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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Although in the last decades (1950's-1970's) the hurdy-gurdy has been heard only very seldom outside of France, the sound of the instrument seems not to have been forgotten, at least in the Anglo-Saxon countries. This is supported, for example, by the song of Glasgow composer and singer Donovan about a "Hurdy Gurdy Man" who wanders around singing love songs. In this song the hurdy-gurdy is clearly indicated by the monotone drone-like accompaniment of the song, although the term "hurdy-gurdy" has already long been used to denote the barrel-organ.
The hurdy-gurdy itself has found increasing interest over the last few years, especially by some interpreters of folk songs, who have chosen the hurdy-gurdy as an accompanying instrument. Karl Wofram, who otherwise sings folk songs principally to the lute, made this choice presumably recognizing that a great number of the songs he presents were previously sung with the hurdy-gurdy. Unfortunately he usually accompanies himself on the instrument with an even, uninterrupted motion of the crank, so the music has a rather monotonous character.
The hurdy-gurdy is used quite differently by the interpreter who today is probably the most significant, the Swiss René Zosso (ill. 236). Zosso, who after his studies at first taught for many years the subject French and Latin at a secondary school in Ganf, began in 1963 to present songs with the hurdy-gurdy. In the meantime he has given many evening concerts in Switzerland, in France, as well as in Berlin, in Copenhagen and in various cities in Sweden and Belgium. Zosso's repertoire is extremely diverse, containing texts and songs which extend from the Middle Ages to the present. Among these, for example, is an organum by Leonin, which he presents on the hurdy-gurdy. Zosso himself composed the music
for many texts. With his selection and the manner of presentation he goes back to the earlier practice of playing the hurdy-gurdy. The singer fits his accompaniment on the hurdy-gurdy to the character of the piece presented in such a way that the impression of a monotonous sound of always playing the same note never arises.
Zosso himself explained in one of his concert program notes why he chose the hurdy-gurdy in particular as an accompanying instrument. For him this instrument possesses such hypnotic power that its sound did not just fascinate him, but practically bewitched him.
This fascination of which he speaks appears to be applicable not just to this interpreter, but to instrument makers as well. For besides the interpreters who have recently been playing the hurdy-gurdy again instrument makers are also taking increasing interest in the instrument. The reasons for this seem to be varied. On the one hand the players who want to play the hurdy-gurdy need instruments which are also playable, which aside from the French hurdy-gurdies hardly applies to the instruments preserved and maintained in the museums. Often these instruments can no longer be restored that they can be playable again since the wood would no longer endure such stress. In addition the loan of a museum instrument to a player for constant use would presumably be bound up with difficulties. On the other hand old instruments can scarcely be found outside of museums. Another motive for instrument makers to build hurdy-gurdies lies perhaps in strongly increasing interest in the presentation of early music which has appeared in the last few years and which has led to a resurrection of many old instruments.
Today in the 1970's hurdy-gurdies are being built again in East Germany as well as in Switzerland and in West Germany. In Switzerland the primary makers are the brothers W. and A Jacot in Neuchatel, who made Zosso his instrument with the lute body (compare ill. 236). Also in Switzerland is the instrument maker Christian Patt in Winterthur. Aside from hurdy-gurdies this maker also builds other historic bowed and plucked instruments according to old illustrations or instruments.
An instrument maker in Germany in 1930's, Peter Harlan, attempted to renew interest in the hurdy-gurdy, although without success. At present in the 1970's Kurt Riechmann in the Federal Republic is an instrument maker in West Germany who concerns himself exclusively with building hurdy-gurdies according to historical patterns, and who has already found a small interested clientele.
Reichmann became as fascinated by the hurdy-gurdy as Zosso. He first heard the instrument played by Wolfram and then by Zosso and was so impressed that, although never having built instruments before, he began to build hurdy-gurdies in 1968.
Especially noteworthy about his work is that he prefers to use historical models, of which scarcely or no instruments at all are preserved. Thus there now exists the possibility of hearing the sound of such hurdy-gurdies again, of which we have had up to now only pictures, but no extant instruments.
The willingness of players and instrument makers, which has existed for several
years, to concern themselves again with the hurdy-gurdy, shows that the sound
of this instrument has not lost its charm entirely. The reason for this probably
lies in the fact that the sound of the hurdy-gurdy is no longer familiar to
us today. If the fascinating effect of the sound has been mentioned here several
times, one can expect that this fascination has been experienced by other listeners.
With this however arises the possibility of making the sound of the hurdy-gurdy
again familiar to a larger circle of listeners. If this should be the case,
the music suited or written for this instrument could without doubt be better
researched and resurrected.
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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