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 3: The Keys


A. The Origin of the Keys

Aside from to the wheel the keys are the most important technical element of the hurdy-gurdy. They are used to shorten the melody string or strings and thus change the pitch.

From medieval representations it can be seen that various means were employed to shorten the hurdy-gurdy's strings: rotating keys, push or pull keys, and finally the sliding keys, still in use today. The names of the different types of keys correspond to the direction in which they move as well as to the method of obtaining a different pitch. The distinction between these various techniques lies not only in the way in which the instrument is held and positioned, but also in the different relation of the key to the string. The rotating keys shorten the string from below, whereas the push, pull, and sliding keys contact it from the side.

Other keyboard instruments, notably the monochord and the organ, could have contributed to the development of the keys used to change the pitch of the hurdy-gurdy. Rotating keys, like those on a hurdy-gurdy of the 13th century (see page 76 and illustration 2 [figlink]), are turned up from underneath the string to shorten it. This design points to the monochord as its parent. On the monochord the individual tones are attained by shifting a movable bridge. Ptolemy reported the difficulty of using the one-stringed monochord as a musical instrument, on account of the lateral movement of the bridge producing a kind of glissando when the tones were changed quickly. [fn][73-1] The use of a monochord bridge on the hurdy-gurdy would


have had an even stronger glissando effect and with it an undesirable tonal impurity. Therefore the hurdy-gurdy in illustration 2 [figlink], in contrast to the monochord, had a key for each tone, eliminating the lateral movement needed to change the pitch.

The mechanisms of the push, pull, and sliding keys could go back to the early organ slides which were moved back and forth. However the shortening of the string by means of a tangent situated on a key points again to the monochord.

The influence of the monochord in its capacity as a church service instrument was, as numerous sources prove, of great importance. In ancient times and in the Middle Ages it formed the basis for reckoning and portraying the intervals; this is shown especially by the fact that the vibrating lengths exactly calculated upon it were transferred to other instruments. Plucked and bowed stringed instrument mensurs (vibrating string lengths) were measured according to those of the monochord, [fn][74-1] as were those of the organ. The calculation of the distances between the keys on the hurdy-gurdy was derived from the same source, as shown by the directions for tuning this instrument contained in treatises of the 13th century (see page 245) .

The monochord and the hurdy-gurdy share the feature of being able to produce all the melodic tones on just one string. In contrast to the hurdy-gurdy, when several strings are attached to the monochord the melodic tones can be distributed to several strings. But since in the case of the hurdy-gurdy all the strings are bowed by the wheel at the same time, the formation of the melody can take place only by shortening one or two melody strings tuned in unison.

By the beginning of the 14th century the monochord clearly had several strings, and the body was usually described as being a right-angled box [fn][74-2]. Simon Tunstede recommended two strings tuned in unison, [fn][74-3] and Johannes de Muris


used a four string monochord to demonstrate consonance.[fn][75-1] Sigfrid Wantzloeben was of the opinion that de Muris, who at that time was considered to be the author of the "Summa Musicae", understood the monochord to be an instrument which had a string for every tone. As proof for this he cites one of the author's passages. According to the author the monochord and the hurdy-gurdy, here called an "organistrum" belong to that group of instruments which are progressively tuned (progressive temperantur) [fn][75-2]. The author contrasts these instruments with those which are only tuned by ear. In the original text: "Chordalia etiam quaedam progressive temperantur, ut citharae et psalteria, organistrum, monochordum et similia... Sunt et alia chordalia, quae solum auditu discernuntur, temperantur autem per consonantias diapason, diatessaron et diapente, et per diversas digitorum interpositiones artifices ipsorum formant sibi tonos et semitonos".[fn][75-3]

Wantzloeben concludes: "Aus dieser Gegenüberstellung ist zu entnehmen daß die erstgenannton Instrumente, also auch das Monochord, für jeden Ton eine Saite besaßen." [From this contrast it is to be assumed that the instruments first named, and so too the monochord, possessed a string for every note.] [fn][75-4] This is contradicted first by the author of the "Summa Musicae", who drew up his list of instruments in such a way that they are distinguished according to the way in which they produce a sound. On the one hand the "cithara et psalteria", whose strings vibrate unshortened when they are played. This is clearly apparent from representations of these instruments. On the other hand are the "organistrum, monochordum et similia". In the case of "organistrum" and "monochordum" he is listing instruments on which the various pitches are attained by shortening the strings with the help of bridges or tangents as opposed to by limiting the melody string or by a multitude of strings. Although the use of bridges or tangents is not mentioned as such, they must be assumed here since the monochord and the organistrum are separated from the instruments on which the whole and half tones are defined


with the fingers.

If the monochord possessed a string for every note as Wantzloeben asserts, its range would have been limited to just four notes. This stands in contradiction to the typical use of a range of one to two octaves during this period. Consequently it may be supposed that the strings were shortened to create the melody, so at least one instrument in the "Summa Musica" list does not meet Wantzloeben's criteria.

The inclusion of the organistrum in the group of "the instruments first named" which "possessed a string for every note" seems completely nonsensical, first on account of the musical use of the instrument, and second, because every preserved representation of the organistrum contradicts this premise, in that they show clearly that it was customary to shorten the string with a bridge or tangent.

B. The Rotating Keys

The pictorial representations of the hurdy-gurdy from the Middle Ages are our most important sources for all of the changes in its form and in the key mechanism. Unfortunately in the case of almost all representations of keyboard instruments either a protective lid or, when as the keys are situated directly in the body, the soundboard prevents a glimpse into the details of the string shortening mechanism. This makes it difficult to determine the type of key mechanism used, as well as the tonal possibilities and the combination of sounds actually produced. The fact that the usual medieval stringing employed three strings which ran through the keybox leads one to assume that the hurdy-gurdy produced harmonies even in this early period.

The only representation of a hurdy-gurdy which provides information about the method employed to shorten the strings is the picture from a 13th century manuscript which has since been destroyed by fire (ill. 2) [figlink]. [fn][76-1] It is an instrument characterized as an "organistrum" with a figure-eight shape and three strings, and on its soundboard the bridge and wheel are marked. Over and under these are the following letters:


They are apparently related to a description of the instrument which went with the picture and is now lost. This makes their interpretation difficult. The interpretation of the letters 'M' and 'd' as put forward by Julius Rühlmann, namely that they indicate the extremely curved sides of the instrument [fn][77-1], does not seem to be enlightening, since on the basis of their arrangement 'M' and 'd' belong to the string of other letters which do not denote any details about the external shape.

It is noteworthy about this marking that the same letter 'a' is used for two different geometrical places. Furthermore, the 'd' under the 'M' can also be read as 'a', and the 'v' cannot be clearly identified as such. Therefore instead of reading the letters separately, they could also be read together as the word 'magada'. This would allow the interpretation of these letters to be clearly established, since 'magada' was the Latin name, derived from the Greek 'magadis', for the bridge and was part of the vocabulary of those authors who composed tuning directions for the hurdy-gurdy in the 13th century. This is the same century in which this picture originated. (see page 246) .

In the neck of the organistrum are situated eight keys, under which the note letters from D to c are marked, including both b and h (b-flat and b) stand. The free string is given as C, so that on one of the strings a C-major scale with b and h could be played. This supply of notes with b and h within one octave corresponds to the 13th century directions for tuning the organistrum.

The shape of these keys is especially noteworthy. They are apparently round pegs which are stuck into the frame of the neck on one side and emerge from the neck on the other side. On their ends they show a knob which is believed


to make them easier for the player to grip. On the pegs are placed wide wooden bridges, which can be turned upright or sideways by turning the peg. As the picture clearly shows, these rotating keys always touch all three strings simultaneously, so that when it was played there was a succession of fixed parallel sounds, if the unison tuning of the strings is rejected as being improbable. The keys here are not only easily recognizable, but they are exactly indicated. According to this picture only parallel sounds could be produced on the instrument. Accordingly this organistrum could have been employed for the execution of parallel organum..

Aside from this there is no earlier or contemporary representation which enables us to determine the mechanism of string-shortening employed, because invariably only the extreme ends of the keys are visible and inferences must be drawn from the way in which the players hold the instrument. Therefore it remains a mystery as to whether or not rotating keys were used for other instruments. It is nevertheless rather likely, since it is also apparent from one of the 13th century tuning directions that the individual melody tones of this instrument are produced by the "elevatione et depositione lignorum" (see page 248) .

The organistrum in the St. Blasien manuscript is similar in form and number of strings to the other instruments represented in the 12th century. The earliest form of the hurdy-gurdy in Europe was apparently the guitar or waisted shape, represented at first as a large instrument for two players. The organistrum with the rotating keys seems to also have been very large. Like the instruments with push keys and pull keys, the string-shortening mechanism required two players, since it would have been impossible for one musician to operate the wheel with one hand and constantly move the keys with the other. The key player had to use both hands to raise and lower the keys. With the one hand he shortened the string in the right place with the new key while at the same time he disengaged the previous key with the other hand. During this operation there could not be a gap between the tones, because with the wheel constantly turning the tone of the free string sounded as soon as the key was disengaged.


The handling of the keys therefore forced the player to change the tone slowly, so that instruments with this type of key were suited only to slow, solemn presentations.

C. Hurdy-gurdies Without Keys

Next to hurdy-gurdies with keys, occasionally there were instruments without keys until the 17th century. A different mechanism of changing the pitch was used: the strings were shortened with the fingers. This technique, which was also common with bowed instruments, required a certain construction of the instrument, namely the use of a fingerboard or neck. A body without a neck, which is today the most usual form of the hurdy-gurdy, is not suitable for an instrument without keys: the strings must be fixed to the instrument in such a way that they are bowed by the entire upper surface of the wheel, and that means that they have to run as parallel as possible to that surface. In contrast to the later instruments, on which one or more strings running close to the soundboard were bowed by the wheel, the representations show all the strings of the keyless hurdy-gurdies lying next to each other on the highest point of the wheel. The wheel therefore had to have as slight of a curve as possible, for otherwise the rubbing of the wheel would cause the strings to slip off sideways. An extremely curved, i.e. small, wheel would further have caused the strings to lie at considerably varying distances from the soundboard, and this would make fingering difficult. The slight curve necessary for the bowing of the strings could only be provided by a correspondingly large wheel. Nevertheless, in order for it to be possible to press the strings against the soundboard, such a wheel had to be inserted in the body so far, that only a slight bow emerged (a). [figure][3-2a] This however was opposed, as most of the pictures of keyless hurdy-gurdies show, by the rather shallow depth of the body. Neither could a smaller wheel be inserted into the body so as to make possible the fingering of the strings against the soundboard, since the contact surface of the wheel, limited by the small size of the wheel and hence by a greater curve,


was too small to accommodate several strings which were supposed to lie next to each other (b).

The wheel therefore always emerged too far out of the body to allow the strings, which necessarily had to run parallel to the surface of the wheel's edge (see page 15) , to be pressed against the soundboard or fingerboard (c). [figure][3-2c] Their necessarily great distance from the soundboard enabled them to be merely pinched with the fingers. Therefore a keyless hurdy-gurdy, if a finger board of the same height as the wheel was not attached to the soundboard, had to have a neck (d). [figure][3-2d]

This same type of construction is necessary if the intervals between the individual notes are determined by frets. In comparison with unfretted instruments however this reduces the potential for changing pitch.

In the Middle Ages hurdy-gurdies without keys with strings that were fingered were known and used. However on the basis of the small number of preserved representations it must be supposed that such fretless and keyless instruments were a rarity, and are to be regarded as local peculiarities. The history of the instrument indicates that the principal instrument in all periods


was the hurdy-gurdy with keys which is still being played today, while the keyless instrument has completely disappeared.

There are only two known 13th century representations of hurdy-gurdies without keys. Both come from the same geographical area, which leads to the conclusion that they were a localized development. The older of the two, one of the pictures of the "Septem artes liberales" in the Hortus deliciarum of the abbess Herrad von Landsberg (c. 1200) (ill. 3) [figlink], shows a hurdy-gurdy without keys, depicted as one of Lady Musica's instruments.

This hurdy-gurdy, as well as the instrument with rotating keys (ill. 2) [figlink], received the name "organistrum". The fact that instruments with and without keys received the same name proves that the only criterion for defining the organistrum was the wheel and the specific quality of sound which was associated with it, and not the manner in which the strings were shortened. Aside from their names, these instruments are also similar in shape, in the form of the peghead, and in their overall size. Measured against the picture of Lady Musica and the size of the other instruments shown, this keyless instrument must have been for two players. It is not shown specifically how it was held. It can be surmised that the technique of string shortening depicted in illustrations 4, 5, and 8 [figlink] was the one used here, with the player's hand pressing the string against the neck either from above or from below.

The second representation of a keyless instrument of the 13th century also comes from southern Germany. In an initial "B" of a Bible manuscript a hurdy-gurdy player sits in the middle of the top half, and his instrument has a slim pear-shaped body with a neck and peghead and is strung with three strings (ill. 4) [figlink]. The player turns the crank with his right hand and fingers the neck of the instrument with his left hand. The four fingers are supported by the pressure of the thumb and apparently are used to touch several strings. This manner of playing appears to be quite uncomfortable for the musician.


In the representation of a three-stringed keyless hurdy-gurdy with a guitar-shaped body in the 15th century (ill. 5)[figlink] the left hand of the player lies under the neck, and it no doubt performs the task of shortening the strings. In this picture only the thumb presses the strings, which pass over the neck, and this caused Georg Schünemann to conclude that this finger was used to play a melody over bass drones. [fn][82-1] However this is contradicted by the fact that the thumb lies over the entire width of the neck, and therefore shortens all the strings and excludes the possibility of drone sounds.

This technique of the simultaneous shortening of all the strings with just one finger corresponds to the use of the rotating keys (ill. 2) [figlink]. The strings are shortened by the same amount, so that if the strings are tuned to different pitches only the inflexible harmonies of parallel organum are produced.

A hurdy-gurdy player is found among the miniatures which decorate a page of the Falkensteinen Codex of 1380 (ill. 8) [figlink], depicting angels engaged in making music. The body of his instrument bears no resemblance to the guitar shaped bodies of other contemporary hurdy-gurdies. It is strung with four strings, of which at least one runs next to the neck and is apparently a drone.

Despite the clarity of the picture it cannot be specifically determined what method is being used to shorten the strings. The three clearly visible dark lines on the neck could be keys, although they would need to touch the strings when they are played, which is not the case here. The usual keybox for hurdy-gurdies with keys is missing here as well. Above all the manner in which the player is holding his hand refutes the notion that this instrument has keys. His left hand grasps the neck from below, and he presses two strings down with his fingers. These strings would be melody strings, while the other two would be unshortened drone strings. Therefore it can be assumed with some certainty that the dark lines on the neck of the instrument are marks for finger position of the fingers.


There is a Swedish representation, which is a picture of eight angels making music, of which one is playing a hurdy-gurdy with a lute-like body and four strings (ill. 9) [figlink]. The lack of clarity of the picture does not permit us to establish with certainty which technique of string shortening is being used here.

The angel is pressing four fingers of the left hand against the neck, and it cannot be seen whether or how the strings are shortened. In consideration of the position of the hand the eight lines running across the neck could be viewed as keys which are pressed downwards during the playing. Such a technique would however contradict that of the instruments common in Europe at that time, which permit a much more flexible playing. The keys, once pressed down, would have to be raised again, and this would permit only a slow manner of playing.

It is more probable that the lines on the neck are frets and that the position of the hand that is required is not correctly shown, as are most of the details of this picture. For example, the point where the crank enters the body is too low to permit a proper connection with the wheel. In this position of the wheel all four strings would lie on one side of it. For the picture to be exact the strings which run diagonally over the soundboard must be so strung that the top string was at the height of the player's four fingers, while under it and still above the neck would be the second and third string, with only the fourth string running underneath the neck directly to the peghead as a drone string.

If the eight lines on the neck of this hurdy-gurdy are understood to be frets, then this instrument had a tonal range of a diatonic octave with the notes b-flat and b. With just one melody string the hurdy-gurdy pictured here would have had a lesser tonal range than a Nyckelharpa, played by an angel pictured in the same place, which had twelve keys. This made it possible for the Nyckelharpa to be played diatonically in a range of 1 1/2 octaves. With more than one melody string there arose the possibility of a tonal range of two octaves when two strings were tuned an octave apart.

A considerably later representation of a hurdy-gurdy without keys is shown in a woodcut dated 1514 (ill. 10) [figlink].


A minstrel who has hung his hurdy-gurdy around his neck follows a noble couple. The body of his instrument is arched, and five strings are fastened to a wide bar on the soundboard and run to the peghead over a wide neck. On the side which is turned to the observer a brace appears to be attached to the body and the peghead, as we know it on other forms of the hurdy-gurdy (ills. 176, 177, 178, 179) [figlink]. The strings lie flat over the soundboard. This leads to the conclusion that the wheel covered by the wheel cover is either very small or, on the other hand, quite large and inserted to such an extent into the body that only a shallow curve emerges out of the soundboard; this last possibility is supported by the arched back of the instrument.

As a picture from the 17th century shows, keyless as well as keyed instruments were known for a long time (ill. 11) [figlink]. Michael Praetorius presents two forms of the 'Bawren-Leyren', one instrument with keys and next to it an instrument without keys. This hurdy-gurdy has a new form which clearly shows that the body and neck were borrowed from another bowed instrument. It is the first instrument of this type on which there is a fingerboard clearly visible. The f-shaped sound holes probably originated from the f-shaped sound holes in the viola, which were common since the 16th century.[fn][84-1] The four strings come to an end behind a common bridge in a tailpiece and all appear to run over the fingerboard. The conversion of other stringed instruments into hurdy-gurdies was not uncommon and is well established by preserved instruments (ills. 63, 64, 67) [figlink].

An extremely unusual form of keyless hurdy-gurdy is depicted in a Flemish miniature, c. 1455-60. In a breviary of Philip the Good of Burgundy (1396-1467) the kings of Judah are shown in the tree of Jesse with musical instruments, with which they offer praise to God (ill. 33) [figlink]. One of the instruments is a box hurdy-gurdy without keys. The box-shaped hurdy-gurdy was very popular in 13th and 14th century Spain


and England (ills. 27, 28, 29, 30, 35) [figlink] and was still built in later times in other areas (ills. 38, 39, 41, 42) [figlink]. As the illustrations mentioned show however, these always had keys. However in illustration 33 the strings running over the soundboard are shortened from below by the player's left hand. The upper strings served no doubt as drone strings, the player's fingers seem only to touch the lowest string. There are no frets. Apart from the number of strings, which is rather clearly too large, the representation of this instrument can be considered to be entirely realistic.

Of the hurdy-gurdies without keys there is yet another peculiar instrument to mention, which apparently comes from the 12th century. A drawing of this hurdy-gurdy was made from a sculpture on the church of Saint Nicholas in Civray, Département Vienne (ill. 12) [figlink]. [fn][85-1] Edmond de Coussemaker maintains that the instrument has two wheels, a device which would not only be peculiar but impossible to play as well. The body of the instrument consists of two circular parts connected by one straight part. The crank is turned with the right hand, the left hand fingers the strings from underneath the neck. The structures sketched in the circular parts of the body are either a wheel and a bridge or a wheel and one or two sound holes. If the curve which stands next to the playing hand represents the wheel, then there has to be a bridge situated on the crank end of the instrument. That would mean that the string, despite the great length between the bridge and the wheel, would be fingered directly on the other side of the wheel. More probable is the situation of the wheel close to the crank; then however the other curve cannot be the bridge, but it would have to represent one or two sound holes. Circular or semi-circular sound holes are indeed found on other representations of the hurdy-gurdy in the 12th century (ills. 13, 14) [figlink].


As unrealistic as this representation is, it is nevertheless very informative for this period and for the geographical area in which it was made, since this hurdy-gurdy is very small and made specifically for one player.

Keyless hurdy-gurdies had, in comparison with instruments with keys, the advantage that they offered a greater selection of tones and permitted greater freedom of movement while they were played. The number of strings of these instruments varied between three and five, and there were therefore several possibilities for the use of melody and drone strings; one or even several strings simultaneously could be used for playing the melody. When several strings were used simultaneously for the melodic line there were various combinations possible. The strings had to be fingered in parallel as on an instrument with rotating keys. They could therefore be tuned in fifths, fourths, or even in thirds. Since they were equally shortened the melody strings could also be tuned in unison or in octaves, which emphasized the melody more above the drones.

It is more likely however that only one melody string was used at a time. Either the same one was used consistantly, or the player might choose from two or more dedicated to this purpose. This required that the individual strings be tuned in various pitches, so that when another string on the instrument was fingered the tonal range was extended. This technique seems to be especially suitable for the Swedish instrument with its eight frets (see page 83 and ill. 9) [figlink]. The frets extend across the entire width of the neck, over which three of the four strings run. Thus each of the three strings can be used both as a melody string as well as a drone string. When the three strings are tuned to the prime note, the fifth, and the octave there are enough notes for two octaves:


With such a tuning there is a tonal range from c' to c''' with b-flat and b in both octaves and f-sharp''. With this it is possible to play in the keys of C, G, and F. The same tonal range remains when the fourth f' is used instead of the fifth. The only difference is that the f-sharp'' is replaced by e-flat''. It is entirely possible to constantly just use one of these strings as a melody string, while the others sound as drones. When the strings are tuned to these pitches the accompanying sound of the drone is just as inoffensive as when it is removed while the corresponding string is used as a melody string.

Playing a hurdy-gurdy without keys is only difficult when the player attempts to play chords on the melody strings. The impression of such a manner of playing is given by the picture of the player in the letter B (ill. 4) [figlink]. It seems as though the musician is playing several strings at the same time, since he has placed all four fingers on the neck. In such a technique however there are considerable difficulties with the fingering. Since the strings, unlike those of a plucked or other bowed instrument which can be sounded at will, are always all bowed by the wheel, playing a piece with constantly changing chords which had to be individually fingered required a very slow presentation. If the crank was constantly turned the undesired prime tone of the free string would have sounded every time the fingering was changed. In order to avoid this, the movement of the wheel could be interrupted and the wheel brought to a standstill before every change of chord; this would though make impossible any kind of fluent playing. Aside from this the use of the hurdy-gurdy for chordal playing on several melody strings is improbable. For this method of playing other bowed instruments are more suitable. The technique used with keyless hurdy-gurdies would not have differed much from that used for hurdy-gurdies with keys.

If one considers the spread of the keyless hurdy-gurdies, it turns out that all of the representations -- with the exception of the one from Civray -- came from Germany, Holland, or Sweden. Therefore the area in which this form of the instrument was used was limited. Apparently


these hurdy-gurdies were spread from Germany to Flanders and Sweden; their existence however, in comparison with the much greater number of preserved instruments with keys from these areas, remains limited to just individual specimens in all regions. This was obviously related to the greater demands on technical ability which this instrument presented, whereby the difficulties were unequally greater than the advantages which the musician could derive from the better musical potential of the instrument.

D. Pull Keys

Up into the 14th century there were, besides the hurdy-gurdies without keys and with rotating keys, instruments with two further different mechanisms of string shortening: hurdy-gurdies with 'push keys' and with 'pull keys'.

Push keys had little tangents which sat above the strings and touched these from above. The player had to push the keys, which were difficult to move, from top to bottom and then pull them up again to change the tone. Although they were positioned in the same way on the neck, the opposite procedure was applied to the pull keys. Their tangents touched the strings from below and therefore had to be pulled by the player from bottom to top in order to produce the desired tone (a). Changing the pitch was accomplished by pushing it down again (b). If however the key holes were made so large that the keys


could glide smoothly in them, the player could simply let them go, so that they fell into their original position of their own accord.

The pull keys are one of the oldest of the hurdy-gurdy string-shortening mechanisms. They can be seen in the earliest preserved 12th century representations of large hurdy-gurdies and remained, as the later representations show, confined to the large instruments. That this mechanism could not be used for the small one-player hurdy-gurdy was due to the fact that one player alone was required to operate the keys; with one hand he would hold up the desired key and would only let go of it when with the other hand he had pulled up the next key, so that the prime tone of the free string would not sound between the melody notes.

The first representations of hurdy-gurdies depict instruments which could only be played by two musicians on account of the pull key mechanism for shortening the strings, and on account of their size. Emmanuel Winternitz estimates their length to be one and a half meters. [fn][89-1] The earliest preserved representation, found on the cathedral of Santo Domingo in Soria which was built around 1150 (ill. 13) [figlink], no longer shows any details, but is nevertheless important on account of its date and because it has the comparatively greatest similarity to the first representation of a hurdy-gurdy in France, on a capital in the cloisters of the Saint George Abbey in Bocherville near Rouen, dated in the same period (ill. 14) [figlink]: the shape of the body as well as the two circular sound holes are essentially the same on both instruments. There is however a difference in the stringing. The French instrument clearly has three strings, while the hurdy-gurdy in Soria shows only one; this cannot be attributed to the clumsiness of the artist, since he has given several strings to the other instruments pictured nearby.

Both of these representations are partly destroyed, making it especially difficult to determine the mechanism of


string shortening used. However it can be assumed with some certainty that the instruments in Soria (ill. 13) [figlink] and in Bocherville (ill. 14) [figlink] both had pull keys. In the case of the Soria instrument this mechanism is necessary in view of the position of the instrument. This hurdy-gurdy lies with its back on the player's knees and not on its side like other represented instruments (ills. 14, 17, 19, 22) [figlink] As a result there is no other way of shortening the strings possible, except by pulling out and again pushing in the individual keys. The player who operates the keys has his right hand lying on the body of the instrument while he is just pulling a key out with the other. In contrast to all other representations of the large instruments, he is not using both hands to operate the keys. This indicates a very slow manner of performance which allows the player enough time to pull out and push in the keys, or also it might indicate that a sustained drone is being played, in which case the constant change of the keys is superfluous. It is very possible that he needed the right hand to steady the instrument. Either the keys sit so snugly in their holes that it requires some effort to pull them out, or else by pushing the keys back in the instrument's position might be changed unless it was held.

This hurdy-gurdy, like all the other large instruments for two players, must have been a bass instrument. This conclusions is reached from the size of the body in comparison with the instruments pictured next to it and the corresponding length of the strings. . The supposition that large hurdy-gurdies were used as deep drone instruments is supported also by the representation of the instrument in Soria: the hurdy-gurdy's unusual stringing with just one string, the shortness of the neck and the width of the visible keys lead to the conclusion that this instrument had no more than four or five keys and hence, when they were arranged diatonically, had a tonal range of, at most, a hexachord. On account of the deep tones which were not readily handled this hurdy-gurdy was certainly used only as a drone instrument. This application demanded only a slow manner of presentation, permitted the use of hard-to-move keys, as shown by the position of the one player's hands.


Unfortunately the neck with the keys in the representation of the large hurdy-gurdy in Bocherville (ill. 14) [figlink] is also extensively damaged, so that the tonal range of this instrument can no longer be precisely determined. The sketch of this representation made by Antoine Vidal in the 19th century probably correctly represents the number of keys as being five (ill. 15) [figlink], in which case the tonal range would correspond to that of the Soria instrument. Here the key player uses both hands, probably because the keys are easier to move, while the musician who turns the crank also steadies the instrumentl. The Bocherville hurdy-gurdy seems to be larger than the one at Soria: the body is wider and somewhat longer, and the three strings indicate a greater richness in sound.

Somewhat later are the hurdy-gurdy representations on the cathedral of Toro in the Spanish province of Leon (last quarter of the 12th century, see ill. 16) [figlink], on the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (1168-1188, see ill. 17) [figlink], and on the archbishop's palace in the same place (end of the 12th century, see ill. 18) [figlink]. The instruments in Santiago are represented much more finely and exactly. Both are richly decorated with ornaments, especially on the cover of the keybox. Although the instrument on the archbishop's palace is slightly damaged, one can recognize the shape of the body from the side which is faced toward the player who is cranking. In contrast to the earlier representations, neither instrument has the pure guitar or figure-eight form. Their sides only curve in slightly, and the instrument on the cathedral has a small outward bulge in the inward curve (a).


The change in the form of these instruments appears simply to be the result of more ornamentation, and is therefore not a consequence of situating the wheel within the body. The wheel, viewed from the crank, is situated before the bulge in the middle. Only one representation (ill. 19) [figlink], on account of the obvious development of this bulge, can offer support to the supposition that this is where the wheel was housed. Countering this supposition is the fact that the connection between the wheel and the crank becomes more difficult with a longer distance between them. In addition, the pitch of the strings would be unfavorably affected since their length as well as the distance of the keys from the wheel would be decreased. This form with the bulge in the middle of the body is found especially on the large hurdy-gurdies of the 12th and 13th centuries (ills. 17, 19, 22) [figlink], but also occasionally on small 13th century hurdy-gurdies (ill. 23) [figlink].[fn][92-1]

The bodies of both the large hurdy-gurdies represented in Santiago also somewhat different proportions than the instruments earlier pictured. They appear to be more compact and shorter, which leads to the conclusion that rested just on the knees of the musicians. The large size of the body was apparently abandoned in favor of a longer neck, which rests completely on the knees of the second player and extends somewhat on both sides of them. The neck was apparently lengthened in order to accommodate more keys, as the greater number of keys of this instrument proves, as compared to the earlier representations in Soria and in Bocherville (ills. 13, 14, 15) [figlink]. The hurdy-gurdy pictured on the cathedral of Santiago (ill. 17) [figlink] has twelve keys, giving a tonal range of twelve notes with b-flat and b included,(c - g'). With twelve keys a chromatic arrangement could have been considered. However this is discounted by the treatises for the hurdy-gurdy which describe


a diatonic tuning of the instrument even in the 13th century . (see page 246)

On the partly destroyed representation of the large hurdy-gurdy on the archbishop's palace in Santiago (ill. 18) [figlink] there are only eight keys still recognizable, because the last piece of the neck has been broken off. A comparison of the neck length of this hurdy-gurdy with that of the completely preserved instrument on the cathedral of the same city (ill. 17) [figlink] justifies the supposition that this instrument also originally had more than eight keys.

These keys, like those of the other instrument in Santiago, must have been easily moveable pull keys, and for the following reasons: while one player turns the crank, a second player operates the keys with both hands. In order to produce a specific tone this player had to pull up the corresponding key with one hand and could then, once he had pulled up the next key with the other hand, simply let the first one go, since it would fall back into its original position on its own. The advantage of this mechanism lay in the possibility for producing faster-moving melodies, as opposed to that with the hard-to-move keys, which needed to be pushed back into the body when the note was to be ended. The disadvantage was that it required two players.

A further indication that this mechanism was used is given by the clearly visible knobs on the ends of the keys of the instrument on the cathedral (ill. 17) [figlink]. These knobs lie directly over the neck but do not form the ends of the keys, which taper again towards the end. These knobs were pushed over the tapered ends in order to provide a stop for the keys, which would not have been necessary if the keys had to be pushed back in by the player. On this instrument the widened keys lay with their knobs externally on top of the neck, meaning that they slid back into their original position of their own accord. It also means that in their position of rest they probably did not make contact with the other inner side of the neck, that they were not so long that they emerged a little from neck when not in use. The reason for the shortness of the keys can only be


that the noise the keys would make falling against the inner side of the neck was undesirable. Since on the other hand these short keys were not supposed to slip into the neck completely, they were provided with knobs which prevented this.

Two 13th century representations of large hurdy-gurdies which do not permit anything to be said about the key mechanism used should be mentioned here on account of their peculiar construction. The first is a miniature in the letter B of a Flemish Psalter manuscript from the Hennegau (ill. 20) [figlink]. The instrument pictured has both the wheel and the neck with the keys on the right side as seen from the player. The body rests only upon the knees of the key player, and the actual resonating chamber of the instrument extends far beyond his left knee. This hurdy-gurdy depicts a figure-eight form with a very marked central bulge, a long neck and at its end again a type of small case. Out of this part extends a very long-shafted crank which is operated by the second player.

In this type of construction the position of the wheel is problematic. If it was really situated on the crank side in the little body apparently made just for it, the strings, when shortened by the keys which lay on the neck, vibrated over a very short section of their length. If the wheel was anchored in the large part of the body there would have been difficulties regarding the location and operation of the keys, since a long shaft would have had to run in or directly on the neck on account of the great distance between the crank and the wheel.

The second instrument, pictured in a Psalter of Saint Ludwig (ill. 21) [figlink], also presents the observer with similar problems, which however are increased by the fact that on this instrument, shaped in a figure-eight without a neck but with a small additional body, no keys can be recognized.

E. Push Keys

From the same period in which representations of hurdy-gurdies with pull keys have come down to us have come also representations of instruments with push keys. With this


mechanism the keys are indeed similarly situated on the neck, but the tangents are positioned above the strings. The player shortened the strings by pushing the keys down into the neck (a) and when the tone was to be ended, pulled them up again (b). This key mechanism requires

a certain method of construction of the individual keys: the end which emerges from the neck must have a thick knob to facilitate the lifting of the key. With this method of shortening the strings it was absolutely necessary that the keys were securely positioned in the frame and they were not easily moved: in no case could they slide easily and of their own accord, since otherwise the unused keys would have constantly sat loosely on the strings, which would have made it impossible to play pure single tones.

Since push keys were fixed whether they were shortening strings or in a rest position, hurdy-gurdies with this key mechanism could be also played by a single musician, in contrast to the instruments with the easily sliding pull keys.

The mechanism of the push keys is especially easily recognizable in the representation of the large hurdy-gurdy in an English Psalter manuscript of about 1170 (ill. 22) [figlink]. The instrument, whose crank is not as usual situated on the player's right side, but rather on the left side, has three tuning pegs and there are three strings stretched over the soundboard as well. The keys extend too far out of a neck closed with a decorated soundboard to be pull keys, and all of them except one are pulled


up high while the key player is just raising the key next to the body, and is therefore ending the note just played.

The application of this mechanism on a large instrument was however probably exceptional. Besides this single picture of a large hurdy-gurdy there are a great number of representations of smaller instruments with push keys, which leads to the conclusion that this mechanism was developed especially for the small one-player instruments. That the representation of the large instrument is earlier is explained by a problem in preservation: on the basis of preserved representations the picturing of the small hurdy-gurdies began first in the 13th century. But from literary sources in which the hurdy-gurdy is characterized as an instrument of the minstrels, it can be deduced that these were used as early as the 12th century, since it cannot be supposed that the minstrels used large clumsy bass instruments for two players; they undoubtedly preferred those hurdy-gurdies which on account of their small size and the corresponding shorter length of the strings were descant and melody instruments, which one player alone could play and carry. Although for a long period of time both small and large instruments were built, the latter were represented earlier and given preference in the most important pictorial sources of the 12th and 13th centuries: on churches, cathedrals and in the miniatures of the Psalter and bible manuscripts prepared by monks. The reason for this is to be sought in the large hurdy-gurdy's role as a church instrument. After the 14th century there are no more representations of the large instrument preserved, which indicates that it disappeared from the ecclesiastical instrumentarium around this time.

The picture of King David playing the hurdy-gurdy in a south German codex of the 13th century (ill. 23) [figlink] clearly shows the body with its neck, wheel and tailpiece as well as two strings. The instrument has the form of the two-player hurdy-gurdy and must be very large, for the musician reaches the last key only with the outstretched arm. This hurdy-gurdy possesses six or eight push keys, of which the player is in the act of pushing one down with the


ball of his hand, while he is raising the one previously used with his thumb.

The same key design, but a different shape, is shown by a miniature coming likewise from southern Germany, a miniature of a hurdy-gurdy from the world chronicle of Rudolf of Ems (c. 1360) (ill. 24) [figlink]. This two-stringed instrument, whose crank is turned with the left hand, has the shape of a fiedel.[??] The technique of play is well depicted in this picture: the player is just about to raise the fourth of his five keys with his thumb and at the same time to push the second one down with his forefinger.

A hurdy-gurdy with the shape of a guitar is shown in a representation on the south side of the choirloft (???) (Chorshranken) of the cathedral of Köln [sp] (Cologne) (1325) (ill. 25) [figlink]. The number of keys of this three stringed instrument cannot be exactly determined. The hurdy-gurdy player is looking towards a musician singing and playing the fiedel [??] so that it has the appearance that he is in the process of tuning his instrument, for he has his playing hand on the peghead at the end of the neck.

Small hurdy-gurdies with push keys were built in two different shapes: with a neck and without a neck. A neck offered the instrument maker the advantage of having something to place the keys in without difficulty. The body then had to be built smaller than those of the large instruments so that it could be handled by one musician. The disadvantage lay in the fact that the player had to move his hand sideways in order to shorten the strings with the keys. Since however when the tonal range was increased the neck, in which the keys were located, had to be lengthened, this was naturally limited by the length of the player's arm. An extension of the tonal range could only be attained when the keys were moved closer to the wheel, that is, when the neck construction was abandoned and the keys, which could not be fastened to the soundboard on account of the necessarily large distance between the strings and the soundboard (see page 79) , were situated in the upper side of the body. Of course this construction required a change in the position of the wheel and the strings.

With push keys which were situated above in the side


only the strings which ran within the body could be shortened. When however these were strung within the body, the wheel no longer had to emerge part way out of the body in order to come into contact with them, and consequently it was also positioned completely within the body. The strings apparently ran directly underneath the side, in which the keys were located, and over the wheel, so that the push keys made contact with them from above (a).

With this method of string-shortening the push keys did not necessarily have to have the tangent on them (b), but could instead be widened at the bottom and thus one or more strings could be shortened, as desired (c).

With this key mechanism it was not possible to position the strings on the forward side of the instrument directly under the soundboard, since the push keys would have pushed the strings in the direction in which the wheel was turned, thereby creating the danger of pushing them too far sideways (d). This could be prevented by positioning the strings on the side facing the player (e).


In redesigning the hurdy-gurdy into an instrument without a neck, curious transitional shapes arose. Thus the hurdy-gurdy in the picture of a king playing music (13th century) (ill. 26) [figlink] still has a guitar shaped body with three large roses on the soundboard. However the neck usual with this shape is missing, and the keys sit in the top side of the body as on box hurdy-gurdies. The ends of the keys are equally long, although they also extend over the curve in the side of the instrument. The player has his left hand upon and is about to push a key down with his fore-finger. The thumb, which cannot be seen, is apparently raising a key which is hidden behind the hand.

What are noteworthy about this instrument are the six strings which are strung from one bar to the other over the soundboard, and their arrangement in pairs. The keys, apparently 13 in number, are inserted into the side of the body and if tuned diatonically would provide a tonal range from c' to a'' (with b-flat') or from c' to b'' (without b-flat'). The tangents did not touch the strings along the soundboard, which indeed would only have been possible if these had run inside of the body or if the soundboard, which is the height of the keys, was missing.

When the keys were situated in the side of the body there arose, on the basis of the repositioning of the wheel and the strings to the inside of the body, the possibility of simplifying the shape of the hurdy-gurdy. The instrument was built in the shape of a box, out of which only the crank and the ends of the keys emerged.


In a late 13th century English manuscript (ill. 27) [figlink] the four kings of the apocalypse are shown in four fields with musical instruments. In each field one appears to be playing or presenting an instrument while the others are listening or watching. The organ player in the lower right-hand field and the hurdy-gurdy player in the lower left-hand field are shown playing their instruments. The hurdy-gurdy player has a box-shaped instrument on his knees, but its crank is not situated on the left side as usual. The instrument has possibly six push keys on the top side of the body, of which three are visible, while the others are covered by the player's right hand. The position of the wheel cannot be seen on account of the closed and decorated cover. It appears nevertheless to sit directly behind the place where the crank enters the body, for there are no keys here. [Editor's note: This wheel position would provide only a very small area of the soundboard for the bridge to sit on.]

There is a hurdy-gurdy depicted in an early 14th century bestiary (ill. 28) [figlink]. The author claims that the beautiful sound lured the fish: ("qui ad symphoniam gregatim conveniunt" [fn][100-1]). The strings are strung over a wheel visible on the cover, in contrast to the other instruments with this form. It is clearly recognizable that there is no connection between the three strings and the nine push keys situated on the top side of the body. The possibility cannot be dismissed that these are drone strings and that the melody strings are situated within the body. However the strings could also have been drawn to represent the strings hidden within the body. Two further details indicate that the artist was not overly concerned with a realistic illustration, or was perhaps ignorant of the instrument. The row of keys is just as long as the body, which means that the space necessary for the wheel to rub the strings was not taken into consideration. Also, the crank sits too high to connect with the wheel, here depicted by an oval.


Other representations of box hurdy-gurdies are found in the Lutrell Psalter, which originated in England around 1330 (ills. 29, 30) [figlink]. In one of the pictures a gentleman is holding an instrument on his knees and playing it. Like other representations of this form the situation of the 14 keys, which extend across the entire length of the body and do not consider the space which the wheel takes up, is not realistically depicted. If their number is correct, then it had a diatonic tonal range of two complete octaves. Since the peghead has the form of a three-leafed clover, the hurdy-gurdy was most likely strung with three strings. The peghead sits very high on the instrument, while the shaft of the wheel sits very low, which must mean that this hurdy-gurdy had a small wheel over which the strings ran which were shortened from above by the keys. The positions of the player's hand indicates that these were push keys, since he is just about to push a key down.

The other hurdy-gurdy depicted in the Lutrell Psalter has essentially the same shape (ill. 29) [figlink]. It has 13 keys which are likewise distributed across the entire body. The picture again shows the reversed manner of play with the left hand on the crank. Since the peghead is in the shape of a carved head the number of strings cannot be determined. The important feature of this picture is that for the first time it shows a hurdy-gurdy player walking instead of sitting.

Another English representation of a box instrument with push keys also dates from the 14th century (ill. 31) [figlink]. Like the instruments discussed above the (apparently) 15 keys of this hurdy-gurdy are distributed over the entire side. The shape of the body is however different in that the soundboard slopes slightly from the wheel side to the side where the pegs must be, so that the strings run at a slight angle from the wheel to the pegs. In order to preserve the same distance between the keys and the strings, either the keys would have to be lengthened (a), or the soundboard would have to be angled to correspond with the strings (b).


A similar tapering of the body towards the head end can also be seen on a 13th century box hurdy-gurdy with push keys (ill. 32) [figlink]. In this picture even the gap which separates the wheel, depicted on the soundboard, from the keys which sit in the upper side is correctly shown.

Most of the representations of hurdy-gurdies with push keys come from England. This mechanism of string shortening seems to have been employed especially frequently there in the 13th and 14th centuries. At the same time sliding keys were already becoming well known in the other countries, as well as here and there in England (ills. 37, 47) [figlink]. This is especially true for the box instruments: the first preserved representation of an English box hurdy-gurdy with push keys is dated later than Spanish representations of instruments of the same shape with sliding keys.

F. Sliding Keys

The pull or push keys which were situated on the top of the hurdy-gurdy were not well suited for a melody instrument which would enable the player to change notes quickly. Therefore a method had to be found for attaching the keys in such a way as to make them easily playable with one hand and satisfactory for the demands of playing melodies quickly. This was attained by transposing the keys to the lower side of the instrument, so that the tangents which were fixed to them shortened the strings from below. Situated on the bottom side


of the neck or of the body, the keys were grasped by the player from across the soundboard of the instrument, were pushed from the bottom to the top (a) and simply released when the note changed. The musician was spared the task of releasing the note by grasping it a second time, since the key slid easily through its own weight to its original position (b).

In contrast to the other mechanisms, in which the player always had to use at least two fingers to operate the keys, with sliding keys he could operate these with one finger as with a keyboard and so produce quickly changing notes.

As representations prove, sliding keys were used when push keys were still popular. The latter undoubtedly represented the earlier mechanism whose development after the introduction of sliding keys would have been a step backwards, since the sliding keys represented without doubt a better mechanism, and with its use the technique of string shortening was established which had not been changed up to the present day.

Both pull and push keys could have easily led to the development of sliding keys. The easily movable pull keys fell of their own accord back into their places. The push keys on the other hand were pushed down and pulled up again, but could not be made to glide on account of their position on top of the neck of the small hurdy-gurdy. If the instrument was turned around so that the push keys emerged from the bottom, all that was needed to attain the sliding key mechanism was to make them free to slide. Thus the easily movable pull keys as well as the push keys could have led


to the introduction of sliding keys on the lower side of the instrument.

The way in which the instrument was held had to be changed with the use of sliding keys. The position of the keys on the lower side required that the playing hand be held differently, when it had previously moved on the neck of the hurdy-gurdy, . With the sliding keys the hand had to reach over the body in which the keys lay, and therefore a keybox covering became necessary. Otherwise the performance could be disturbed when the arm or sleeve of the musician touched the keys. Up to this time the keybox cover or keybox top had been attached for purely aesthetic purposes.

There is already an early form of the sliding key mechanism depicted on a large 12th century hurdy-gurdy. A representation on the church of San Miguel in Estrella (c. 1185) in Navarre (ill. 34) [figlink] shows the large instrument for two players. It lies with its back on the knees of both players and not on its side, as in other representations. The body is sharply separated from the neck and is rather small. The neck appears to be bent toward the ground in order to allow the instrument to lie horizontally on the players' knees. The tonal range, as with other two-player hurdy-gurdies, must have been considerable. Seven keys are visible, the others are covered by the hands of the player. Since the instrument is positioned on its back the keys could not be attached in a manner similar to those of the other large hurdy-gurdies. They are indeed located on the neck, but not on the side facing the player (a).

In such a position the keys had to be pushed in and pulled out again. In such a position the keys had to be pushed in and pulled out again. With this method of attachment the player needed only to lay the instrument on its lower side instead of on its back


in order to permit the keys to fall back on their own and thus use the technique of the sliding keys.

Around the middle of the 13th century the small hurdy-gurdy was already widely spread in Western Europe, some equipped with the old push keys, but some also with sliding keys. The origin of the new technique cannot be geographically pinpointed. Perhaps it arose in different areas at the same time independently of each other; this is supported by the temporal closeness of some representations which show various shapes of bodies but the same sliding keys. Possibly the new key mechanism was developed in Spain, for one of the early forms of the hurdy-gurdy, the box-form, appeared with sliding keys (ill. 35) [figlink] in Spain at the same time as they existed with push keys in England. (ill. 27) [figlink]

With hurdy-gurdies with bodies in the form of a box the development from push to sliding keys and the corresponding relocation of the keys to the lower side of the body required also the relocation of the strings within the body. In box-shaped hurdy-gurdies with sliding keys one possibility for the positioning of the strings was to simply move the strings from above, directly under the upper side in the case of push key instruments (a), to below, directly over the lower side (b).

With the strings in this position, if the wheel was fixed to the bottom side, then the wheel support had to be constructed so that the strings could run over the wheel without hindrance.

On these instruments with sliding keys it was also possible to place the strings over the wheel in front just underneath the soundboard, because the sliding keys pushed them against the turning on the wheel (c) and therefore prevented them from being pushed too much to one side.


The first representation of a hurdy-gurdy with a box shape and sliding keys is found in the miniatures of "Cantigas de Santa Maria" (c. 1270) of King Alfonsus X the Wise of Castile (ill. 35) [figlink]. One of the miniatures show two musicians, each of whom holds a small hurdy-gurdy on his knees. On the sides of the bodies, across from the cranks, are situated semi-circular pegheads. On one of the instruments three tuning pegs are visible. The keys on both hurdy-gurdies lie below. Like the other box instruments with push keys (ills. 27-32) [figlink] [figlink], these pictures are unrealistic in one point: the keys occupy the entire length of the body and must, when so attached, also touch the wheel and the string anchor. The instruments have 13 and 15 keys. With b-flat and b in one octave,15 keys gives a tonal range of two octaves.

A 14th century representation of a box hurdy-gurdy with sliding keys (ill. 36) [figlink], which shows the instrument in the hands of a Florentine marble angel [fn][106-1], is noteworthy on account of the position in which it is held. The angel is holding the hurdy-gurdy diagonally towards the ground, so that the left hand with the crank forms the lowest point. This diagonal position of the hurdy-gurdy in front of the body is found several times in medieval representations, when the instrument is played standing and not sitting (ill. 49) [figlink]. This is in contrast with the more usually represented position, where the crank end is held higher (ills. 48, 85, 137, 142) [figlink]. The angel's hurdy-gurdy has ten keys, whose button-like


knobs emerge from the lower side. There is a gap between the seventh and eighth key, which is a likely indication that a key is missing here (see page 121) . The angel is holding his instrument very high in front of him which forces him to play the keys from under the body instead of over and above.

The same position of the playing hand is shown by a 15th century English representation of an angel with a box hurdy-gurdy (ill. 37) [figlink]. The instrument here is indeed not held diagonally, rather horizontally in front of the body. The playing hand, here also the right hand, extends from under the body to play the sliding keys. As in other representations, the keys are incorrectly depicted (ills, 28, 29, 30, 35) [figlink]. There could anywhere from 11 to 13 keys, some of which some are covered by the angel's hand.

The number of representations of hurdy-gurdies with the box shape is small, in comparison with those of instruments with different forms. This leads to the conclusion that the box hurdy-gurdy was not built in large numbers. The size of these instruments was variable: two 17th century representations show hurdy-gurdies with very large bodies (ills. 38, 39) [figlink], a small instrument on the other hand is played by a cherub from the 18th century (ill. 40) [figlink]. This representation is unrealistic in that the eight strings shown over the soundboard could not be shortened by the eight keys sitting on the lower side. More exact is the representation of a young boy who is playing a box hurdy-gurdy (ill. 41) [figlink], also from the 18th century. It which shows even greater similarity with the medieval instruments of this type (ill. 35-37) [figlink]. The instrument has a small flat body with ten keys located in the lower side. The wheel, on account of the low sides, must be very small. In contrast to the box hurdy-gurdies of the Middle Ages this instrument is not held in front of the body like those in illustrations 38 and 39 [figlink]. Instead it is held diagonally to one side so that the musician, playing while he stands, has a comfortable position for his crank turning arm and enough freedom of movement as well.

Two preserved hurdy-gurdies of this form (ill. 42) [figlink] have only the box shape in common with the pictured instruments, for their keys are no longer situated on the


lower side of the body, but are enclosed by a keybox on the soundboard.

The sliding keys were inserted in the lower side of the instruments with other shapes (ills. 43,44) [figlink] besides the box hurdy-gurdies. They do not seem to show, as in illustration 45, any connection with the strings stretched across the soundboard, although the artist fitted them exactly into the curvature of the side. The probability is very slim that besides the six visible and unshortened vibrating strings there are melody strings within the body. It's most likely that this instrument is not to be taken to be a realistic picture of an actual hurdy-gurdy.

The guitar shape customary with the large medieval hurdy-gurdy was adopted for the construction of the smaller instruments. It was the most frequently portrayed shape of the hurdy-gurdy in the entire Middle Ages. Until modern times a characteristic of this body shape was the preservation of the neck as a receptacle for the keys.

The first preserved representation of a small guitar-shaped instrument with the sliding keys below on the neck is German dating from about 1250. It shows a hurdy-gurdy player on the Paradies of the Münster cathedral (ill. 46) [figlink], whose instrument does not have curved-in sides and has a very short neck. Nothing can be said about the number of keys, though on account of the shortness of the neck there could not have been many. The wheel is not visible but must lie directly behind the point where the shaft enters the body, since the artist provided no anchor for the strings stretched over the soundboard, but had them end in a slight semi-circle and thereby probably wished to indicate the position of the wheel. The most interesting feature of this representation are the five strings, which is an unusual number for the 13th century. The neck, upon which the left hand of the player is operating the keys, is very narrow, compared with the width of the space which the strings take up over the soundboard. That could mean that only the middle three run over the neck and that the two outside strings run directly to the pegs as drone strings.

A very precise representation of the medieval hurdy-gurdy appears in the English Belvoir psalter manuscript,


c. 1270 (ill. 47) [figlink]. A child with a hurdy-gurdy on its knees is sitting next to a crowned organ player. The organist is pressing down a key of the organ with his right hand while pointing with his left hand to the boy with the hurdy-gurdy. He therefore seems to be instructing the child by his example. The two fingers of his right hand which lie on two keys of the organ correspond to those of the boy, whose hand covers two keys, one of which is just being released. Since on the organ there are two pipes with different lengths (i.e. different pitches) belonging to each key, it is tempting to conclude that on the hurdy-gurdy as well with its three strings two of them were tuned in the same interval as the organ pipes. The third string was either also shortened by keys, so that a parallel organum was created, or it remained untouched and thus there was a parallel performance over one drone.

This hurdy-gurdy has a guitar shaped body with a rather long neck. Measured against the size of the adult organ player it seems to be rather small. The ends of the keys of this hurdy-gurdy have been widened to blocks and are easily recognized. They limit the extent to which the keys can be pushed in and form a row without gaps which makes it easier for the musician to play with his left hand, since he cannot see them (see page 116.)

Two representations of hurdy-gurdies in the shape of a guitar from the 14th century (ills. 48,49) [figlink] depict very clearly the difference in size and position of the instrument. While a minstrel holds his huge hurdy-gurdy with the neck sloping downwards and turns the crank above his right shoulder on account of the size of the instrument (ill. 48) [figlink]. An angel with a hurdy-gurdy on an Aragonese relic triptych shows the reverse position (ill.49) [figlink]. His instrument is much smaller, and he holds the neck with the keys diagonally upwards, while the right hand which turns the crank is at the lowest point. This leads to a rather uncomfortable position of the hand on the keys, which is clearly portrayed. There are five strings but only four pegs are shown. The highest string does not go to these pegs nor does it run parallel to the other strings over the soundboard, but it deviates somewhat, so that


although it goes through the keybox on the neck, it runs to a special peg on the side. The instrument has eight keys, on which there are decorations, letters, or numbers. Overall it seems to be heavily decorated, so that besides the two C-shaped soundholes there are a further six ornaments shown on the soundboard, which cannot all be soundholes. The symbols on the keys therefore must also be ornaments. The form of the body deviates from the guitar shape. The long sides are only very slightly curved inwards and taper towards the neck of the instrument, while the end on which the wheel is located is very wide. This is a shape which is often seen in the following centuries.

From Giotto's school comes a fresco in the chapter hall of the church of San Franciso in Pistoia (c. 1350) which depicts the ascent into heaven of St. Francis. An angel pictured there is playing a hurdy-gurdy with slightly curved-in sides, a neck, and six strings (ill.50) [figlink]. The number of keys cannot be seen. The significance of this representation lies in the fact that it is the first to show a hurdy-gurdy with a clearly visible wheel covering.

Guitar shaped hurdy-gurdies with keys on their necks were widespread even in the 15th and 16th centuries. On a 15th century French representation (ill. 51) [figlink] there are no keys to be seen on the rather short neck and only the position of the player's hand leads to the conclusion that that is where they are. On the other hand the hurdy-gurdy in a Danish picture of an angel (1560) has a very long neck with apparently considerable number of keys (ill. 52) [figlink]. The body of the instrument is large and fat, and the neck is so long that it does not appear that the player can reach the last keys.

From the first third of the 15th century an angel playing a hurdy-gurdy is preserved in the choir hall of the cathedral in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle). On this instrument the wheel and tailpiece are well depicted while the strings are not shown at all. The strings apparently run from the peghead with its four tuning pegs across the neck, which is provided with a cover. The keys for the lowest notes of the instruments cannot be seen since they are covered by


the player's hand. The upper six of the possibly 12 keys are arranged in groups of three. It can be assumed that in this arrangement the keys that fell between the groups were left out because the the corresponding notes were attained in another manner (see page 122) .

In comparison to the other 16th century representations of hurdy-gurdies the pictures of the "Leyer" or "Lyra" by Sebastian Virdung and Martin Agricola show unusually large instruments. The hurdy-gurdies represented (ills. 54, 55, 56) [figlink] have long necks, the sides of the bodies curve inwards on all four sides, and large C-shaped soundholes have been made in the soundboard on the neck side; on each instrument four strings are stretched over the neck. One difference lies in the number of the keys: Virdung shows eight, Agricola eleven. The crank does not sit directly on the pulled-in end, but emerges from a round piece especially designed for it. The curious thing about these pictures is the position of the peghead, which is bent downwards with the pegs underneath it, apparently borrowed from the lute. Such a downwards bent neck is found on no other representation of a hurdy-gurdy.

Aside from these instruments with their bent necks and tuning pegs which are placed behind them, other hurdy-gurdies, as far as can be established, had tuning pegs which either sat on the side or which were placed at the top of the instrument. Some Russian instruments with body designs obviously borrowed from the violin family have side-positioned pegs (ills. 63, 64, 128) [figlink], but guitar-shaped instruments from France and Spain have them as well (ills. 81-84, 88, 89) [figlink].On these rare hurdy-gurdies with side positioned pegs, the pegheads end in a scroll. Most of the hurdy-gurdies have pegs which sit at the top of the peghead, and this makes tuning easier for the player. This is because when he tunes his instrument he has to hold it on his knee, turn the wheel constantly with one hand, and turn the pegs with the other, and it is harder to reach the pegs when they are behind or at the side of the head.

As a late medieval drawing proves (ill. 57) [figlink], the peculiar shape of the instruments pictured by Virdung and Agricola was also known in France. The shape of the body, the number of strings, the types


of tailpiece, wheel covering, and the keybox are all in agreement, as are the position and shape of the soundholes. The differences are that the peghead is not bent and the ends of the keys have been shaped into blocks and do not have the round knobs of the instruments in illustrations 55 and 56. Also, the keys have been correctly depicted in their position of rest as sticking out. The instrument with its 13 keys also has a larger tonal range than the German hurdy-gurdies.

The schematic appearing drawing of an instrument from the 17th century (ill. 58) [figlink] also belongs to the class of hurdy-gurdies with necks. This hurdy-gurdy has a small square body, three strings and a very long neck with only poorly recognizable keys. This representation is of significance despite its lack of clarity, since it proves that the hurdy-gurdy with the long neck and the keys attached to it must have still been known in 17th century Germany.

With the introduction of the sliding keys the final mechanism of shortening the hurdy-gurdy's strings was already known in the 13th century, although the method of holding the keys did not become uniform until the end of the Middle Ages. Instruments without necks, in which the keys sat on the lower side, were in the minority compared to the forms which used a neck to hold the keys. Only in the 15th century do we first find representations of hurdy-gurdies whose neck has been partially or completely replaced by a keybox on the soundboard. Like the keys situated in the neck, the keybox was provided with a cover, usually decorated, whereby the impression was given that the neck had been pushed back on to the soundboard up to the wheel.

The keybox, like the placement of the keys in a side of the body, enabled the keys to be moved closer to the wheel. This development in turn enabled the higher notes to be played and allowed a reduction in the string length, so that the prime tone of the free string had a higher pitch as well. If the shorter strings were to be stretched above the soundboard across the wheel to the pegs, and not within the body, then the keybox was absolutely necessary for the strings to run horizontally from the tailpiece over the


wheel to the pegs (a).

The fact that hurdy-gurdies with a keybox or neck and with keys that were situated in the lower side co-existed, is proven by several representations in which both methods of locating the key were shown. In the frame of a book page (c. 1470) a hurdy-gurdy player is kneeling with a large neckless instrument (ill. 59) [figlink]. Although his instrument apparently possesses a keybox, he reaches across the soundboard towards keys which are not in the keybox, but in the lower side.

A similar instrument is played by Death in a Dance of Death by Niklaus Manuel (ca 1484-1530) of Berne, as he approaches an astrologer (ill. 60) [figlink]. The strings on his hurdy-gurdy are stretched over the soundboard and like the wheel are hidden under a finely decorated cover. However the 13 or 14 keys sit low on the lower side and could not have been intended for the strings on the soundboard.

An entirely unrealistic representation of a hurdy-gurdy is found even in the 18th century. The picture by Filippo Bonanni appears in his "Gabinetto Armonico" of 1722 (ill. 61) [figlink]. The instrument has four clearly visible strings which run across the wheel which emerges from the soundboard. The player however reaches beyond these strings to some keys situated in the lower side. However in doing so her sleeve would necessarily brush against the strings which are unprotected by a cover. In this picture it can be clearly seen that the keys and strings could not possibly be connected.

The exact representation, which is extraordinary for its detail, of illustration 62 [figlink] from the "Garden of Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch (around 1450-1516) shows a hurdy-gurdy with five strings and ten keys. All of the strings are stretched through


the keybox and two of them are fastened to the soundboard behind the wheel. [Editor's note: In the painting two drone strings run outside the keybox, not inside: the base drone can be seen running below the row of keys and entering the peghead. It may be assumed that the trompette string is in a similar position on the other side of the keybox.] Accordingly it is an instrument with two drone strings and three melody strings fastened to the tailpiece, of which one was probably a "voix humane" (see page 156) . The picture of the hurdy-gurdy is so exact that even the diminution of the block-shaped keys is taken into consideration. This change in key width is determined by the diminishing distances between the notes as they get higher in pitch ( see page 120). Bosch, who seems to have been very familiar with the hurdy-gurdy, painted even details such as the string between the tailpiece and the wheel cover, which was to prevent the cover from falling off when it was removed from the wheel.

G. Key Mechanisms and Tonal Range

As the representations of medieval hurdy-gurdies show, there were different key mechanisms in use during the same time period. It was only in the late Middle Ages that the sliding keys were recognized as the best system and came to be used exclusively. With the sliding keys the musician had the possibility of playing the hurdy-gurdy easily and quickly, and this is seen to be the chief advantage of this mechanism. However the introduction of the sliding keys did not entail a change in the type of harmonies: all three key styles, namely push, pull, and sliding, offered the same possibilities in the way of forming harmonies, dependent upon the number of strings. As is seen in most of the representations, large and small hurdy-gurdies were as a rule strung with three strings, with which different harmonies could be produced. These depended further on the number of tangents serving to shorten the strings and which were attached to the individual keys. Since the tangents are hidden under the cover of the keybox in the representations, it cannot be seen which harmonies were produced by the three stringed instruments. In general however there were the following possibilities:

1) Just one string was shortened, either the upper or the lower (a), and allowed the two others to vibrate unshortened as drone strings. These were tuned in intervals of either a fifth or


a fourth. Two drone strings tuned in either unison or in the octave are not probable, since thereby there would have been a single loud drone tone which would have overpowered the melody string.

2) The two upper or the two lower strings were shortened (b) and the third string sounded as a drone on the prime note, on its octave, or on the fifth. With just one string it would have been superfluous to have one of the melody strings, if they had both been tuned in unison, and therefore it is probable that the two shortened strings were tuned in intervals of a fifth or a fourth.

3) A mechanism which was probably frequently used for the formation of polyphony consisted in the simultaneous shortening of all three strings (c), as this is shown by the picture of the instrument with the rotating keys (ill. 2) [figlink]. The harmonies


produced in this way corresponded to the rigid sequences of parallel organum, for which the three strings were tuned in the prime, fifth (fourth), and octave intervals. It would be theoretically feasible that one of the two or three shortened strings was tuned to the third or the sixth of the root note. Although this is a possibility, it will be disregarded here as improbable.

The change from the push or pull keys to sliding keys required a change in the arrangement and the shape of the key ends. The player no longer had the keys visible before him on the body or on the neck as with the other systems. Instead he had to reach over the body or the keybox and press the individual keys upwards, and this made it impossible for the operation to be checked by eye. In order to avoid the difficulties for the player which arose out of the varying gaps between the keys, the extreme ends of the keys were widened to blocks early, which then sat so closely next to one another than an uninterrupted row of keys was formed without indicating the precise positions of the tangents which actually shortened the strings- (ills. 35, 47, 57, 60, 62) [figlink].

The widening of the key ends was not first introduced for the sliding keys; the key ends of push and pull keys were also widened (ills. 17, 23,


24) [figlink], their purpose always was to make them easier for the player to grasp. With the help of wide key ends or correspondingly long keys the musician could also attain the desired pitches exactly. On instruments with a neck, long push keys touched the opposite inner side of the neck (a), which caused a noise when it hit. This was avoided when the keys were shortened so that when they were pushed in they either lay with the base of the knob on the neck (b) or on a piece of wood especially made to limit the length of the push (c) (ill. 24) [figlink].

The same principle was applied to the construction of sliding keys which knocked against the inner side of the keybox when they were pushed in (d) or when the block-shaped end was pressed against the outer side by the player (e) (ill. 47) [figlink].

In the case of pull keys a limitation of the key's movement could be brought about only by attaching an additional pin or nail (f).

When the note was released, the pull keys either fell back against the inner side of the neck (g)


or in order to avoid the sound of the knock they were made shorter and their widened ends prevented them from slipping into the neck (h). A necessary limitation of the movement of push and sliding keys were the tangents for the shortening of the strings, which touched the inner side of the neck when the keys were pulled out (i) or when they fell back (j).

In order to secure a clear intonation of the individually produced tones, the keys had to, as much as possible, slide in through the neck or keybox without moving sideways. The openings through which the keys entered the neck or body were not sufficient for this, since the holes had to be big enough to allow the keys to slide easily in them, especially in the case of sliding keys. A straight course for the keys was achieved in a very simple way: holes were made on the other side of the neck or keybox (k) through which the keys emerged even in their position of rest (ills. 62, 114) [figlink]; this was a procedure that had already been applied to push keys (ill. 24) [figlink]. This method of fixing the keys


in a fixed path proved to be so good that it has continued to be used up to the present.

On older instruments there was frequently another type of arrangement which resulted from the great width of the keybox. These wide keyboxes are a characteristic of hurdy-gurdies all of whose strings, i.e. the melody and the drone strings, are located in the keybox. On account of this the keybox became too wide for the keys to emerge again on the opposite side, and therefore an additional support was placed behind the melody strings and the tangents in the keybox. This is seen on two 17th century German hurdy-gurdies (ills. 112, 113) [figlink]. The keys are placed in holes through this support and are provided with nails or wooden pins either behind this (a) or directly after where the keys enter the body (b), and these pegs prevent them from slipping too far out of the body (ills. 102, 105, 106, 112, 113) [figlink]. Sometimes two supports were attached, between which there was room for the melody string and the tangents on the keys (c), so that the keys hit against one of the supports when they fell back (ills. 116, 117) [figlink]. The use of such supports was certainly not as rare as it appears; nevertheless it can only seldom be established on account of the closed keyboxes.


The tonal range of the hurdy-gurdy varied at all times. The number of the keys even on the large medieval instruments varied between five (ills. 13, 15) [figlink] and twelve (ill.17) [figlink], and was increased on the modern small hurdy-gurdies to 26 (see page 156, ills. 179, 180) [figlink], and in one case even to 34 (see page 126). In the Middle Ages the number of keys on the smaller instruments depended mainly on the system of keys used and on the shape of the body. If the body was very large and the instruments had a neck, the number of keys had a natural limit in the length of the player's arm. The player had to be able to reach the keys easily, and this would have been hindered by a long neck. Sliding keys could not have been attached to such a neck, since the player had to reach over the neck and the keys could not have been reached when this technique is used. Therefore nn instruments with sliding keys the neck had to be as short as possible so that the player could easily operate the keys, and this is confirmed by the many medieval representations of hurdy-gurdies with sliding keys and a short neck. With the introduction of the sliding keys and their relocation to the body or in a body fixed to the lid, the musician was given much more freedom to move his hand, since he no longer had to stretch out his arm, as in illustration 23 and 52, and therefore it became possible to increase the number of keys and hence the tonal range.

The extension of the tonal range brought another difficulty with it: when dividing the string the intervals between the individual notes diminish as the pitch is increased, the spaces between the keys also decrease (a). This means that the key ends, the blocks, also diminish in size as they approach the wheel, and this was not taken into

[Editor's Note: This diagram does not consider that the wheel must lie between the nut and the bridge.]


consideration in medieval representations, where the keys appear all equally large (ills. 35, 37). Bosch, who seems to have known the hurdy-gurdy very well, was the first artist who represented correctly the gradual diminution of the spaces between the keys as they got higher by showing a decrease in the width of the keys (ill. 62) [figlink].

Among the medieval representations of the hurdy-gurdy are two whose key arrangement is extremely unusual since on both instruments one or more keys are missing in the row, so that there are gaps. The instrument of an Italian marble angel (ill. 36) [figlink] has ten keys: between the seventh and eighth key there is a gap, just wide enough for another key. One note therefore seems to be missing. With just ten keys a chromatic arrangement is not acceptable. It is opposed both by the date of this figure (14th century) and also by the position of the playing hand, whose fingers apparently are supposed to indicate that four notes situated next to each other are being played. A diatonic tuning with the notes b-flat and b is more probable, with which the following pitches of the keys result:

The missing octave note c" can only indicate that the instrument had at least two strings which were tuned an octave apart. The lower pitched string in this body served as the melody string, the higher string as the drone. With such a tuning the high-pitched drone provide the missing c' without there having to be a special key for it.


The second representation of a hurdy-gurdy with missing keys dates from the 15th century (ill. 53) [figlink]. Six out of possibly twelve keys are visible, the others are covered by the player's hand. Between the groups of three keys each there is a gap. Again a chromatic arrangement cannot be accepted here, since important tones such as the major third would then be missing. As with the marble angel, the grouping of the keys could indicate that the notes missing in the row of keys are replaced by correspondingly tuned drone strings. These must then also sound at a higher pitch than the melody string shortened by the keys. Whether the strings were actually arranged and tuned in this way can no longer be established. With the arrangement of three keys to each group, it would be just the principal notes which would be missing with a diatonic tuning with b-flat and b in the lower octave. With four strings, corresponding with the number of tuning pegs, the following tuning would have been possible:

A chromatic scale cannot be considered either for this or for other medieval instruments, although the large number of keys on some hurdy-gurdies represented would seem to indicate otherwise. It is however not the number of keys which is decisive for a chromatic arrangement but rather their form and arrangement and the length of the strings. Since the small hurdy-gurdy has relatively short strings, the distances between each shortening point would have been so narrow that with a chromatic arrangement the keys and their widened ends would have been too thin to be easily managed by the player. The arrangement of the keys next to one another in a row, as all the medieval representations show them, accordingly excludes the likelihood of a chromatic scale. This was only possible when the lack of room had been overcome by arranging the keys in two rows.


With this arrangement the lower row was for the notes of the particular scale and the upper row was for the accidentals which were between the notes of the lower keys. In the keybox the keys were positioned in different levels according to the row to which they belonged, but they all served to shorten the same strings. The difference in height was reconciled by lengthening the tangent on the key (a). Such keys arranged one over another are seen on 16th and 17th century French hurdy-gurdies (see page 153, page 155 and ills. 177-179) [figlink]; but this only proves that there were certainly hurdy-gurdies with chromatic scales after this time, and does not permit any definite statement as to when they were first used.

During the 18th century when the hurdy-gurdy was in vogue with the French aristocracy, numerous attempts were made to improve the instrument. The lute maker Henri Bâton of Versailles built hurdy-gurdies with new shapes between 1716 and 1720 (see page 158) and also increased their tonal range. Almost all of the older French folk instruments had only eleven lower and eight upper keys, which corresponds to a chromatic tonal range of one and one-half octaves-from g' to d''', to which sometimes e-flat''' was added [fn][123-1]. Since the unshortened melody


strings of these hurdy-gurdies would never have sounded the primary note, but rather its fifth, the lower row of the keys would have had a range of the c-major scale from its lower fourth to its upper ninth.

Bâton added two notes to this scale, e''' and f''' [fn][124-1], and the lute maker Pierre Louvet extended the tonal range even further to g''' [fn][124-2].

Bâton's improvements in the first quarter of the 18th century set the pace for other efforts. Many players and lute makers attempted to increase the range of the hurdy-gurdy, especially in the higher pitches. They met however with great difficulties since they had only limited space in which to place the keys: in order to be easily managed the ends of the keys cannot just consist in a thin dowel, but they have to be sufficiently wide.

With the open string guned to g', the normal arrangement with 13 black and 10 white keys already had f''' in the row of the accidentals because there was not enough room in the lower row, even though it belongs to the natural notes of the c major scale. The f#''' was left out.

As is evident from a report from the"Mercure de France" of the year 1750 [fn][124-3], there were many unsuccessful attempts to supply the missing f-sharp''', until finally Charles Bâton, the son or younger brother of Henri


Bâton, was the first to succeed. Before his improvement the high keys were arranged as follows:

Some had attempted to place the f#''' next to the f''' in the row of accidentals:


Others simply put the f#''' in the place of the f''', which then found its place in the lower row:

Because the keys interfered with one another however there was no room for the new keys in the lower row. All of these attempts were doomed to failure since the attempts were made on already existing instruments which simply did not have the needed room.

Charles Bâton was a very popular and respected teacher of the hurdy-gurdy and bagpiper in contemporary society. He was the first to succeed at including three further keys for f#''', a-flat''', and a''' to the keys already existing. The key for f''', which had previously been placed in the row of the accidentals, was put in the row of the diatonic notes and replaced in the upper row by f#'''. Then to the g''' in the lower row he added a-flat''' (g#''') in the upper row, and again in the lower row yet a'''. [fn][125-1]

Bâton had success with his efforts because he did not experiment on existing instruments


as the others did, but had new hurdy-gurdies built according to his conceptions by the lute maker Feury in Paris.

Bâton however was not satisfied with this extension in the tonal range, and hence in June of 1752 there again appeared an advertisement of an hurdy-gurdy improved by him [fn][126-1]. He gives a detailed report of this instrument in his "Memoire sur la Viele en d-la-re, dans lequel on rend compte des raisons qui ont engage a la faire, et don't l'extrait a ete presente a la Reine". [fn][126-2] In order to improve the sound of the new instrument, he did away with the trompette with its unpleasant sound. [fn][126-3] Unfortunately in his 'Memoire" he confines himself to justifying this removal by the more beautiful tone which was consequently produced, without it being clear what the positive aspect of his improvements was. Apparently he did not replace the trompette with anything, but simply left it out, since further on he speaks of only five strings running over the wheel instead of the usual six. [126-4] On his new instrument, tuned in d, Bâton extended the tonal range of the hurdy-gurdy from two to three octaves, in the chromatic arrangement of which one note was missing, the highest octave d'''. Bâton's instrument must have been rather large for otherwise it could not have contained 34 keys. The extension of the tonal range after the model of other keyboard instruments had already been desirable in the 17th century. Marin Mersenne, who in his explanation of the hurdy-gurdy was referring to an instrument with ten diatonically arranged keys, believed that an instrument could be made with 49 or any number of keys. [fn][126-5] On an hurdy-gurdy with 49 keys seven octaves could be attained with a diatonic scale, but only four octaves with a chromatic arrangement. Such an instrument could no longer have been played by a single musician, because it would necessarily have a very long keybox and body.



Even the three octaves which Bâton introduced never became popular, although the wish existed to extend the tonal range.

With a tonal range of three octaves Bâton had to lower the tuning of the melody strings, since otherwise the highest notes would have been too shrill sounding. He claimed to have tuned his instrument to d and not to g' because his instrument, which had a range of from d to c''', thereby achieved a beauty in sound, since with this tuning the lower and middle notes sounded full and pleasing, while the upper notes sounded bright and delicate. [fn][127-1] Besides this a hurdy-gurdy with the principal keys of D and G major was better suited to accompany flutes and violins than an instrument with the principal key of C major, which for both of these instruments was a colorless and difficult key. [fn][127-2]

The elder Bâton had already introduced brass sympathetic strings in order to improve the sound [fn][127-3]. Charles Bâton complained that these were often not properly used and even sounded dissonant. The thick brass strings frequently produced a metallic sound which caused Bâton to replace the strings which were usually plain wire (unwound) with strings of brass which were wound, whereby he aimed for a more pleasant tone [fn][127-4].

Some of the improvements which the hurdy-gurdy experienced in the 18th century were retained in later times by the French hurdy-gurdy makers: to these belong the shape of the body, the sympathetic strings, and the number and arrangement of the keys which were almost uniform in those times. Although in 18th century France, aside from the Bâton hurdy-gurdy with its 34 keys, there were also instruments with 26 keys (15 below, 11 above) (see page 156 and ill. 179) [figlink], the hurdy-gurdy with 23 keys (13 below, 10 above) was the one which became established.


While in France a certain uniformity in the construction of hurdy-gurdies can be ascertained since the 18th century, in other countries the instruments continued to be variously built. Next to hurdy-gurdies with a diatonic one-row arrangement of keys were built those with chromatic scales, which everywhere entailed the arrangement of two rows placed one over the other. Normally the two key rows were arranged, as with the French instruments, into a lower diatonic row and an upper accidental row. There were however exceptions, in which another place was used for the keys, or the arrangement of the key rows reversed.

A Russian hurdy-gurdy with two strings must be mentioned on account of its unusual placement of the keys on the lid of the keybox (ill. 63) [figlink]. With this type of construction the keys could not only shorten the strings from the side (a) but also from above (b). The keys, 22 in all, are arranged in two rows with 10 black and 12 white, which clearly indicates a chromatic setting. That the keys are in this order for that reason is proven by the fact that the 10 dark keys always lie between the 12 white keys. The following possibilities for the shortening of the strings come into consideration: If the keys shorten just one string, then the second string could have been used as a drone. If the keys of one row however just shorten the string under them, then the second string would have to be tuned in unison on account of the intervening chromatic tones.

The arrangement into the black and white rows appears as follows:


When both strings are tuned to c' the following notes result:

Like the placement of the keys on the cover the marking of the diatonic row with white key ends and the row of accidentals with black key ends is also unusual.

With such a position of the keys holding the instrument becomes somewhat of a problem. This hurdy-gurdy cannot be played flat on its bottom, since then the keys would all lie loose on the strings and would have been an obstacle for a pure tone. The instrument while played had to be tilted back so far that the sliding keys fell back on their own accord. It was accordingly not held on the knees of the player, but around his neck on a strap, since this permitted the instrument to be tilted more. By holding the instrument up very high it was easier to play, so that the player did not as usual reach over the keybox top, but under the body to the keys as with some of the medieval hurdy-gurdies (ills. 6, 7, 8, 36, 37) [figlink] or with the Nyckelharpa (ill. 205) [figlink].

Another possibility for shortening the strings with this instrument as well as with another Russian hurdy-gurdy (ill. 78) [figlink] can be considered, whereby the sliding keys are provided with springs, so that in their position of rest they do not lie on the strings but spring back into their original position after being released. In any case this hurdy-gurdy seems to have been played with the right hand, since, regardless of whether the hand played the keys from above or below, the diatonic row or the white keys are easier to reach with the right hand.

The usual place but the reversed arrangement of the key rows is found in another Russian instrument which has apparently been converted into a hurdy-gurdy (ill. 64) [figlink]. Two rows of keys have been built in, of which 10 lie in the lower row and 14 in the upper. The position of the keys is as follows, where u= upper and l=lower:

In certain intervals two keys lying next to one another occur regularly in the upper row. Comparing the intervals between the individual keys, the lower ones included, leads to the discovery that between these keys which lie next to one another is no whole tone. The instrument has a tonal range of two chromatic octaves. On account of the division of the keys, the free string must be tuned to a note whose upper third in the same row is minor, a or d for example. Thus the instrument could have a range of two hypodoric octaves over a' or a major scale over c'' with a minor lower third.

On this hurdy-gurdy most of the keys are in the upper row. They are so situated that a diatonic performance is possible only on the top row, instead of as usual on the bottom. In this position the accidentals must be in the lower row. Thus the player has to reach down instead of up in order to raise the pitch.

As the representations of medieval hurdy-gurdies show, there were differences in practically every aspect of the instrument which did not disappear with the advent of the sliding keys. These sliding keys became indeed very quickly dominate and created a uniform technique, but the number of keys, the number of strings and the shape of the body continued to vary.





1) Klaudios Ptolomaios, Die Harmonielehr, ed. by Ingemar Dühring, Göteborgs Högskolas Årsskrift, Volume 36, 1, Göteborg 1930, 67.


1) Compare S. Wantzloeben, Das Monochord als Instrument und als System, Halle 1911, 76 and 123.

2) Compare Odo, Dialogos, GS I 252.

3) CS IV 278f.; compare also S. Wantzloeben, Das Monochord, 107ff.


1) GS III 274

2) Compare to "organistrum" page 187ff of this work.

3) GS III 214.

4) S. Wantzloeben, Das Monochord, 107.


1) The St. Blasien Codex in: M. Gerbert, De cantu et musica sacra, 2 volumes, St. Blasien 1774, Volume 2, Table 32.


1) J. Rühlmann, Die Geschichte der Bogeninstrumente, Volume 1, Braunschweig 1882, 71.


1) G. Schünemann, Die Musikinstrumente der 24 Alten, in: Archiv für Musikforschung 1 (1936) 57.


1) C. Sachs, Reallexikon der Musikinstrumente, 134 s.v. F-Löcher


) Represented in: E. de Coussemaker, Essai sur les instruments de musique au Moyen Age, in: Annales Archéologiques, Volume 8, Paris 1848, 248 Ill. 4. Unfortunately I was unable to review the correctness of the representation through a photograph.


1) E. Winternitz, Bagpipes and Hurdy-gurdies in their Social Setting, 82.


1) This body shape was also popular in other bowed instruments of the High Middle Ages. Compare with the medieval images of the viola.


1) F.W Galpin, Old English Instruments of Music. Their History and Character, 4th Edition, London (1965) 82.


1) The marble angel is attributed to Andrea di Cione, called Orcagna (c. 1315-1368). The figure is in Washington D.C., National Gallery of Art, Samuael H. Kress Collection (compare Musica 1963. Ein Jahrweiser für Musikfrreunde, Kassel 1963).


1) A. Terrasson, Dissertation historique sur l'instrument nommé la vielle, in: Mêlanges d'histoire, de littérature, de jurisprudence ... Paris 1768, 248f.


1) A. Terrasson, Dissertation sur la vielle, 250.

2) A. Terrasson, Dissertation sur la vielle, 253.

3) Mercure de France, September 1750, Paris 1750, 153-155.


1) Mercure de France, September 1750, 153-155.


1) Mercure de France, June 1752, 161.

2) in: Mercure de France, October 1752, 143-157.

3) Mercure de France, October 1752, 161.

4) Ch. Bâton, Mémoire sur la Vielle en d-la-re, 156.

5) M. Mersenne, Harmonie universelle, Volume 3, Book 4, 212.


1) Ch. Bâton, Mémoire sur la Vielle en d-la-re, 151f.

2) Ch. Bâton, Mémoire sur la Vielle en d-la-re, 148.

3) E. de Bricqueville, Notice sur la vielle, 2nd edition, Paris 1911, 13..

4) Ch. Bâton, Mémoire sur la Vielle en d-la-re, 155f.


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Alden and Cali Hackmann
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