The Hurdy-Gurdy In The Eighteenth Century by Robert A. Green, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
The Hurdy-Gurdy In The Eighteenth Century

The Hurdy-Gurdy In The Eighteenth Century

by Robert A. Green

"This book will be of value to anyone researching or intending to play the instrument and its delightful music." —Notes

The hurdy-gurdy, or vielle, was played at the court at Versailles and is still prominent as a folk instrument today.

Indiana University Press


"This book will be of value to anyone researching or intending to play the instrument and its delightful music." —Notes

The hurdy-gurdy, or vielle, was played at the court at Versailles and is still prominent as a folk instrument today.

Indiana University Press

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Indiana University Press
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Publications of the Early Music Institute Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.39(d)

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The Hurdy-Gurdy in Eighteenth-Century France

By Robert A. Green

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1995 Robert A. Green
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-20942-9




The English term hurdy-gurdy is used to describe two different instruments. First, there is the mechanical organ with a mechanism much akin to that of a player piano which was played earlier in this century by immigrants who begged for money with monkeys and tin cups on the street corners of American cities. These instruments are still found in European parks and on street corners and are differentiated from the hurdy-gurdy by other names, such as orgue de Barbarie in French. For many, the term hurdy-gurdy first calls to mind this instrument. Much less familiar is the instrument whose sound is produced by a rosin-coated wheel which, like a bow, rubs against several strings. This wheel is turned by a crank. Some of these strings function as melody strings, others as drones, giving the instrument a sound like that of a bagpipe.

This latter instrument is found throughout continental Europe as far east as western Russia and may be the only instrument truly indigenous to that continent. It has a history which goes back to the eleventh century. In different times and in different regions, it has taken many shapes and been given different names. All European languages, however, with the exception of English, differentiate between the mechanical organ and the bowed instrument. No other language or group of people draw parallels between these two instruments.

The following discussion centers around the bowed instrument as it appeared and was used in eighteenth-century France. It is therefore appropriate to refer to it by the name by which it was known in that time in that place: the vielle.

Social Life in the Seventeenth Century

No musical instrument has suffered so grievously from changes in social status. In eleventh-century Germany, the vielle was associated with church music. By the twelfth century it was associated with music performed in the courts of the nobility. By the fourteenth century it had become associated with lower classes and eventually, by the fifteenth century, it became associated with blind beggars. Blindness was regarded as a physical manifestation of inner or moral blindness, and, therefore, the very appearance of the instrument in a painting suggested sin. Although certain painters at the beginning of the seventeenth century, such as Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Georges de la Tour (1593-1652), began to regard blind vielle players as victims of a tragic infirmity, the instrument retained its repellent reputation.

The views toward blind beggars and their instruments are reflected in the introduction to Mersenne's oft-quoted description of the vielle in Harmonie universelle of 1636.

If men of rank played the vielle as a rule, it would not be regarded with such contempt. But because it is played only by the poor, and particularly by blind men who earn their living from this instrument, it is held in less esteem than others, but then it is not as pleasing. This does not stand in the way of what I will explain here, since science belongs to both rich and poor, and there is nothing so low and vile in nature that it not be worthy of discussion.

Social attitudes towards the instrument in the early part of the seventeenth century based on Mersenne and other writers have been discussed in detail. A number of civil documents surviving from the seventeenth century and published in secondary sources indicate that however poor players of the vielle in the first part of the seventeenth century may have been, they often had families, a place to live, and legalized the events of their lives, such as births, deaths and marriages, as did every other citizen. Documents indicate that at least some players took musician-apprentices, as did other musicians of the period. Some were members of the Corporation St. Julien-des ménétriers so viciously satirized by Francois Couperin (1668-1733) in his piece Les fastes de la grande et anciénne Mxnxstrxndxsx from Book II (1716-1717). The "Seconde Acte" of this piece entitled "Les Viéleux et les Gueux" ("the vielle players and beggars") consists of two "airs de viéle." The piece accurately reflects the sound of the vielle with its c-g drones; however, the satirical element must be taken with a grain of salt. The music limps along, evoking the decrepit condition of those who played the instrument. Couperin devoted much of his efforts to gaining a noble title, and his desire to separate himself from the lowly status associated with the professional musician must be borne in mind.

The first documented appearance of the vielle at the French court is its use in the Ballet de l'impatience presented at the Louvre on February 19, 1661. The Third Entrée of Part IV (LWV 14/47-50) begins with an instrumental introduction for the entrance of blind beggars. This is followed by an instrumental section labelled "ten blind men impatient of losing time for earning a living." A récit follows which in mock solemnity compares the unfortunate situation of the blind men with love that can be as blind as they are. The blind men then play an air on the vielle. The music contrasts with what proceeds and follows in its diatonic and harmonically static nature: it is clearly composed with drones in mind. This piece would have been performed with the vielles on the top line doubled and accompanied by the five-part string ensemble (see Example 1).

The vielle was further used in Lully's Ballet des sept planètes, composed of ten entrées which concluded the performance of Hercule amoureux (Ercole amante) by Francesco Cavalli on February 7,1662. The pilgrims are given a piece for vielles and ensemble (LWV 17/21). This ballet following so closely on the Ballet de l'impatience suggests that the instrument was regarded as a novelty, but using it twice seems to have been enough for Lully: He never composed music for it again.

Due to the paucity of sources dealing with the vielle in seventeenth-century France and its increasing use among the aristocracy, most writers have come to depend on the history of the vielle published by Antoine de Terrasson (1705-1782) in 1741. Terrasson republished his account in 1768 revealing his lifelong enthusiasm for the instrument. Terrasson was a musical amateur who played the musette, flute and vielle, as well as a jurist and man of letters who was well equipped to argue a case. His purpose is to demonstrate that the vielle deserves respectability due to its antiquity. Tracing the origins of the instrument he links it with ancient Greece and the lyre of Orpheus. While it is all too easy to attack the obvious inaccuracies in his discussion of Greek myths and music history, as many writers have done, it is well to remember that many instrumental treatises use exactly the same arguments to demonstrate the great age and therefore respectability in making a case for the importance of other instruments. Nevertheless when Terrasson arrives at the period within the living memory of the people around him, he demonstrates profound understanding of the evolution of his instrument. Terrasson describes the arrival, perhaps the result of an invitation from an enthusiastic courtier, of two vielle players named "La Roze" and "Janot" at court some time after the first operas of Lully, which stimulated an interest in the instrument among the aristocracy. His discussion of the appearance of the vielle at court after 1671, possibly about 1680, appears to be based on testimony which can to some degree be corroborated from other sources.

Throughout this period the vielle shared its existence with the musette, a small bagpipe played by bellows pumped by the left elbow and requiring no breath from the player. This instrument had become fashionable with the upper classes in the early seventeenth century and continued to be popular until the end of the reign of Louis XV (about 1770) after which time, it became extinct as a result of changing taste. This contrasts with the vielle which has been played continuously until the present. The musette was cultivated by families of professional players attached to the court musical establishment: the Hotteterres and the Chédevilles. It became an accepted orchestral instrument and has frequent, and sometimes extensive, parts in the great French operas of the early eighteenth century. Much of the music for the vielle is also playable on the musette and vice versa.

The Eighteenth Century

What is often overlooked in Mersenne's discussion of the vielle in the Harmonic universelle (1636) is his speculation on how the vielle could be improved. This flexibility, the ability of makers to alter it to conform to changing musical styles and social function, has characterized the instrument since its origins, and would be the basis for its growth in popularity throughout the eighteenth century.

It seems likely that the vielle began its rise in society in the late seventeenth century with the development of a slightly more refined instrument with a characteristic shape described by Terrasson as a "vielle carrée," generally described today as trapezoidal (see Illustration 1). This trapezoidal instrument was an attempt to reduce the size of the body while keeping the same string length. The three melody strings were tuned in D; one was an octave lower than the other two, with drones in D and A. Thus it was slightly larger than the vielle which later became standard in the eighteenth century (the melody strings of the latter were tuned to G). In spite of later innovations, this shape continued to be used throughout the eighteenth century. It is pictured by Watteau in the second decade of the eighteenth century, in the hands of gentlemen or idealized peasants in rustic settings. The instrument was most likely used at this time to play the bransles and other dances associated with the French countryside.

Some music specifically for this instrument is found in an opéra comique by Jean-Joseph Mouret (1682-1738), Le Philosophe trompé par la nature, presented at the Comédie de Saint Jorry in 1725. The final scene of this piece concerns a group of grape harvesters (vendangeurs) who make their entrance to the accompaniment of a vielle, bass viol, and continuo (Example 2). They make light of the philosopher's avoidance of the pleasures of life: their ignorance of Latin does not effect their enjoyment of eating, drinking, dancing and making love. While the composer is not specific concerning the instrumentation of the following numbers, some would be appropriate for performance with vielle, and others must have been performed on other instruments, since they make use of keys incompatible with the drones. This music is in A major and was composed for a vielle in D-A, probably the trapezoidal instrument. Presumably the presence of the vielle in this scene is justified by its rustic setting. However, the use of the vielle in the first number is anything but rustic: it is treated in an expressive fashion not unlike any other melody instrument (Example 1).

According to Terrasson, this instrument was flawed by its unrefined melody strings, especially the heavy string at the lower octave. Further, the drone strings were so raucous that they drowned out the melody. Terrasson informs us that Henri Bâton, an instrument maker at Versailles, was the first to build a new type of vielle on the backs of old guitars and lutes then going out of fashion and thus sparked the cultivation of the vielle in court circles. This work seems to have taken place between 1716 and 1720. It is important to remember that an already enthusiastic following among the nobility for the vielle already existed, providing the impetus for these improvements. Terrasson also tells us that Bâton shaped the peg box in the manner of the viol and decorated it in a way which made them "pleasing to the ladies" (Illustration 2). In redesigning the peg box in the manner of the viol, an instrument traditionally played by both upper class men and women, he provided the "new" instrument with a link to respectability. The similarities between the vielle and the viol go beyond appearance and involve the sound and technique to be explored later. However, by 1720 the viol was reaching the peak of its popularity and was about to begin a long, slow decline. Thus the similarity in both sound and appearance between these two instruments may have also contributed to the decline of the use of the vielle in sophisticated chamber music in later decades. It must be emphasized that the vielle of Henri Bâton was a new instrument with musical capabilities far beyond those of earlier instruments and it was being used in a way entirely different than it had before. It had an increased range and melody strings which sang above the drones. As a result, the music composed for it was of an experimental nature, as composers explored the limits of the capabilities of the instrument. Further experiments in improving the instrument continued throughout the eighteenth century.

Considerable attention has been paid to the social position of the instrument in the eighteenth century in academic discussions of the vielle. The view of the instrument as a plaything of wealthy lady amateurs has by extension led to an unfavorable judgement of the music itself without further examination. The value of the music should be judged on its own merits, independent of its social function in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to examine the basis for this stereotype and its limitations before proceeding to a discussion of the intrinsic value of the music.

The view of the role of music in aristocratic life had its roots in humanist formulations of the sixteenth century based on Plato's discussion of the subject in the Republic. Simply put, music was regarded as an important social accomplishment as long as it was kept in its place. The result of these views in cultivated musical circles from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century was a spontaneous, simple form of music-making with emphasis placed on the expression of sentiment and a minimum on technical accomplishment. It generally involved the vocal or instrumental performance of simple airs and dances. Technical polish and virtuosity was best left to those of a lower class who made their living through music.

Early in the eighteenth century attitudes toward the appropriate role of music making in aristocratic life began to change. Gentlemen took up the violin, flute, and to a lesser degree the oboe (the musette had become popular among this group in the seventeenth century). These instruments had been previously the province of the professional, because they were difficult to play well, and the types of music composed for these instruments, that is theater and dance music, were likewise left to professional musicians. The appearance of works for solo and continuo, notably the Italian sonatas of Corelli, provided a type of music which encouraged the adoption of these instruments by the upper classes. Further, this music required a degree of accomplishment bordering on the virtuosic, a trait never before associated with the cultivated amateur. The role which the ladies played in this "new" type of music was that of accompanist, playing the harpsichord or the bass viol. The avoidance of the violin and wind instruments by women in the early part of the eighteenth century was based on the appearance that these instruments presented when played in public. This appearance involved not only the position of the body but bodily movements as well. Playing the flute and oboe required facial distortion, while the violin and musette involved an unsightly flapping of the upper arm in a way that playing the viol did not. In contrast the vielle presented a pleasing appearance in both bodily position and movement and enabled women to play music in the latest style, first as an equal partner in unaccompanied duos and later in the role of soloist. That the new vielle of Bâton was far more suitable for its role in this type of chamber music was of paramount importance. Nevertheless, this preference for the vielle by women did not exclude men from playing the instrument as well.


Excerpted from The Hurdy-Gurdy in Eighteenth-Century France by Robert A. Green. Copyright © 1995 Robert A. Green. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

ROBERT A. GREEN is Professor of Music at Northern Illinois University and author of many articles on eighteenth-century French music and performance practice. He plays the hurdy-gurdy in solo recitals and with various ensembles, and is featured on a recording of chamber music of the period.

Indiana University Press

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