~ The Universe of Bagpipes ~
A Web Site by Oliver Seeler

"Bagpipes of the World" CD

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~ Bagpipes and Hurdy Gurdies ~

the old schoolhouse, Lisberg - now a museum

On a hillside overlooking the Nidder river in the little German country town of Lisberg, wedged between a formidable ancient castle and a fine old church, stands a somewhat severe-looking brick and stone building that was once the town schoolhouse and now continues its educational mission in a different way - as a marvelous museum of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies and as a symbol of the ancient and close relationship between these instruments. Why the juxtaposition of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies? And what exactly is a hurdy-gurdy (also known under the English name wheel-fiddle, the German Drehleier and the French Vielle a Roue, among many others)? The second question addresses the first: The hurdy-gurdy is a string instrument that produces sound that is in many ways analogous to that of a bagpipe; it incorporates continuously-sounding drones against which the melody plays, and the melody notes themselves can also be produced continuously. Sound is produced by the action of a rotating wheel, turned by a hand crank, rubbing against strings, just as violin strings are sounded by a bow being drawn across them. But the sound of a violin ceases at the end of each back-and-forth stroke of the bow, while a wheel keeps right on turning. (Likewise, a bagpipe keeps right on sounding while other woodwinds necessarily fall silent as the player takes a breath.)

Etymological Note:
Over the past eight centuries or so, the type of instrument here called "hurdy-gurdy" has been known by multiple names within many different languages. Furthermore, the English term "hurdy-gurdy" has been applied to all sorts of things, even to some having nothing to do with music. These factors have led to persistent confusions, the most common being that a hurdy-gurdy is a barrel-organ - a machine, stereotypically accompanied by a monkey with a tin cup, that produces repetitive music by the turning of a crank.

Thus this little boy's noise-maker ... and this hand-held sewing device, are ...


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NOT hurdy gurdies, despite popular parlance.

Beyond the similarity of sound there is a long musical association - sometimes something of a love-hate relationship - between bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies in many cultures. The hurdy-gurdy is an ancient instrument, though whether its historical appearance precedes or follows bagpipes is unclear - because the ultimate origins of both instruments in most cultural settings are unknown. What is clear is that very similar music has been played on both instruments for many centuries, and both have the capability of providing music for gatherings without the need for additional instruments, something that was of importance in the often economically lean times in which these instruments flourished. Thus early pipers and hurdy-gurdy players were sometimes competitors but also played together, or played the same tunes. Hurdy-gurdies were at times popular in every strata of society - in the villages among peasants, in church settings and with nobles in court, and were played by both men and women. Today, both bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies are in the midst of vigorous revivals in many countries and are being introduced into altogether new settings, both geographically and musically. The association between them is becoming stronger than ever and any close examination of one is not really complete without a look at the other, as in the following pages here.

The hurdy-gurdy has existed in many forms and under numerous names, just about all over eastern and western Europe, for many centuries. There have been many varieties with differences in basic shape, construction, number of strings, and so on. Today, the most commonly played varieties have either lute-shaped or guitar-shaped bodies; in either case, basic functioning and operation is the same within a range of minor differences of exact shape, mechanics, number of strings, certain acoustic features and of course tunings. Unlike the situation with bagpipes, historical information, especially from the past five or six centuries, is abundant (this largely because unlike almost all bagpipes, hurdy-gurdies, by whatever name, were popular in both church and court and thus often appeared in art and literature). So, the present effort will not dwell long on history; rather, here a particular instrument, built during the last quarter of the 19th century, is demonstrated in photographs, sound and text in order to provide an understanding of how the various elements of a hurdy-gurdy work. Likewise no attempt will be made here to discuss the vast musical parameters of the instrument - suffice it to say that there is little music that hasn't been heard on one.


Click on the images below to visit the indicated pages:
click here to visit the Lisberg museum and its founder and curator
click here for an explanation of hurdy-gurdies in sights and sounds
click here to learn about the Hurdy Gurdy Girls, past and present
Visit the Lisberg Museum & founder Kurt Reichmann
The Hurdy Gurdy explained in pictures & sound, with Sean Folsom
The "Hurdy Gurdy Girls" in history and in a modern exhibition

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All text and images on this page not otherwise credited are original works by Oliver Seeler and are copyright 1999, Oliver Seeler.
Copyrights to images and text credited herein to other sources remain with the respective copyright holders.