Doing a good turn: Hurdy-Gurdy
By Robin Green.
“As he leaves the piano to try his hand at the hurdy-gurdy at this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival, Robin Green chronicles a pianist’s journey back to square one.”
In these days of extreme musical compartmentalisation, musicians are encouraged to specialise. However, I have always been inquisitive by nature and searched for as much experience as possible from all paths of music. So when I was asked by composer John Metcalf to learn the hurdy-gurdy as part of this year’s Vale of Glamorgan festival, of course I couldn’t say no! Besides the piano, I have played many different instruments in concerts, including the clarinet, oboe, wood block, radio, celeste, African thumb piano and the Royal Albert Hall organ. But the hurdy-gurdy is a step in a different direction. My first encounter with this special instrument was ‘Der Leiermann’, the haunting final song of Schubert’s Wintereisse. It describes a hurdy-gurdy man, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is always empty, no one listens to his music, but his playing never stops. The protagonist asks, ‘Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?’ Well known in many European countries from Spain to Ukraine, the hurdy-gurdy has been variously associated with beggars and royalty during its career. In the 17th century, it was common to depict the instrument in the hands of vagabonds and beggars – the blind beggar in particular. Perhaps this is how it got its English name; hurdy-gurdy means ‘diabolical racket’, a noise that the hurdy-gurdy can make with ease. In 18th-century France, it was fashionable for the rich to have elaborately decorated instruments made. It nearly died out completely in the early 20th century, victim to the industrial revolution and world war one, but thanks to a small number of die-hards, mostly in France, the secrets of the makers and the tradition of its playing are now safe.