurdy, and both contain a song about dead leaves. (The allusion is just my speculation.)

  2. Awesome video and cool connection! Thanks for sharing.