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hurdy-gurdy 2013.073

chordophone

A hurdy-gurdy is a string instrument that produces sound when its strings are set in vibration by a rosined wheel driven by a crank. As a rule a hurdy-gurdy has several drone strings, which sound a continuous note, and one or two melody strings. The melody strings are shortened with small wedges ('tangents') on the keys of a keyboard. The keyboard is mounted on top of the soundboard on which is a rectangular key box.   

Hurdy-gurdies were first represented on reliefs in churches in Northern Spain and France in the mid-twelfth century. Initially the hurdy-gurdy was played in ecclesiastical and aristocratic settings. From the late fourteenth century it was frequently referred to as the instrument of (blind) beggars. From around 1550 the figure of the shabby, ailing hurdy-gurdy player wearing a hat and wide cape appeared in paintings and prints of folk life pretty well all over Western Europe.

We know of twelve hurdy-gurdies pre-dating the twentieth century which may originate from the Low Countries, and three of these are in the mim. The instrument with inventory number 2013.073 was gifted to the mim by the descendants of Joséphine Solheid (1897-1983) from Verviers (Wallonia) in 2013. The Solheid family, from Waimes in the East Cantons of Belgium, had cherished it as a family heirloom for more than one-and-a-half centuries, though, as far as they know, it was never played by anyone in the family. Its robust, rustic construction - the soundboard and pegbox were cut from a single block of maple wood - and the distinct traces of wear and tear where the player's left hand rested, suggest a long life as the instrument of a village or mendicant musician, perhaps one who worked what is now the German-Belgian border area.   

In the Solheid family the story went that the instrument was brought to the Waimes region by a distant French ancestor and street musician at the end of the sixteenth century. He is thought to have been a Huguenot fleeing persecution in France. However, a radiocarbon dating by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (IRPA-KIK) revealed that the wood of the soundboard and pegbox dates from after 1680. So the instrument is certainly more recent, dating from the eighteenth century, or perhaps slightly before or after that.    

The soundboard narrows abruptly via an angle and a curve to a short 'neck' with a square pegbox at the head. It is perhaps hurdy-gurdies with contours like this one reminiscent of a horse's head in frontal view that inspired popular names for hurdy-gurdies in Wallonia like tête de cheval and the Liège Walloon variation tièsse di tch'vå (horse's head). Several hurdy-gurdies in German and English museums and another in the mim (inv. 1479) are similar in shape. All these instruments are thought to originate from the German cultural area or the Low Countries. 

Originally there were eleven keys for a diatonic scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-si-do-re-mi-fa) and five catgut strings: a melody string and four drones, one of which was a 'trompette', the highest-pitched drone string. A trompette string runs over a 'loose-footed' bridge on the belly of the instrument. When the player increases the speed of the turn of the wheel with a 'stroke of the wrist' or 'pulse', the bridge starts to 'drum' indiscernibly on the belly of the instrument, creating a buzzing sound which enables the player to beat the rhythm.   

It was the young René Hausman, now acknowledged as one of Belgium's greatest illustrators and cartoonists, who 'discovered' in the early 1950s that the instrument was in the possession of the Solheid family. Hausman played in a group called Les Pêleteûs in the early 1970s and was one of the pioneers of the Walloon folk revival. The hurdy-gurdy belonging to the Solheid family features on the cover of the very first LP of the revival: Musique traditionnelle et folklorique des Ardennes belges by Les Zûnants Plankèts (1973). One of the musicians in the group was hurdy-gurdy player and instrument-maker Jacques Fettweis (1926-1991). The designs of his 'Ardennes' hurdy-gurdies were inspired by the instrument belonging to the Solheid family.

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LP Alpha 5014, 1973
middle: Jacques Fettweis with his own hurdy-gurdy LP Alpha 5016-17, 1974