Music in the Middle Ages: the Hurdy-Gurdy


Hurdy-gurdy player at Vigoleno castle (PC)

The hurdy-gurdy was one of the most popular and widespread instruments in medieval music. It was initially born in 900 AD as an instrument to accompany sacred music and Gregorian chants in particular, and its original name was organistrum, its complexity and size in fact made it similar to an organ. A demanding instrument therefore, and to play it usually required two people, one to operate the wheel, which rubbed a series of six to eight strings, and another person to operate the keyboard. However, it is a very complex instrument and its construction requires many hours of meticulous work, and its cost is very high.

Over time this instrument underwent many changes, including the name which became Gironda or Ghironda or even Viola dell'Orbo, because it was often played by blind musicians to get some alms. It gradually became smaller in size, so much so that it could be easily transported and used by a single person, this decreed its success in music, no longer only solemn and religious indoors in sacred places, but as popular music in village bustles, in fairs and street markets, played on street corners by minstrels and acrobats, sometimes accompanied by small exotic animals, such as monkeys or marmots, who seemed to dance these cheerful melodies.

This instrument has crossed centuries and cultures, being also used for Arabic and Russian music, and also fascinated famous composers, who wanted to include it in some pieces of their repertoires, tell me about names like Mozart, Vivaldi and Bela Bartok.

In the last century it almost disappeared from the scene, replaced by other instruments with a similar sound, and today it is rare to be able to hear the sound of a hurdy-gurdy live, I was lucky enough to see and listen to it in some medieval re-enactments, as in the photo above, taken at the Vigoleno castle, in the Piacenza area: it is a fascinating and particular, exotic sound, which brings to mind distant times and places.

In this video you can listen to a modern version of a hurdy-gurdy, masterfully played by Guilhem Desq.

Happy listening.