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Hurdy-gurdy was an instrument known across Europe whose history dates back to the Medieval period. In the Polish territories, as early as the beginning of the 20th century, the tradition of playing this instrument was in decline. A hurdy-gurdy was one of the instruments used to perform church, court and folk music. Hurdy-gurdy performances accompanied dances and songs.


Hurdy-gurdy was an instrument known across Europe whose history dates back to the Medieval period. In the Polish territories, as early as the beginning of the 20th century, the tradition of playing this instrument was in decline. A hurdy-gurdy was one of the instruments used to perform church, court and folk music. Hurdy-gurdy performances accompanied dances and songs. The oldest of these instruments usually have three strings — one melody string and two drone ones. The melodic string, with which the melody is played out, crosses the middle of the so-called tangent box located on the surface of the instrument's resonator. The two drone strings play a bass function and run on both sides of this box, touching the wooden wheel of the instrument. A musician playing the hurdy-gurdy would shift the keys to the melody string with their left hand while turning the crank to activate the wheel, which rubbed against the drone strings.
The presented hurdy-gurdy was made of various kinds of wood (spruce, fir, lime wood, beech and pear tree wood). It was coated with brown-clare 21 cm t wood stain, its elements connected with glue, nails and reinforced with wire. The main body of the whole structure is the cello-shaped resonator, with the side C-letter-shaped notches and F-shaped resonation holes within the outer panel (the so-called F-holes). The bottom of the resonator and the peg box are made of a uniform board. The sides are composed of bent boards, three on either side. Inside the instrument, between the top and bottom boards, there are vertical wooden supports to uphold the structure of the wheel.
The instrument has three strings — one melody string and two drone strings. On the one side, the strings are wound onto pegs inserted into a peg box connected with the main body of the instrument; on the other side – with wooden tailpieces. The melody string is supported by a bridge placed between the wheel and the tailpiece. The tailpiece of the melody string includes an oval chromolithography of the Blessed Virgin of Leżajsk. The melody string tailpiece is fastened to an element finished with a scroll in a way similar to cello instruments, whereas the tailpieces of the drone strings are joined to the bottom board of the resonator. The rectangular tangent box, crossed by a melody string, is installed in the middle of the top board. Its cover is decorated with religious representations, a dial of the watch, a mirror and stars embossed by means of a golden paper. The religious pictures are glass-covered chromolithographies representing the Scapular Mother of God and Christ with children (the representation known as ”Let the children come to me”). The dial of the pocket watch has an inscription on it reading ”Systeme Roskopf — Patent” (it was made by ”Roskopf”). The outside of the tangent box has 12 protruding keys, all of them connected with 12 tangents inside. While playing, the keys shifted by the musician move the tangents, which in turn press against the melody string and, thus, shorten it, making the melody string produce a sound with a desired pitch. When rubbed with the wheel, the drone strings produce a sound of an invariable pitch. In this case, a wheel resembling a wooden spoked carriage wheel is triggered by means of an iron S-shaped crank with a wood-carved knob-shaped handle. The cover is removable and based on two strips of wood. At the moment the instrument does not play.
It was hard to procure a working musical instrument directly from a musician, which is evidenced by the information regarding the instrument in question published in the Ilustrowany Kuryer Codzienny [Illustrated Daily Courier] magazine of 22 January 1934: It is hard today to see at our markets an old man with a hurdy gurdy. It is much more difficult to buy this old instrument, which the hurdy gurdy player does not want to part with at any price. I will sell it and then what am I going to do? is a usual response to cut any talk about the purchase of a hurdy gurdy. This fact alone makes the hurdy gurdy given to the collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków by Marja Sworzeniówna, a teacher in Poręba Radlna, the district of Tarnów, a precious instrument.”
We mostly tend to associate hurdy gurdies as an attribute of a wandering folk singer accompanying himself with the lyre. Such singers usually enjoyed social prestige, not only because of their musical skills but also their healing and magical skills and knowledge gained while wandering. Most of such players regarded playing music as their vocation and were often members of associations working similarly to guilds. The associations offered a few years of vocational training, especially in Ukraine. A candidate learned to play the lyre, a repertoire of songs and even a specific dialect typical of lyre players. The association also assigned each player to a given playing area. In the 19th century, lyre players most often played at churches, cemeteries, inns, markets and church fairs. These are lyre players we know from iconographic representations.
This instrument is associated with an exceptional context of its use. The source materials include scarce information about the context the given instrument was used in, as collectors usually focused more on the very instrument, somewhat disregarding the context an instrument appeared and was used in. The story connected with this exhibit — told by Marja Sworzeniówna, a teacher from Poręba Radlna near Tarnów, who gave the instrument to the Ethnographic Museum back in 1933, was published in Ilustrowany Kuryer Codzienny [Illustrated Daily Courier] from 22 January 1934 (…): “However, it rarely happens that lyre has a value due to its original owner. This is an instrument that was used a few years ago by an 80-year-old sculptor, player and a rural dentist who departed this life in 1931, Andrzej Bobek of Łękawica, the district of Tarnów, a man who discovered, with his primitive mind, the positive impact of music on a human's psychic and was able to apply this discovery in his medical practice. It was him who would play dynamic Krakowiak dance music and other melodies to his patients while they were screaming of pain. When a patient was calm enough, Bobek would remove an aching tooth with a lever.” Such an application of the instrument was of a secondary nature, though researchers deem it quite interesting.
As hurdy gurdies are a rare find, we classify these instruments as some of the more precious exhibits in our collection of folk musical instruments. The Ethnographic Museum in Kraków is the only museum to have a collection including as many as 10 exhibits dating back to the 19th century or the turn of the 20th century, originating from territories of today's Ukraine and former Western Galicia. Nowadays, we see a renaissance of hurdy gurdy. There are violin-making studios committed to making replicas of instruments from museum collections and producing newly-designed hurdy gurdies for contemporary folk musicians. In 2000, the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków received a replica of a hurdy gurdy presented at the permanent exhibition — made and given by a USA-based musician and producer of folk instruments — currently used for educational purposes.

Elaborated by Grażyna Pyla (The Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków), © all rights reserved


Hurdy-gurdy from Łękawka



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