Die Drehleier

by Marianne Bröcker

This part of the website is an English translation of the definitive hurdy-gurdy reference book Die Drehleier (The Hurdy-gurdy), written by Marianne Bröcker. For general information about this translation please see the Index Page.

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Chapter 1: Introduction


Anyone who is writing about the violin, the clarinet, or the organ does not need to introduce the instrument they are dealing with, since it is already generally familiar to the reader from its daily use. The hurdy-gurdy, on the other hand, which was generally popular throughout Europe, is today only played in a few areas of France; it is almost extinct and is familiar only to the musical instrument specialist. Consequently it seems useful to introduce this instrument to the reader and provide some pictures of it.

The hurdy-gurdy is a stringed instrument which has melodic and drone strings. All of these strings are bowed or stroked by a wheel which the player moves by means of a hand crank. Illustration 1 [figlink] depicts a French hurdy-gurdy player from Berry in his characteristic costume. His instrument is held close to his body by means of a strap around his waist. The right hand turns the crank, while the left hand operates the keyboard. The keys shorten the string or strings in accordance with the chromatic scale.

Along with the melodic tones produced by the keys is the sound of several drone strings. Since all the strings pass over the wheel, when the wheel is turned they all sound at the same time. The hurdy-gurdy is therefore intended to be used for polyphonic music. Nevertheless this polyphonic disposition is limited to a few basic harmonies, and consequently in modern times the hurdy-gurdy was pushed aside by instruments which permit richer harmonies. It has therefore suffered the same fate as the bagpipe, to which it is related both in sound and repertoire.

During the Middle Ages, however, the hurdy-gurdy was very popular precisely because of its ability to produce long continuous drone sounds. It belonged to the class of instruments which served in the performance of important types of early polyphonic music, including a kind of organum popularly called "Haltetonorganum" ("continuous-tone-organum").


Although the written reports of this Haltetonorganum were few and quite late, it must be assumed that this manner of polyphonic musicmaking lasted for quite a long time and was very widespread. We are obviously dealing with an enduring musical practice, knowledge of which was passed on orally, whose existence in the Middle Ages is confirmed by the large number of drone instruments, among which was the hurdy-gurdy. Since this type of polyphonic musicmaking was found useful for church music, the hurdy-gurdy received a function in the church, as Joseph Smits van Waesberghe has already pointed out in his article "De kerkelijke draalier" ["The Hurdy-gurdy in Church Music"][fn][10-1]. It can even been established that hurdy-gurdies were used in cathedrals, partly as precursors to the medieval organ.

Up until now little has been written about the hurdy-gurdy. In earlier research, if notice was taken of the instrument at all, it was in context of different problems and topics. There are only two old works which concern themselves in detail with the hurdy-gurdy. One is the "Dissertation historique sur l'instrument nommé la Vielle" [Historical Dissertation on the Instrument called the Vielle"] by Antoine Terrasson which first appeared in 1741. The other is the "Notice sur la vielle" by Eugène de Bricqueville, which was published in its second edition in Paris in 1911. Both authors pursued definite goals in their works about the hurdy-gurdy and therefore valued the important problems which arose out of the interest in its history quite differently. Eugène de Bricqueville, for example, satisfied himself with the conclusion that nothing could be done to answer the question concerning the origin of the instrument. Terrasson on the other hand attached a great deal of importance to exactly this problem: he took part in the popular interest in the hurdy-gurdy in France at his time, and he tried to ennoble the instrument to suit courtly society. For this reason he struggled to prove that it had its origin in ancient times, so that it was old enough to be respected.


Eugène de Bricqueville, who played the hurdy-gurdy himself and looked toward the instrument's popularity in 18th century France for inspiration, was attempting to promote its re-introduction into the serious music of his day. Accordingly his work places emphasis on more recent times, particularly the 18th century.

The present work is intended to examine the origin and history of the hurdy-gurdy, its significance in the history of music, and how these subjects are related to each other. There is much material available for this purpose. The most important sources for the history of the development of the hurdy-gurdy are the pictorial and literary products of the Middle Ages. With the help of this material both the various key mechanisms as well as the different shapes of the instrument can be systematically and chronologically portrayed. The presentation of several images of a particular type can also be used to show that definite stages of development are being shown, establishing that a particular image is not a special case. There are intact instruments which date back to the 16th century. Treatises on voice from the 13th century and hurdy-gurdy instruction books from the 18th century provide sources of theory. Hurdy-gurdy compositions are best known from the 18th century when the hurdy-gurdy was popular with the French aristocracy; in more recent times they are found in folk compositions.

The purpose of this work is not just to gather together the reliable information which is still extant. Instead the focus of the work will be to answer the questions which have, up to now, remained unanswered. In this regard the various names for the hurdy-gurdy are especially to be mentioned, as they show more clearly than the pictorial sources that from its very beginning the instrument was associated with the drone effect and with polyphonic music.

Etymology is extremely useful to clarify the connection between disputed instrument names. I received valuable help in this regard from my teacher, Professor Dr. Martin Vogel, whose fine understanding of this field was of great help to me. The etymological investigation was of special importance with regard to the question concerning the origin of the instrument. Werner Bachmann


had already concluded that, on the basis of linguistic connections, the hurdy-gurdy could have come out of the Middle East. [fn][12-1]

Because of the amount of material and the numerous close connections between disparate periods a chronological structure of the investigation was not considered practical. Therefore the characteristic features of the hurdy-gurdy needed to be addressed in individual chapters: the wheel, the key mechanism and the external body. In these chapters questions concerning the origin and spread of the instrument are also considered, since these questions can only be answered in context with the development of the individual features. Since there exist numerous written reports on the hurdy-gurdy, its use in the Middle Ages and in modern times will be handled in separate sections. The work will be concluded by a chapter about the causes and effects of the historically determined social status of the hurdy-gurdy. As an analysis of these relationships shows, the development of the hurdy-gurdy was always dependent upon the social status of its player, and this in turn was determined by the current social situation. This explains why the hurdy-gurdy, regardless of the possibilities of its use for a particular music was found in such extremely diverse classes of society. Unlike any other instrument, it was not only heard in the churches and in princely courts, but it was also found in the hands of traveling musicians, village players, and even beggars.



10-1. In: Gregoriusblad 91 (1967) 108-111


12-1. W. Bachmann, Die Anfänge des Streichinstrumentenspiels. Musikwissenschaftliche Einzeldarstellungen 3, Leipzig 1964, 123.

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Olympic Musical Instruments

© Original text in German copyright 1977, Verlag für systematische Musikwissenschaft GmbH
© Translation copyright 2005, Olympic Musical Instruments and the Bröcker Tranlation Group