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Instrument Biography: The Free-Reed Organ (Harmonium)

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In the interest of space, the reed organs known as the harmonica and the accordion have been broken out of this biography. For more on organs in general, check out my blog post on Pipe Organs.

Reed organs were the main type of organ in households and smaller churches before there were electronic organs. Their volume and tonal range was quite limited and had only one or two manual keyboards and, rarely, a pedal keyboard. The bellows were operated by the feet, which would make a pedal keyboard quite a feat (har har) of coordination.

There are three types of reed organs covered in this article: pump organs (like a small pipe organ with sewing-machine-style foot pedals), melodeons (like a virginal or a table-top keyboard with the bellows hidden in a small chest-like box on the table), and harmoniums (a portable box containing a bellows with the keyboard attached to the front that the player sits on the floor to play).

Several million pump organs were made between the 1850s and the 1920s. Often ornately carved, they were a sign of affluence in private homes. The melodeon predates the pump organ, and the harmonium, like the accordion, is limited to folk or ethnic music.

Squeezeboxes, such as the accordion, concertina, bandoneon, are also free reed instruments, but they that are played by squeezing the bellows as part of the gesture of making notes sound. Unlike other instruments where the bellows are separated mechanically from the keyboard, the keyboards and chord buttons are attached to the bellows itself and the movement of the arms to pump the bellows must be coordinated with the playing of the hands across the keys. You’ll find out more about them in my Instrument Biography: The Accordion.

The harmonica is also a reed organ, and in this instrument, human lungs are used as the bellows, and the reeds work in two directions (sucking and blowing). You can read all about them in Instrument Biography: The Harmonica.

Reed Organ History

It’s thought that the Chinese free-reed instruments traveled through Russia, and then came to the rest of Europe in the late 18th century. Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang. All of these are probably the ancestors of the western reed organ. The panpipes and the bagpipes are other ancestors. It’s a big family.

In the early 19th century, European instrument makers played with the idea of freeing the reeds from the pipes, and created a mouth organ (a flat box with grooves for the reeds—now a harmonica), an accordion (using the whole instrument as a bellows with reeds in the two headboards). These styles played both by blowing and sucking.

Pump Organ

Styled after the regal organ (biography to come) with free reeds, the pump organ was created to be more expressive during the end of the Baroque era and the beginning of the Romantic, when dynamics (loudness) became essential to the success of musical instruments. Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723-1795), a professor of physiology at Copenhagen, is thought to have invented the first such instrument in Europe. It was further perfected by Parisian G.J. Grenie (sorry, I couldn’t find dates for him) in 1810, and both called It an orgue expressif.

Despite impressive dimensions, early pump organs weren’t particularly nice, musically. The pipes were out of tune and too loud, there wasn’t a proper keyboard, and the player had to pull and push sliders one at a time in order to make a sound. A melody could be played only very slowly, and more than two parts was impossibly complex. So instrument makers kept working on their design.

Alexandre Debain (1809-1877) improved on the instrument and called it a harmonium when he patented it in 1840. (Resources waffle between calling a piano-like pump organ a harmonium and calling a simple accordion-like box with a keyboard a harmonium. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I will call only the accordion-like instrument a harmonium.) Debain’s model was good enough to be considered a suitable substitute for an orchestra in domestic music and light music arrangements until the first half of the 20th century. It was also popular for church music and silent movies.

After emigrating to the US, a mechanic who’d worked in Debain’s factory created a suction bellows to replace one that forced air outward through the reeds. By 1860, suction bellows organs had become the main mode of construction in the US. This instrument is quieter and has a more pipe organ-like tone than the other kinds of reed organs.

Theodore-Achille Muller made a model that could be folded up into a box. The original instrument was patented in 1842 and had a three-octave keyboard, one set of reeds (later versions have four sets) of varying thicknesses and lengths, and a single blowing pedal-driven bellows. More advanced models had five-octave keyboards, stops and couplers for fancy things like octaves and vibrato. Each key on the keyboard controlled a valve that regulated the amount of wind produced by the compression bellows. Another advance was a shifting keyboard, which permitted transposition at any interval, while playing the music as notated. I’d like one of those!

In 1854, Victor Mustel (1850-1890) added a divided expression stop that was worked by knee levers. As you’ll learn in the Structure section, this stop allows louder and softer sounds to come from the instrument when the stop is pulled.

In the late 19th century, the reed organ was popular in Europe and the US for classical music, regarded as a serious instrument for serious composers (see below for a list). It was often used to accompany voices. In the US, the repertoire tended to target amateur musicians, often used in folk music of the Appalachians, for instance.

By their heyday, pump organs came in many different styles, from compact single-keyboard instruments with a single set of reeds and one or two foot treadles to pump the bellows, to two-keyboard instruments with several sets of reeds of differing colors and pitches, powered by a separate blowing lever or electric motor, like those on a pipe organ. The most common type of pump organ has two-to-five sets of reeds, one keyboard, and accessories (couplers) to achieve octaves and tremulant (vibrato). These instruments competed with the piano for parlor space in the 19th century, and were common in small churches.

Pump organs were at their most popular in small churches and chapels where a pipe organ was inappropriate due to size or expense. Pump organs weigh less than pianos of a similar size and are physically hardier. This made them popular in oversees outposts because they shipped and transported easily across unpredictable terrain. Reeds hold their pitch even in humid or hot weather, unlike stringed instruments, such as pianos. They became so popular as colonial instruments, in fact, that manufacturers began to impregnate the wood casings with a chemicals that helped prevent woodworm damage.

At its peak of popularity, variety in structure and ornamentation was extensive. There were plain cases with only four stops (or none) and ornate cases with a dozen stops and other mechanisms, such as couplers. The expensive ones were built to resemble pipe organs, with ranks of fake pipes attached to the top. A few were built with two manual keyboards, and some were built with pedal keyboards, which meant that an assistant had to pump the bellows until later versions ran on electricity.

Large versions were meant for home use, which allowed pipe organists to practice on an instrument roughly the same size as the organ they performed on. Missionaries, chaplains in the armed forces, and evangelists found the smaller ones more convenient because they folded to the size of a large suitcase. Some of these had a short keyboard and only a few stops, by they were sufficient for accompanying small congregations.

Pump organs became quite complex and it was common for manufacturers to develop their own versions and patent them, especially the bellows mechanisms. As the number of manufacturers grew, so did the complexity of the instrument, with levers, cranks, rods, and shafts. This made them more vulnerable to failure and also contributed to the popularity of the electric organ.

The invention of the electric organ in the 1930s provided the funeral dirge for the pump organ. The Hammond organ could imitate the tonal quality and range of a pipe organ with the same small dimensions. Maintenance was less and there were more stops and other features possible.

The last mass-producer of pump organs was Estey, in the US (Vermont), who stopped manufacturing pump organs in the 1950s. Instruments and replacement parts became increasingly hard to come by, and many were updated with electric blowers. Electronic instruments completely took over the domestic market and modern instruments have an electric wind supply, leaving the feet free to play pedal keyboards.

Despite such general ignominy in the west, pump organs have remained popular in South Asia.

Melodeon

The melodeon is a reed instrument with an air reservoir and a foot-operated bellows, popular in the US in the mid-19th century. It looks like a very skinny upright piano or an impractical writing desk. Its whistle-like reeds are often hidden behind an attractively carved cover, and it comes with a keyboard and one or two sets of interchangeable reeds. Like the pump organ, wind is moved past the reeds by way of treadles through a bellows and several coupling contraptions.

The reeds are tuned as they are in the pump organ, with a flap of metal or wood, shaved to produce a specific note, and vibrated by means of the air passing by. The difference between a pump organ and a melodeon is one of portability and ornamentation.

There’s another instrument called the melodeon that’s like an accordion, but without a keyboard. It’s played with push buttons determining the notes. The right hand plays the high notes and the left hand plays the low notes, and both operate the bellows by pushing and pulling, just like an accordion. This instrument is also occasionally called the lap organ.

Writing this piece, where harmoniums are pump organs and melodeons are pump organs and both are accordions, I am reminded of royalty in England, where everyone seems to be a Henry or an Edward, or maybe, for a little variety, an Alfred, Mary, or Jane. If you invent something or found a dynasty, please do your biographers a favor and give your progeny a unique name, okay?

Harmonium

The harmonium came to India in the mid-19th century via missionaries from Europe and England and it quickly became popular. (India is the one place where it has stayed popular, too.) It became a staple of North Indian classical music concerts and is commonly found in Indian homes. Although originally derived from a French version, Indian musicians developed it further, including drone stops and a scale-changing mechanism, to better serve the Indian sensibilities.

In Calcutta (also called Kolkata, the capital city of the Indian state of West Bengal) the harmony flute was developed into a hand-held harmonium, which has become an integral part of Indian music to this day. Internationally renowned India poet Dwijendranath Tagore (1840-1926) is said to have used one in 1860 in his private theater, but it’s possible that this was a pedal-pumped version, or some form of reed organ. Regardless, the harmonium’s popularity rose as a result, and the hand-held version evolved.

The American harmonium was invented in Paris (how ironic) in 1835 and was further developed by Estey of Vermont (in the US) and by Mason and Hamlin of Massachusetts (US again) in 1861.

The harmonium was widely used in Parsi and Marathi stage music in India in the late 19th century. By the early 20th century, nationalist movements pushed the harmonium out. It couldn’t produce slides between notes (called meend) and it couldn’t be tuned during performance, both of which made it seem less useful than indigenous instruments. It was banned from All India Radio between 1940 and 1971 and the ban still stands for harmonium solos.

Despite these limitations, the harmonium is used in Indian classical music of the early 20th century—it is easy to learn, it supports group singing and large voice classes, ragas (chants) can be learned on it, and it’s loud enough to provide a drone in a concert hall. Nowadays, it’s the instrument of choice for accompanying North Indian classical vocalists.

Since the 1920s, small harmoniums have been made in India and Pakistan. They’re widely used to accompany devotional music in India and wherever else Indians have settled, and sadly, have contributed to the diminishing popularity of indigenous Indian instruments.

All Indian instruments are played while sitting on the floor or stage, so the harmonium was placed on the floor or held on the lap. It was usual for Indian homes not to have tables or chairs, so the switch to a home version was quite natural. The player could use his feet to pump the bellows, leaving both hands free to play the keyboard for chordal music (from the West). But Indian music isn’t chordal, so only one hand was necessary to play the keyboard and the other could be used to pump the bellows most of the time.

Hindus and Sikhs often use a harmonium to accompany devotional songs (bhajan or kirtan), and most Hindu or Sikh temples have at least one harmonium, world-wide. The harmonium is often accompanied by the tabla (two small hand drums, side-by-side, much like a detached bongo) and a dholak (a two-headed barrel-shaped hand drum).

Because the harmonium can’t be tuned and is certainly not flexible in tuning while being played, it’s controversial in Qawwali music (Sufi worship music), although it’s often the only instrument providing the music.

Harmoniums were particularly popular during a folk music renaissance in the late 1970s in the European north, particularly in Finland. Folk bands often consisted of a violin, double bass, and harmonium.

There is a 22-microtone harmonium developed by Vidyadhar Oke (dates unknown, but he’s still alive) that can play all the notes required in Indian classical music rather than the more limited 12 tones of the western scale. The fundamental tone and the fifth are fixed, but the other 10 notes of the western scale have two microtones each, one above and one below the pitch. The microtone is produced by pulling out a knob beneath the key.

Another fellow called Bhishmadev Vedi (sorry, again I couldn’t find dates, but I did find a contemporary mention in 1915) changed the instrument by augmenting it with a harp-like string box attached to the top. His disciple, Monohar Chimote (1929-   ), called the instrument a samvadini.

A near relative of the harmonium is a shruti (or sruti) box. This is a simple form of harmonium, where only a single note is meant to be played at a time. A stop allows airflow past the chosen reed, and the bellows are worked with one hand. The shruti box looks something like an office file with accordion pleats, and sounds like a reedy bagpipe drone. It’s used to accompany singing or flute playing, but is too quiet to participate in orchestral compositions. I have one, and I adore it for singing chant against, or teaching a voice student about tuning. It has 12 notes, but the scale is pentatonic (five notes to the scale rather than eight), so some notes are repeated in the octave.

Reed Organ Structure

“Reed organ” is the generic term for a keyboard instrument whose sound is produced by freely vibrating reed tongues, usually without individual resonators, and activated by air pressure or suction.

First, a definition. A reed is considered “free” if it is allowed to vibrate without restraint. So an oboe or a shawm is technically a free reed instrument. One end is attached, and the other vibrates, as a function of air pressure, within the player’s mouth. An instrument like a recorder or a pipe organ is not a free reed. The air passing through the tube of the instrument bounces of the walls and is squeezed through a specific stiff opening in order to produce the note. You could think of it as the difference between blowing across a blade of grass (free reed) and blowing across an open bottle (fixed reed).

Reeds can be made of wood, metal, paper, or cloth. Anything that retains its shape and can be affixed snuggly at one end will do, really. In the case of pump organs and harmoniums, they’re usually metal or wood.

The reed is screwed down tightly at one end and is shaped to fit closely into an aperture in a rigid piece of metal, which lies between a lower wind-chest and an upper wind-chest. Air fills the lower wind-chest and spreads around the reed into the upper wind-chest. The upper wind-chest’s opening is covered by a felted block of wood. When the appropriate key is depressed, the block is raised and the air that surrounds the reed escapes from the upper chest.

When the block is raised, the pressure surrounding the reed changes. There is greater pressure below the reed than above (because of the open block), and the reed is forced upward, with the air rushing past it from the lower chest. Before the pressure in the two chests can equalize, the reed returns to its original position so that the flow of air is stopped. Now the pressure in the lower chest increases until it forces the reed to move out of the way again. This happens very quickly, in the form of a vibration.

The free reed of the pump organ is riveted into a metal frame. The range of vibrations from the reed is affected by damping (being mechanically touched), allowing the sound produced from the various reeds to be somewhat homogenous. Air must be pumped at a minimum speed to get any sound, and pumping too hard silences the reeds. Between the two extremes, it’s possible to get degrees of loudness. For this, there’s a stop, often operated by the player’s knee, that can increase or decrease the volume by changing the speed of the airflow.

The free reed mechanism is identical for both western and Indian harmoniums as well as the reed organ.

A reed organ is similar to an accordion or a concertina in that the reeds vibrate with either suction (a vacuum) or pressure. An accordion accomplishes this through the player’s hands, pulling and pushing on the bellows. A reed organ is usually on the floor (rather than held in the arms), and the bellows might be hidden by a wooden casing.

The bellows are operated by means of a treadle, like an old-fashioned sewing machine. (Maybe that’s where they got the idea for the sewing machine?) Harmoniums are hand pumped. In fancy pump organs, an assistant might be required to maintain the flow of air.

Debain (remember him from the History section?) developed a reservoir so that the action on the treadle was reflected through the feeder bellows directly onto the wind channels, creating crescendo and diminuendo (gradual loudness and softness). At about the same time (the 1840s), L.P.A. Marin de Provine (sorry, I couldn’t find dates) invented the prolongement to sustain notes after the key was released, and percussion, in which small piano hammers struck the reeds as if they were strings, giving a quicker and more precise response than wind.

Pitch depends on air pressure. In bass notes, the fundamental frequency (in hertz) decreases with medium pressure and increases by several hertz at high pressure (the note raises or lowers with more or less wind). High pressure can bend the reed beyond its frame, which limits its use.

The overtones of the reeds are harmonic rather than inharmonic (they’re limited to certain specific notes from the overtone scale), which matters if you’re looking for a rich and full sound. Overtones contribute hugely to whether an instrument sounds in tune, especially when played loudly.

Air pressure affects both pitch and volume. How fast or slow the bellows move determines how loud the notes are. In order to control the difference between pitch and volume, pressure bellows were invented to stabilize the amount of air available to the reeds. Instruments with pressure bellows are harder to build and are often more expensive, so North American and British reed organs and melodeons often use suction bellows and operate by creating (using) a vacuum.

The American reed organ is a foot bellows or electric reed keyboard similar to the harmonium but works on negative pressure (it sucks air through the reeds rather than pushing it through).

German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) wrote “On the Sensations of Tone” in 1875, which used a harmonium to test a variety of tuning systems. He said that the instrument sustained tones evenly with a piercing character, and that it combined tones in a unique and distinctive way. He considered the vibrators (reeds) to be tunable to a particularly fine degree.

Using two manual keyboards and two stop sets tuned differently, Helmholtz was able to compare Pythagorean tuning (a complex system where all intervals are based on a ratio—it has to do with dividing string lengths, and is WAY too complicated to go into here) to Just tuning (another ratio-based interval system) and Equal tuning (this system is based on equal distances between notes) and observe the “out-of-tune” degrees inherent in each temperament. Helmholtz subdivided the octave into 28 tones so that he could modulate among 12 minor and 17 major keys in Just intonation without creating unpleasant dissonances. Quite difficult to play, this was not a popular arrangement.

Other modified instruments were used for experimental and educational purposes, most notably the generalized keyboard designed by Englishman Robert Holford Macdowell Bosanquet (1841-1912). He built it in 1873 for use with a 53-tone scale (a “normal” chromatic scale has 12 notes). This harmonium had 84 keys, to make fingering convenient.

Lord John William Strutt, Third Baron Rayleigh (1842-1919), an English physicist famous for explaining why the sky is blue, used the harmonium to measure sound frequencies because of its clear overtone patterns that could be counted easily. He approximated Equal temperament intervals and examined their overtone beats. He had to concede, though, that the air pressure had to maintained exactly, or the tone fluctuated.

Orchestral instruments are tuned to 440 Hz, harmoniums are frequently tuned to 438 Hz, accordions are tuned to 442 Hz, and Baroque groups tune to 415 Hz. This is why you don’t see a lot of harmoniums (or accordions) playing with orchestras.

The Name

Common names for reed organs are harmonium, melodeon, lap organ, pump organs, vocalion, seraphine, orgue expressif, cabinet organ, or American organ (used in Europe to distinguish a suction instrument from a pressure instrument). Also aeolina, aeolodicon, euphonion, melodiflute, melophone, organochordium, and physharmonika.

Other reed organs include accordions, concertinas, and harmonicas.

The poikilorgue was Cavaille-Coll’s version of the pump organ, with a range of an octave and a half.

To make things more confusing, in North America and the UK, a reed organ with a pressure bellows is called a harmonium and a suction reed organ is called a melodeon. In Europe, any reed organ is called a harmonium, even if it has a suction bellows.

Asian free-reed instruments include the Chinese sheng, lusheng, hulusi, yu, bawu, and hulusheng, plus the Japanese sho, the Thai khene, and the Korean saenghwang.

In India, the melodeon is what westerners would refer to as a concertina (see the article on accordions for more on these), and a harmonium is the portable chest variety of reed organ described above. Indian Sikhs call the harmonium a vaja or a baja. Some also call it a peti (which means “box”).

The name “harmonium” has been used in England and Europe to refer to reed organs in general. Larger instruments in Germany were sometimes called Kunstharmonium (art harmonium).

Reed Organ Composers

Repertoire for reed organs includes many pieces written for church organ despite their small range and minimal stops. For instance, Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Fantasia in C major (BWV 570) can be played on a four-octave reed organ. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote Petite Messe Solennelle for piano and harmonium.

Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) wrote Symphony No. 7 for chamber orchestra, and it was prepared for performance by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) and his Viennese friends on two violins, viola, cello, bass, clarinet, horn, piano (four hands) and harmonium. They never did perform it, and it wasn’t performed publically for another 60 years.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote Symphonie zu Dantes Divina Commedia, and Movement II: Purgatorio has a reed organ in it. Cesar Franck (1822-1890) wrote a collection called L’Organiste for harmonium, some with piano accompaniment. Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904) wrote Five Bagatelles for two violins, cello, and harmonium (Op. 47). Alban Berg (1885-1935) wrote Altenberg Lieder. Frederic Clay (1838-1889) wrote Ages Ago, with libretto by W.S. Gilbert (1836-1911) of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.

Claude Debussy (1862-1914) wrote Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, from a chamber ensemble arrangement by Arnold Schoenberg. Gustav Mahler(1860-1911) wrote Symphony No. 8. Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote Ariadne aug Naxos, which is an opera that uses a harmonium with many stops, as specified in the score. Edward Elgar (1857-1954) wrote Sospiri, an Adagio for String Orchestra, scored for harp or piano and harmonium or organ, and Vesper Preludes. Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote Hin und zurück, which is an operatic sketch that uses a harmonium on the stage.

The Kronos Quartet produced an album called Early Music, with several pieces that feature a harmonium.

Sigfrid Karg-Elert (1877-1933) was a harmonium virtuoso who also wrote pieces for the instrument.

Reed Organ Players

As the sources used reed organ and harmonium as synonyms, it was hard to distinguish harmonium from reed organ from melodeon, so here’s a nice list of modern folks who’ve used one or the other of them.

Timo Alakotila plays Nordic folk music, as does Milla Viljamaa and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan play Qawwali music (Sufi worship music) in Pakistan. And Sigfrid Karg-Elert was a German harmonium virtuoso.

Tori Amos played a harmonium during her Boys for Pele tour (1996). The Beatles used a harmonium in quite a few recordings, including Doctor Robert, the Inner Light, We Can Work it Out, Cry Baby, Rocky Raccoon, and the final chord in A Day in the Life. Pink Floyd used the harmonium on their The Final Cut album. Radiohead used an antique harmonium on their Motion Picture Soundtrack album on Kid A. They toured with a harmonium throughout 2001 until it broke at a show in Oxford England. Tom Waits plays a harmonium on his albums Swordfish Trombones and Rain Dogs. It also appears on Night on Earth, the soundtrack of an eponymous film. Neil Young plays Like a Hurricane on a harmonium.

Sources:

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” edited by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” compiled by Don Michael Randel. Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1978.

“The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,” edited by Stanley Sadie. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1994.

“The Encyclopedia of Music,” by Max Wade-Matthews & Wendy Thompson. Lorenz Books, Leicesteshire, 2012.

“The History of Musical Instruments,” by Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 2006.

“Musical Instruments of the World,” by the Diagram Group. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1997.

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Instrument Biography: The Oboe

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The oboe is a soprano-ranged double-reed woodwind instrument. It’s made from a wooden tube roughly 23.5 inches long and has metal keys, a conical bore, and a flared bell. Sound is produced by blowing into the reed and causing the air within the tube to vibrate. The way I’ve described it makes it sound like a kazoo, but when played properly, it’s one of the most magical instruments in the whole orchestra.

The oboe’s sound is clear and penetrating. It was mentioned by Henry Playford (familiar to all you contra and English country dancers) in 1695 as a majestic and stately instrument and others have claimed that the oboe sounds like a duck if the duck could only sing. The timbre of the oboe comes from its conical bore (unlike the cylindrical bore of flutes and clarinets), and is readily audible over other instruments in large ensembles.

Oboe music written in C (it’s a tuning thing—more on that later) and has a soprano range, although there are other voices in the oboe family (more on that later, too). Orchestras frequently tune to the A of the oboe because the pitch is secure and its penetrating sound makes it ideal for a variety of instruments to tune to it.

Oboe History

Wind players and instrument makers at the French court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) are in large part responsible for building an oboe from a shawm. The oboe first appeared in England in the 17th century, under the French name of hautbois, and surely came from France, as the French were especially fond of the instrument. This name “hautbois” was also used for the oboe’s ancestor, the shawm. The two major differences between the shawm and the oboe include the oboe having three sections (or joints), which allow more precision during manufacturing and precision in both tuning and comfort, and the elimination of the pirouette, the wooden ledge or ball below the reed that was a resting point for the player’s lips on the shawm.

The 17th century flutist Michel de la Barre wrote that the Philidor and Hotteterre families might have been the inventors (separately or together, it’s unclear). Regardless of who or how it came to be, it grew in popularity all over Europe and in England, where the name morphed through hautboy, hoboy, hautboit, and howboye before settling on oboe (in English—the French still call it an hautbois). It was the main instrument in military bands until the clarinet came along and dislodged it.

The reason for the oboe’s popularity was that it was an expressive instrument, equal to that of the traverse flute (another rising star in the 17th century). The shawm had demanded attention by being almost obnoxiously loud, but the oboe tempered the sound with dynamic range (loudness AND softness) and eloquent nuance. It soon became a favorite instrument of the Baroque era, especially played in conjunction with the violin, which was another new invention (evolved from the vielle).

In the early 18th century, the oboe’s sister, the oboe d’amour developed, which was even more evocative, as the name rather romantically implies. The oboe d’amore is pitched a third lower than the regular oboe and was unknown until the early Romantic period. In the 1870s, Victor Charles Mahillon (1841-1924), of the Mahillon instrument makers in Brussels, revived the instrument for historical performances. It’s evolved further since then to include the same improvements as the modern oboe (more about that in the Structure section).

The alto bombard (one of the names for the shawm) became the alto oboe (the same way as the shawm became the oboe), and it had a pear-shaped bell, like the oboe d’amore. It had a warm and full tone and was also called the oboe da caccia (the horseman’s oboe) and was used during fox hunts. The oboe da caccia was 30 inches long and had a peaceful and quiet sound.

The English horn is another version of the oboe, but it’s curved, carved of two pieces of wood at an angle, like a sickle, and is encased in leather to make it airtight. It’s a little bit longer and although the finger holes are wide apart, it’s fingered the same way as a regular oboe and oboe d’amore. It rose in popularity around the middle of the 18th century and had an elegant pear-shaped or spherical bell. By the 19th century, it had gained the oboe’s helpful key mechanisms. The English horn is often found in large orchestras today and plays a fifth lower than the oboe.

The baritone oboe plays a fourth lower than the English horn (or an octave below the oboe, if it’s easier to think of it that way). It’s more than three feet long, has the pear-shaped bell of the English horn, and is blown, like the bassoon, through an S-shaped tube. It sounds a lot like an English horn, only lower.

The heckelphone is an even lower oboe, made in the early 20th century, with a wide conical bore. It was made of maple-wood and has a barrel-shaped bell. The heckelphone was more than four-feet long, producing a rich sound, so much so that it was used by Richard Strauss (1864-1049) in “Salome” and “Alpine Symphony” and by Max von Schillings (1868-1933) in “Der Moloch” and “Mona Lisa.”

The pioccolo-heckelphone is a smaller version of the heckelphone and sounds a fourth lower than an oboe. It’s still pretty big.

In the time of Louis XIV (1638-1715), French ensembles consisted of an oboe, a tenor oboe, and a bassoon, but by the middle of the 18th century, they had expanded to two oboes (or two clarinets) with two horns and two bassoons.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) orchestra had a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and between 12 and 16 strings (violins, violas, and cellos, doubled by bass viol), and a harpsichord. Trumpets and timpani were occasionally added.

Viennese orchestras of the 1790s often had as many as 35 players, often also including clarinets. In the 19th century, orchestras grew from about 40 players to nearly 90. Oboes (along with flutes, clarinets, and bassoons) developed elaborate key systems by mid-century, and their ranges were considerably expanded (piccolos, English horn, bass clarinet, and contra-bassoon).

Oboe Structure

The oboe has a narrower bore than the shawm, which is why its tone is softer and more delicate. It was narrowed during the Classical period (1730-1820). The narrower bore allowed the higher notes to be played more easily, and composers indulged themselves in this broadened range. The new half-octave inspired Classical era composers (including Mozart) to write concertos for the oboe instead of leaving it buried in the orchestra adding color.

Also during the Classical period, the oboe’s bore was lined with a conical metal tube, which made it sound a lot more like a trumpet or a horn than a shawm. It didn’t last, and today’s oboe has an extremely narrow conical bore with no metal lining.

The oboe ends in a funnel-shaped bell.

The Baroque oboe was made of boxwood and had only three keys. After improvement to the keys in the 1840s, oboes were no longer made of boxwood, but of ebony or rosewood instead. Occasionally, metal or ebonite have been used.

Since the middle of the 19th century, the differences between the French oboe (also used in England, the U.S., Belgium, and Italy) and the German-Austrian oboe has increased. The French oboe is thinner and has a more delicate tone.

Instead of being constructed from a single piece of wood, instrument makers for Louis XIV (1638-1715) divided the oboe into three sections that fitted together nicely, facilitating the most delicate adjustments in tuning. This improved instrument had two octaves, and its smaller finger holes allowed the player to produce more accurate chromatic pitches.

The modern oboe is usually made from African blackwood, although some manufacturers use cocobolo, rosewood, or violetwood. Ebony is used occasionally, and some student models are made from resin to avoid cracking the wood with rough treatment and to make the instrument less expensive.

The oldest oboes had six finger holes, of which two, producing half-step intervals, were doubled so they could be played with either hand (like the recorder). It also had three keys, one of which was a swallow-tail lever to be played with either hand, called the great key, and the other two were opposite each other to be played with either hand to close the same hole, called the side key. The side key was often doubled to facilitate use of either the left or right hand on the bottom holes, just like the lowest hole on the recorder.

During the Classical period, the oboe gained keys. One special key was called a “slur” key and was similar to the modern octave key, although it was first used like a “flick” key on the modern German bassoon to facilitate chromatic changes. Later, French oboe makers redesigned the octave key to be used like it is on the modern instrument (held open for the upper register, closed for the lower).

In the 19th century, the Triebert family (Guillaume and his sons Charles and Frederic) in Paris used the Boehm flute (see Instrument Biography: The Flute) as a source of ideas for key work, and devised increasingly complex key systems. The Boehm-system oboe had large finger holes and was used in some military bands into the 20th century, but was never commonly adopted.

But even before 1800, Grundmann and Grenser of Dresden Germany experimented, fitting the oboe with keys so that it could play a chromatic scale. By 1825, the oboe had as many as 10 keys in addition to the holes. In 1825, the leading maker in Vienna was Koch, who developed the instrument that became the standard of the day with celebrated oboist Joseph Sellner (1787-1843), who would later write the seminal tutorial on playing the oboe.

Improvements continued until, by 1840, there were 14 keys. French makers, including Frederic Triebert, really tweaked the thing. The instrument made in 1880 was considered the best ever, and was called the “conservatoire model,” and is essentially the same as the modern instrument. The conservatoire model was made in Paris and was equipped with a complicated and ingenious key mechanism that makes it possible to play the same note in two or three different ways—even four, in some instance.

When he left the Triebert company in 1881, Francois Loree of Paris further developed the oboe by improving the bore and keys, and, after a few more changes, by the late 20th century, it finally settled into the instrument we know today.

Modern instruments have about 2.5 octaves. Some student models are missing the B-flat key that extends the range downward in the professional versions. There’s a similar key on the flute.

The Gillet key system (for the conservatoire oboe) has 45 pieces of keywork, with the optional additions of a third octave key and an alternate key for F or C. The keys are usually made of nickel silver and are silver- or gold-plated.

Oboes are also made using the English thumb plate system, which includes semi-automatic octave keys by which playing in the second octave closes keys from the first. Releasing the thumb plate has the same effect as closing the forefinger’s hole on the right hand, which produces alternate fingerings without distinctive tone changes. This can be handy when rapidly switching octaves running up or down a scale (the fewer fingers you have to move, the faster you can play).

Some conservatoire oboes have keys constructed of rings rather than plates (called open-holed), so that the finger closes the hole but still manipulates the key, and most professional models have at least the right hand’s third key open-holed. Professional models usually use this open-hole system combined with a thumb plate.

The cup-shaped connection between the mouthpiece and the instrument in the shawm (called the pirouette) was discarded when they were designing the oboe at Louis XIV’s French court. The reed isn’t entirely within the mouth as it is in the shawm, but is held between the lips, about half in and half out of the mouth. The player can control the volume as a result of this change, and it’s also possible to overblow to achieve harmonics for higher notes. The free-standing reed allows greater control of intonation and tone quality than the old-style-enclosed reed.

The oboe’s double reed consists of two thin blades of cane tied together around a small-diameter metal tube called the staple. This staple and reed are bound together with three carefully placed wires and then thread is wrapped around the wires. The cane-surrounded staple is stuffed into a length of cork, and the cork is pushed into the reed socket (called the farrow) at the top of the oboe.

Professional oboists make their own reeds, as every oboist needs a slightly different design to suit their own needs. This way, they can control things like tone color and tuning. Some beginners use reeds made of synthetic materials because it’s both hard and expensive to make your own.

Commercially available cane reeds are available in several degrees of hardness. A medium reed is most popular, and most beginners used medium-soft reeds.

As oboists gain experience, they usually start making their own reeds, often in the style of their teachers, or they buy handmade reeds (usually from a professional oboist) in various stages of construction, and using special tools, including gougers, pre-gougers, guillotines, knives, and other tools, adjust the reed to their own liking. It takes many attempts to get the reed right. Orchestral musicians sometimes make reeds to sell and earn a bit of extra money.

Oboe reeds, like those for the clarinet, saxophone and bassoon reeds, are made from cane that’s called Arundo donx. Professional oboists import their reed cane directly from the growers in southern France.

The cane is split into three vertical parts. Oboes require the thickness of about 10 millimeters and bassoons need the reed to be more than twice as thick. Each player adjusts the reeds for his or her own embouchure, the angle at which they hold their oboe from their bodies, and lung capacity. The reed is considered the most difficult aspect of playing the oboe because slight variations in temperature, altitude, and weather can change a hitherto good reed into an unplayable bundle of twigs.

The oboe’s pitch is affected by the way the reed is made. There can be variations in the construction materials, the age of the reed, and the difference in scrape and length. German and French reeds differ in many ways, and the sound is different in response. Skilled oboists can adjust their embouchure to compensate for such factors by manipulating embouchure and air pressure.

Oboe d’amore, which is larger and a third lower than the conservatoire oboe, has a pear-shaped bell rather than the oboe’s funnel shape, which softens and mellows the tone.

The range of the Baroque oboe is a little more than two octaves.

The Wiener (Viennese) oboe is a modern instrument that retains the essential bore and tonal characteristics of the Baroque oboe. The Wiener oboe was developed in the 19th century by Josef Hajek from earlier instruments designed by C.T. Golde of Dresden (1803-1873), and is now made by several European makers and the Japanese maker Yamaha. Its bore is wider than that of the conservatoire oboe, its reed is shorter and broader, and the fingering system is different. The middle register of the Wiener oboe sounds reedy and the upper register includes more harmonics than traditional oboes. The Wiener oboe was thought to be an improvement on the historical oboe because it was a little easier to get a nice sound out of than the earlier instruments and could be played expressively, like a modern oboe. It was said to blend nicely with other instruments, and is, with the Vienna horn, distinctive and unique to the Wiener Philharmoniker instrument museum.

Other members of the oboe family include the cor anglais, or English horn, which is the tenor (or alto) member of the family. It’s a transposing instrument, pitched in F, a fifth lower than the oboe. The oboe d’amore, which is the alto (or mezzo-soprano) member of the family, is pitched in A, a minor third lower than the oboe. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) made extensive used of both the oboe d’amore as well as the taille and oboe da caccia, which were both Baroque parents of the English horn.

Less common is the bass oboe (usually called the baritone oboe), which sounds an octave lower than the oboe. Then there’s the heckelphone, which has a wider bore and a louder sound than the bass oboe—and only 165 of them have ever been made, making it hard to find competent heckelphone players. The rarest member of the oboe family is called the musette (or piccolo oboe), which is the sopranino member of the family, pitched at a minor third or a perfect fourth above the oboe. SImilarly rare is the contrabass oboe, two octave lower than the oboe.

Folk versions of the oboe, sometimes with extensive keywork, are found throughout Europe, including the musette (French), the Piston oboe and the bombarde (both from Brittany), the piffaro and ciaramella (from Italy), and the xirimia or chirimia (from Spain). Most of these are played with bagpipes accompanying them, particularly the Italian zampogna or Breton biniou. Similar instruments to the oboe are believed to derive from Middle Eastern instruments, which are also found throughout Asia and in Northern Africa.

Notable oboe makers during the Baroque are the Germans Jacob Denner (1681-1735) and Johann Heinrich Eichentopt (c1678-1769), and the Englishman Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734). With the resurgence of interest in early music in the mid-20th century, a few makers began producing copies of surviving historical instruments.

The Name

In English, the oboe was called the hautbois (meaning “high wood” in French) prior to 1770, and because spelling used to be more of a matter of opinion than it is nowadays, it was also called the hoboy or French hoboy. “Oboe” was adopted into English around 1770 from the Italian word oboé, which was a transliteration of the French.

Various voicings of the oboe are called oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, heckelphone, bombarde, musette, taille, cor anglais, English horn, Wiener oboe, Breton piston, and the conservatoire oboe. That last one is the modern oboe.

Famous Oboe Composers

There are loads of composers who wrote for oboe, so I’ll group them first by nationality and then by their dates. This list is not comprehensive by any means.

     Italians: Antonio Lotti (c1667-1740), Tomaso Albinoni (1671-1751), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

     Germans: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) wrote Brandenberg concertos #1 and #2 featuring the oboe. He also wrote a concerto for oboe and violin and frequently composed for the oboe d’amore. Then there was George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and later, Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), who wrote two concertos for the oboe. Next, Johann Christian Fischer (1733-1800), Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), who wrote an oboe concerto (it’s one of my favorite Beethoven pieces), and Robert Schumann (1810-1856), who used the English horn in his opera “Manfred.” Another opera composer, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), used the English horn in “Tannhäuser” and in “Tristan and Isolde.” Next up, Richard Strauss (1864-1949), who preferred the French oboe, complaining that the German-Austrian oboe had a thick and trumpet-like voice, and that he thought it didn’t sound nice with flutes and clarinets. He wrote “Domestic Symphony” to illustrate the innocent child with the oboe’s voice. Last but not least among the Germans is Georg Philipp Telemann (1881-1767), who composed for the oboe d’amore in 1722.

     Americans: Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and Paul Hindemith (1895-1963)

     English: Henry Purcell (c1659-1695) wanted a tenor oboe for “Diocletian” in 1690 and afterward, the instrument became known as the English horn. Frederick Delius (1862-1934) wrote for the bass oboe, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) managed to eke out a few pieces that included oboes, and Gustav Theodore Holst (1874-1934) wrote for the bass oboe. Then there were Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Madeleine Dring (1923-1977).

     French: Robert Cambert (c1628-1677) used the oboe in his opera “Pomone.” Next up, there’s Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), and Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992),

     Austria: The most famous Austrian musician so far, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), wrote two oboe concertos.

     Russian: Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky (1849-1893), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

     Czech: Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745) and Jan Antonin Kozeluh (1738-1814)

Famous Oboe Players

There have been quite a few famous oboists. I’ll group them by genre, and within genre, by their dates (if available).

     Classical (etc.): Ludwig August Lebrun (1752-1790) and Joseph Sellner (dates unknown), who was an oboist and teacher who wrote the seminal oboe studies in 1825.

     Jazz: Garvin Bushell (1902-1991) played the oboe in jazz bands as early as 1924, eventually recorded with John Coltrane in 1961. Paul Whiteman played jazz oboe in the 1920s and 30s. Gill Evans (1912-1988) played oboe with jazz great Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef used the oboe as a solo instrument in modern jazz performances, Charles Mingus (1922-1979) gave the oboe a solo role when played by Richard Hafer (1927-2012) in his jazz groups, and Marshal Allen (1924-   ) played oboe with Sun Ra. Paul McCandless (1947-  ) is co-founder of the Paul Winter Consort and later played the oboe in the jazz group Oregon. Romeo Penque played the oboe on Roland Kirk’s album “Return of the 5000 lb Man” in 1975. The Maria Schneider Orchestra features the oboe. Jean-Luc Fillon plays oboe and English horn, and Charles Pillow plays and teaches jazz oboe.

     Celtic and Folk: Derek Bell (1935-2002) of the Cheiftains, David Cantieni of Wild Asparagus (a contra dance band in the US), Paul Sartin played in folk bands including Faustus and Bellowhead, Welsh bagpipe player and maker Jonathan Shorland plays a rustic oboe similar to the Breton piston with the bands Primeaval and Juice. Welsh musician  Karl Jenkins (1944-  ) played the oboe with Nucleus and Soft Machine.

     Pop: The Carpenters used an oboe in “For All We Know” in 1970, and both Donovan Leitch and Jennifer Juniper used studio musicians on oboes for their albums, rather than regular members of their bands. Peter Gabriel played oboe on some of Genesis’s albums. Robbie J. de Klerk played the oboe on the Dutch metal band Another Messiah’s albums in the 2000s. Hoboe defines itself as a rock band showcasing the amplified oboe since 2000, fronted by oboist Zen Ben.

     Film: The oboe is often used in film music, especially in sad scenes. The Indian film composer Ilaiyaraja uses oboe in much of his film music.

Sources:

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Guistave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

Instrument Biography: The Recorder

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The recorder is an evolved form of flute, a woodwind from the family of fipple or internal duct flutes. Although many of the fingering principles are the same, it’s distinguished from the transverse flute by being end-blown. Although some forms of fippled flutes are older, the recorder as we know it may have originated in Italy in the 14th century. It soon became important as a consort instrument during the Renaissance. Like the viol, the recorder comes in a family of sizes—as many as eight, according to Michael Praetorius.

The recorder was popular from Medieval times through the Baroque, and declined in popularity in the 18th century in favor of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the traverse flute, oboe, and clarinet. It was often associated with pastoral scenes, miraculous events, funerals, marriages, and amorous scenes. Images reflecting those sensibilities can be found in both literature and artwork.

The recorder was far more popular than its loud double-reeded cousin the shawm and its noisy cousin the bagpipe, and volume was probably a contributing factor. Sometimes players bound two recorders together, one to be played with the right hand and the other with the left. This seems an imitation of the ancient Greek aulos rather than an innovation, though.

The modern revival of interest in the instrument began at the turn of 20th century primarily due to resurgence of interest in early music (as defined by “music before 1750”). Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various scholars in Germany, including the Brussels Conservatory where Dolmetsch trained and the performance group Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle, were largely responsible for this revival of interest, but even so, there were common misperceptions about it, including by such notables as Igor Stravinsky, who thought it was some sort of clarinet.

Recorder History

There are other end-blown flutes, such as panpipes, but the recorder is made distinctive by the contraption in the throat of it that controls the flow of air. This contraption is called a duct or a fipple, and its use is better described in the Structure portion of this article. It’s an ancient idea, and an Iron Age (1200-550 BCE) recorder made of sheep bone has been discovered.

Although common lore claims the recorder as a 14th century invention, Medieval paintings of whistles argue for an earlier inception. The difference between a whistle (like those used in Irish folk tunes), with six or fewer holes, is that a recorder has seven holes in the front and one in the back. The original design of the traverse flute, and the fingering that goes with it, was based on the six-holed whistle, not the recorder. Yup, I was surprised to learn this too.

A 14th century recorder was discovered in a castle moat in the Netherlands. It was largely intact, but no longer playable. They found another from the same period buried in a latrine (we can only wonder how THAT came to be) in Northern Germany. There are a few more from the same period elsewhere in Germany, and in Estonia and Poland. There’s a piece of a bone recorder from the 14th or 15th century that was dug up in Greece and a complete recorder from the 15th century was found in Poland.

The earliest recorders were designed to be played with the right hand below the left or vice versa, depending on the preferences of the player. The holes were all in a straight line, except the lowest hole, for the lower hand’s little finger. This was a double hole so that the player could fill the unused hole with clay, depending upon which hand they preferred to play with uppermost. This second hole is why the French called the instrument flute à neuf trous. Later, the right-hand lower style was declared standard and the second hole disappeared.

The recorder was very popular in the 16th and 17th century, probably because music was no longer strictly the purview of nobility and clergy. The invention of the printing press made music available to anyone with the money to pay for it. The recorder was also brought into royal courts, including that of Henry VIII. When he died in 1547, they found 76 recorders among his possessions.

During the Renaissance, recorders were used for dance music and as accompaniment for singers. Both William Shakespeare and John Milton also mention recorders. There are many vocal works with un-texted lines that were probably meant for instruments, such as vielles and recorders and lots of vocal music was easily playable (within the right range) by these instruments. Increasingly, composers wrote music solely for instruments, and they often didn’t specify which. This meant that a consort (a group containing a bunch of instruments from the same family, like various sizes of cornettos or recorders) could be played by whatever musicians and instruments were handy. This period of innovation and invention proved that if an instrument was good in one size, it would be even better in several sizes and with several ranges.

In the 15th century, recorders were increasingly used in polyphony along with voices, organs, shawms, trombones, trumpets, and cornetti. Polyphony was the style of the day during the Renaissance, but composers were just beginning to write chordal pieces. (For more on this, check out Chords versus Polyphony.) The Medieval tradition of juxtaposing two or three melodies on top of one another co-existed with imitation, where one part has the melody and then another does, each taking a turn. The late Renaissance also ushered in an interest in complex improvisation and ornamentation, something that was so very distinctive during the Baroque period.

There are many existing examples of recorders from the 16th century, all still playable. Like the Medieval recorders but unlike the later Baroque recorders, Renaissance recorders have a wide and nearly cylindrical bore (Baroque recorders tend to be conical). They have great low notes (better than the Baroque instruments, in fact) because of that wider bore. This bore shape meant that the player had to blow harder, but it also made the instrument more lithe and responsive.

The recorder’s relative, the flageolet, is thought to have been invented by someone called Juvigny in Paris at the close of the 16th century. It had unusual finger holes—four in the front and two in the back—and it had a particularly high-pitched sound.

In the 17th century, changes to the design of the recorder made it more suitable to the Baroque era, including improvements to the tone, which made it quieter and reduced its range. Praetorius mentions eight sizes of recorder in his 1618 treatise, but only three were still in use a century later: the descant, alto, and bass. Its gentle and subdued tone couldn’t keep up with the growing demand of the 18th century for dynamic and tonal contrasts, and it was slowly ousted by the traverse flute. In the 18th century, people called the recorder the flute because it was so wide-spread, and they called the traverse flute the traverse to distinguish it.

After the 18th century, there wasn’t much call for recorders. It’s possible that the versatility of the traverse flute made it more appealing to composers. Because of the fixed relationship of the wind-way to the fipple, the dynamics and expression of the recorder were limited, making it ill suited to the dramatic style of the period. Also, music as a pastime for aristocratic amateurs was changing to music for a society of professionals, and composers of the time began to write solely for professionals.

By the Romantic era, the recorder had been nearly completely replaced by the traverse flute and the clarinet. A keyed version of the recorder (called a czakan or Stockflöte) survived into 19th century concert halls. But still, its popularity waned. The recorder was basically ignored during the Romantic period. But in 1912, Arnold Dolmetsch, who was instrumental (ha ha) in reviving quite a few ancient instruments, made them popular again, especially in England and Germany. Now, recorders in various sizes, and mostly without keys, are made for the Early Music Movement, for music education in the schools, and for performances of folk music.

Fortunately for us, playing the recorder never completely died, and there are still makers all over Europe. There was a huge recorder revival in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement of early music, but also because it’s simple and ideally adapted to teaching music to amateurs. Lots of children played recorders as a “gateway” instrument, but there are many professional players who can show us the instrument’s full range.

The recorder is enjoyed by amateur groups large and small, which usually contain multiple sizes of instruments to compensate for limited note ranges in individual instruments. Four-part arrangements (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, just like vocal parts) are most common, although there are more complex arrangements (just like vocal parts). Recorder orchestras are a late-20th century invention, with 60 or more players, and up to nine sizes of the instrument. You can find such groups in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the US, Canada, the UK, and several other countries.

Recorder Structure

The recorder is a wind instrument with a beak mouthpiece, seven finger holes at the front, and a thumb hole at the back. It was well-known in the Middle Ages and had developed several sizes by the 14th century, when the name, meaning “keepsake” was first used. The recorder achieved its real pre-eminence during the Renaissance when it was the only wind instrument with its own tutorial. This instruction manual was written by Sylvestro Ganassi in 1535 and showed that great technical brilliance was possible over a range of nearly three octaves.

The recorder is held outward from the player’s lips, rather than to the side, like a traverse flute. The breath is compressed into a linear stream by a channel cut into the block (also called a fipple) in the mouthpiece of the instrument, and travels along the duct, called the windway. As it exits the windway, the air hits the hard edge of the body of the head, called the labium or the ramp, which causes the column of air to resonate within the tube. The recorder uses fingering (open holes, half-holes, and forking) to change notes.

Blowing harder on a recorder affects its pitch, so the dynamic range (loudness) of recorders is limited to subtleties. It’s renowned for its clear and lithe articulation, and a skilled player can take advantage of that to suggest dynamic changes. Some effects can be made by controlling the pitch with partially covered holes or alternative fingerings to accommodate harder breath pressure.

The sound of the instrument is clear and sweet, partially because it doesn’t have upper harmonics.

At its upper end, early recorders had a beak-like formation, which was blocked except for a narrow channel in the fipple. Today, some recorders have this beak-like shape, and others are blown into a slot cut into the fipple block itself.

The slit of the mouthpiece directs the stream of air against the sharp edge of the fipple block, which sets up vibrations. The block in the mouthpiece leaves a narrow channel for the air to pass through. The block is called a block in most countries, and in England, it’s called a fipple.

Sound in a recorder is produced in much the same way as in the flue pipes of an organ. Air is passed through a long vented tube that is a specific length to achieve the notes in the desired range. Finger holes provide the ability to change notes (unlike an organ’s pipes).

The recorder has a lightly tapered bore, widest at the mouthpiece and narrowed toward the foot on Baroque recorders, or flared at the bottom on Renaissance instruments.

Recently, organ-pipe-shaped recorders have been built with square cross-sections. These are cheaper than the traditional size, but aren’t as attractive. They have greater ranges and stronger low notes, making these newer instruments more audible when playing concertos. Some of these newer instruments can play three octaves in tune. The tenor is particularly popular because its range matches that of the traverse flute.

When overblown, a recorder sounds the next octave, so there is no way to produce a louder sound.

Internal duct flutes are not all recorders; only recorders have eight finger holes, seven on the front and one on the back for the upper hand’s thumb. Players could choose which hand was above the other; the lowest hole was often doubled and the player could stop up the unused one with clay.

There’s some debate about whether the thumb hole at the back of the instrument was a 16th century development. Pictorial references only show the front of the instrument, so there’s no way to know. No instruments have survived to prove or disprove this theory.

By the middle of the 17th century, the double lowest hole was considered impractical, and they invented a movable hole, putting the last hole on its own section so that it could be rotated to suit the player. It was at this point that four new keys were added to the bass and contrabass forms. Two of these keys were operated by foot pedals.

Double recorders weren’t common in the 16th century, but they did happen. The two pipes lay side-by-side and were carved from a single block of wood. There are two forms of this instrument, one where the holes are pierced in staggered positions and the other where the holes are side-by-side. The side-by-side version survived because adjacent holes could be stopped by fingers on the other hand—it was a more limber instrument to play, but it also required a certain agility from the player.

Double recorders during the Baroque were bored out of the same piece of wood with the finger holes close together so that each pair could be closed with a single finger. The width of the holes, the bore of the tubes, and the position of the flutes in the block was different for each of the two instruments, and it was possible to obtain an interval of a third between each pair of parallel finger holes. The instrument was popular in England and Switzerland. A fellow called Christian Schlegel of Basel was one of the best double recorder makers in the 18th century.

French innovations were brought to London by Frenchman Pierre Bressan (1663-17310). Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734) was an instrument maker, mostly of oboes, in London—he and his son were the other important recorder-makers of the 18th century, along with Bressan.

In the early 20th century, Peter Harlan (a German) developed a (single) recorder that allowed simpler fingering, called the German fingering. Such instruments have a slightly smaller fifth hole, whereas Baroque and neo-Baroque instruments have the fourth hole smaller. This causes a difference in fingering for F and B-flat. Sadly, it also causes other notes to be out of tune. German fingering was popular in Europe, especially in Germany in the 1930s but was obsolete by the 1950s as musicians got more serious about the recorder and the limitations of German fingering became more of an annoyance.

In half-hole or forking fingering, air leaks out through part of the hole making the pitch higher than expected. Some Baroque instruments have divided holes to facilitate playing these notes accurately. Half-covering or not covering a hole and fully covering lower holes is called “forking” and has a different tonal character than those notes in the scale that peel up from the bottom.

Pinching is when the thumbhole in the back is only partially covered, and the higher notes that are achieved by this method call upon the harmonics of the instrument. Again, there is some degradation of the tone.

Recorders can be made of wood, plastic, or ivory. When they’re made of wood, they’re maple, pear, rosewood, granadilla, or boxwood with a block of red cedar. Plastic recorders are mass-produced and are cheaper to maintain than wood, and the good quality ones are equal to or better than the lower-end wooden recorders. Most beginners’ or children’s instruments are plastic.

Modern instruments are based on Baroque style, although some makers reproduce Renaissance-styled instruments. Those (Renaissance-style) have a wider, less tapered bore and usually have a less reedy and more blending tone, well-suited to consorts.

Until 1650 or so, the instrument was a smooth shaft that suited the taste of the Renaissance. But the Baroque style was much more complicated and the recorder was reshaped accordingly. The tube left the lathe with expansions at either end, so that the form curved gracefully.

The change in shape from the Renaissance to the Baroque was largely attributed to the Hotteterre family (see more on them in Instrument Biography: The Flute). They developed the tapered bore, which brought the lower hand’s fingers closer together, allowing a greater range and making it possible to build the instrument in several jointed sections. Separating the instrument into sections allowed more accurate shaping of each individual section, and it offered minor tuning adjustments by lengthening and shortening the length of the instrument with a change to the position of the sections.

In the mid-20th century, recorders were made of Bakelite and plastics, so they were cheap and easy to produce. This made them popular in schools, as they could be bought in bulk for a good price. They are pre-tuned and easy to play in tune, even at the most basic level of skill. Mastery, however, isn’t so easy. The success in schools has led to the misunderstanding of the recorder as a children’s instrument.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the recorder was being made in four sizes—a hundred years later, Praetorius describes eight sizes. The larger instruments have double-winged keys instead of the duplicate lower holes, and were blown through a brass S-shaped tube (like the bassoon) for greater ease in performance.

The treble recorder (called the alto in the US) is most commonly used as a solo instrument. If no size is specified, it’s this one that is meant. The descant (called the soprano in the USA) also has an important repertoire of solo music. There is some tenor and bass solo music, but not much compared to alto and soprano.

The largest recorder, the contrabass, even larger than the bass recorder, is seldom used due to its cost and size. It stands about 6.5 feet tall, and is in the key of F.

An experimental piccolino has been produced, which plays about 12 notes above the range of the soprano. The fingering for this instrument requires very small hands, and the holes tend to be side-by side rather than lined up down the length of the instrument (like an ocarina), so it’s pretty darned hard to play.

In ensembles, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are most common, and many players play all the instruments and switch, as the needs of the music demand. Great basses and contrabasses are less common. The sopranino doesn’t blend well and is usually reserved for recorder orchestras and for playing concertos (solo pieces with orchestral backup). Larger recorders require larger hands, and instruments larger than the tenor have keys to enable the reach and provide a better tonal response (through consistently complete hole coverage). Some altos also have keys to aid in completely covering the holes.

The largest recorders are so long that the player can’t reach the finger holes and still reach the mouthpiece with the lips. Instruments larger than the bass (and some basses, too) use a bocal or a crook, which is a thin metal tube like that of the bassoon, to conduct the player’s breath to the windway, or they may be constructed in sections that fold the recorder into a shape that brings the windway back into reach.

Range

German instrument-maker Sebastian Virdung (born c.1465-   ) used alto, tenor, and bass sizes in his “Musica getuscht” of 1511 but Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) lists eight, from the great bass to sopranino. Praetorius recommends a consort of the larger sizes as sounding best because the lower ones had a soft and expressive tone suitable for all sorts of music.

Each different size of recorder comes with its own register. They are usually tuned in C or F, meaning that their lowest note is a C or an F. There are instruments in D, B-flat, G, and E-flat, but those are more common historically than today. The treble (alto) recorder is in G, and is commonly used in Renaissance ensembles. The tenor recorder is in D, and is also called a voice-flute because it was much like a human voice in its range.

Most recorders are pitched at “concert pitch” (A=440 Hz), but other pitches are available. For Baroque instruments, A=415 Hz is standard, and Renaissance instruments are at A=466. These alternative tunings are a compromise between historical accuracy and what is practical for playing in groups. There’s an alto pitched at A=403, and there are makers who offer two middle sections, each at a different pitch, so the instrument can be immediately adaptable. (A 415-pitch is an exact half-step lower than 440, so many other instruments, such as vielles, viola da gamba, and harpsichords, can be adapted relatively quickly.)

Music isn’t usually transposed for the recorder, but is written in the same key as it’s played. Some family members must transpose for the octave (soprano and above, and bass and great bass). Recorders are referred to as D-fingered, C-fingered, G-fingered, F-fingered, etc. based on their lowest notes (with all the finger holes closed). Players must know at least C- and F-fingering or spend some time transposing at sight.

Sizes from garklein down through tenor are notated in treble clef and bass and lower are notated in the bass clef. The six-inch-long garklein sounds two octaves above the written pitch, even higher than the sopranino and soprano, which both sound one octave above the written pitch. The alto and tenor sizes sound as written, and the bass and great bass sound one octave above the written bass (in bass clef). These transpositions are written by adding a small “8” above or below the treble or bass clef for those instruments that don’t sound as written, although it’s not always written in, and the transpositions must be assumed from context. Contrabass and sub-contrabass sound as written, and the octocontrabass sounds an octave below written pitch.

Recorders sound an octave above the human voice after which they’re named (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). They don’t sound like they’re an octave higher though, because of the harmonics involved in making the notes.

Michael Praetorius describes a narrower range than modern instruments have. This is partially from improvements in construction since his time and partially from the general skills of today’s players. Reproductions of period instruments often have a range of as little as an octave and a half, and modern instruments usually have a little more than two octaves.

Some reproductions use Sylvestro Ganassi’s fingerings and offer the larger range of modern instruments—music publishers mean that the range is of two octaves or more when they refer to Ganassi recorder.

Most recorder pieces encompass two octaves, except in virtuoso pieces. Higher notes are more difficult to play, and fingerings vary from instrument to instrument. It’s possible to hit some additional notes by covering the end of the instrument. Usually, this is accomplished with the player’s thigh. Some makers add a key to help with this note, and a longer bore can help reach these notes as well. Although common in 20th century music and later, this maneuver is seldom used in pre-20th century music.

Most modern recorders are based on the designs by Bressan, Stanesby, and Denner. The Denner family in Nuremberg were continental recorder makers from the 18th century.

Popular music in the 20th century required inventing new noises, rhythms, and effects, such as flutter tonguing and overblowing to produce multiphonics.

The Name

Called the recorder since the 14th century, the earliest known use of the term was in the household of the Earl of Derby (who later became King Henry IV) in 1388—he called it the fistula nomine Recordour which comes from ricordare especiale, which essentially means “remember” in Italian.

The recorder was called the flauto in Italian until the 18th century. Italian is the language (still) used in writing music. The instrument called the flute today was then known as the traverse. This name anomaly led to some music being performed on possibly the wrong instrument. Today, the recorder is known as the flauto dolce in Italian (sweet flute), with equivalents in other Latin languages, such as the flauta doce in Portuguese and flaute dulce in Spanish. In Portuguese and Spanish, the term “flauta” is ambiguous, as it can mean a traverse flute, a recorder, or even some other kind of wind instrument, like the pan flute, and some Central and South American instruments.

In French, the word flûte is similarly ambiguous—the French recorder is usually called the flûte a bec, or beaked flute. The Spanish picked up on this descriptive term and also called it the flauta de pico. The Old French name was flute à neuf trous for the recorder that had two holes in the lowest position depending on the handedness of the player.

From the “block” (fipple plug) in German, the recorder is known as a Blockflöte and the modern flute is known as the Querflöte (the traverse flute), the Grossflöte (great flute) or simply the Flöte. There’s also the Schnabelflöte, the mouth (or beak) flute for the recorder. Dutch follows the same convention as German, with blokfluit being the recorder and dwarsfluit the traverse flute.

An illustration of a recorder appears in England during the 12th century, but the name doesn’t occur until the 14th century. The name means “keepsake.” The English also call it the fipple-flute.

Bach called for two flauti d’echo in his 4th Brandenburg Concerto in G major. This instrument was the double recorder, two recorders (both in F) connected together by leather flanges. One was rigged to play softly and the other loudly, causing the echo effect and the name.

Recorder Composers

The numbers are too many to list, but I’ll tell you a few of my favorites: Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Des Prez, Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594), William Byrd (c1540-1543), and John Dowland (1563-1626). All of these gentlemen composed music for singers that could also be played by recorder consorts.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used the flageolet in Rinaldo and in Acis and Galatea. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used the flageolet in Sacred Cantatas ## 96 and 103. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote three concertos for the flautino and used it in the orchestra for his opera. Initially thought to mean a piccolo, later studies have determined that he called for a sopranino recorder.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was probably one of the last to specify that a recorder rather than a flute be used in his Orfeo and Euridice.

Henry Purcell (c1659-1695), J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and Vivaldi (1678-1741) all used the recorder to suggest shepherds and to imitate birds in their music, a theme that continued through the 20th century.

More modern composers for the recorder include Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Richard Harvey (1953-   ), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Josef Tal (1910-2008), John Tavener (1944-   ), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).

Carl Orff (1895-1982) was largely responsible for the popularity of recorders for use in schools, and is most famous for his Carmina Burana. He wrote “Music for Children” with many pieces for recorders, plus other instruments.

Recorder Players

There are lots of them. I’ll list just a few. Frans Brüggen (1934-    ), Hans-Martin Linde (1930-   ), Bernard Krainis (1924-2000), David Munrow (1942-1976), Kees Otten (1924-  ), Michala Petri (1958-   ), Piers Adams (1963-   ), and Charlotte Barbour-Condini (1997-   ). Leticia Berlin and Frances Blaker, and their group Tibia Recorder Duo are my two local favorites. I’m not mentioning the years they were born because I don’t want them to bop me on the noggin with a recorder.

Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997) was the son of Arnold, the big recorder designer and builder. Carl commissioned works from the leading composers of his day.

Famous groups include Sour Cream (led by Frans Brüggen), Flautando Köln, Flanders Recorder Quartet, Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, Quartet New Generation have all combined mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire.

Popular Music:

Loads of rock and rollers have used the recorder, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Ruby Tuesday), Yes (I’ve seen all Good People), Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven), Jimi Hendrix, Fairport Convention, and Mannheim Steamroller.

Sources:

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

Instrument Biography: The Hurdy-Gurdy

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Here’s the story of the niftiest instrument that you think you’ve never heard play. But you have! It’s a beautiful-looking instrument with a strong drone component, the fabulous-looking back of a lute, and the facility of a small keyboard instrument.

The hurdy-gurdy seems to have appeared in the Middle Ages and it all but disappeared after them. This is the tale of a well-traveled but somewhat obscure instrument.

The hurdy-gurdy is a medieval stringed instrument in which the encased strings (both melody and drone strings) are bowed mechanically by a resin-coated wooden wheel, which is turned by a handle. The melodies are played on a simple keyboard mechanism that bends the melody strings as the wheel passes past them, making them sound.

In the Middle Ages, the hurdy-gurdy was used for teaching purposes and for accompanying songs. It has always been popular among minstrels, and remains in use (in certain areas) as a street or folk instrument until today. For a couple of hundred years, it was popular and played by kings. And then it quietly slipped out of the public eye.

You have to remember that the monophonic music of the time was mostly a capella, with the occasional accompaniment by a harp, fiddle, or hurdy-gurdy. Usually, the singer played the instrument to match the melody line, so it wasn’t a matter of accompaniment in the modern sense (no harmony, no second musician or instrument).

The hurdy-gurdy seems to have been well-respected. In the Portico della Gloria of St. Jago di Compostella, a painting with one of the richest representations of 12th century musical instruments, the hurdy-gurdy is given the highest place at the center. It’s probable that, because most paintings that feature the hurdy-gurdy place the instrument in the middle, the leader of the group played it.

But by the end of the Middle Ages, the hurdy-gurdy was in decline both in popularity and in size. It had become small enough to be played by a single person when once it required two. It trickled out of popularity with the aristocrats and became the standard instrument of peddlers and blind beggars.

Michael Praetorius damned it in the late 16th century as an instrument fit only for peasants, and denies it a proper place among instruments in general. In the mid-16th century, the painter Pieter Brueghel painted a picture of a group of blind beggars who stumble into a river, one of whom carries a hurdy-gurdy, which was considered to be the badge of forlornness.

A Little Hurdy-Gurdy History

It was once supposed that the hurdy-gurdy originated in Arab lands and was brought to Europe through Spain, but surprisingly little evidence of the instrument in the Middle East appears. So now it’s thought to have been invented in Northern Europe, possibly Germany, around 1100 and spread to other countries around 1200. The organistrum, which is a simpler instrument, maybe slightly older, was used to help monastics learn chant by providing a drone against which the melodies could be sung or played.

The first mention of an organistrum in Europe was in the 9th century by the Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih (d. 911). Another mention is in an Arabic musical compendium written by Al Zirikli in the 10th century.

By the 13th century, the simpler form of the instrument, with a single player, underwent some development. The keys that had required a second person to play them were reduced in both number and size until they could be played by one person, whose left hand tickled the keys while the right hand turned the crank. The wide variety of shapes for these keys tells us that attempts were made to improve the acoustic abilities of the instrument.

Later versions of hurdy-gurdies had keys that were depressed from beneath rather than from above like an organ’s keys. Because these upward-pressed keys used gravity to release them, they were faster and easier to handle than those that needed to be pulled or mechanically pushed back up.

Although the organistrum was described in 10th century by Odo of Cluny, there are no images until the 12th century. It’s funny, though, that there are so many images of hurdy-gurdies after that, because its popularity seems to have gone from nothing to high and back to absent again very quickly.

There are many depictions of hurdy-gurdies carved on buildings and painted into pictures and illustrated manuscripts. (Most of the carved-stone representations seem to be in France and Spain.) There are lots of descriptions in literature and much discussion of tuning, almost all in German-speaking countries. In many of the paintings, the hurdy-gurdy is always at the center, which implies that its player was the leader of the group of musicians. A miniature from a 13th century French Bible shows four musicians playing at a feast, including a vielle (biography to come), a three-stringed hurdy-gurdy, a harp, and a psaltery.

The hurdy-gurdy is the earliest mechanized stringed instrument to which the keyboard principle was applied. The bow of other stringed instruments was replaced by a hand-cranked wheel, which produces a continuous sound from all the strings. The fingering is also mechanized, each string being stopped at different points to create different notes by means of the keyboard.

This instrument was used like other stringed and bowed instruments to accompany monophonic music. It was used to play interludes between verses or to accompany a singer in unison, perhaps playing the melody more ornamentally and fancier than the voice.

The hurdy-gurdy was pushed out of the church by the portative organ toward the middle of the 13th century. In secular music, hurdy-gurdies were still used to play dance music, and in aristocratic circles, they would have accompanied monophonic songs (all melody, no harmonies).

After 1300, the hurdy-gurdy, by then called the symphonia, was in every part of society. It took on symbolic meaning and appeared in paintings with supernatural and religious subjects. “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450-1516) has a detailed image of one.

Like the bagpipe, the hurdy-gurdy was popular in the Renaissance, changing its shape to have a shorter neck, a boxier body, and a curved end. And it could be played by one person. At this time, an asymmetrical buzzing bridge appeared that rests under the drone string on the soundboard. When the wheel is cranked faster, one edge of the bridge lifts from lying flat against the soundboard and vibrates against the strings. The buzzing bridge is thought to have been borrowed from—or made in imitation of—the tromba marina, or monochord, which was a bowed stringed instrument.

By the end of the 17th century, people wanted polyphonic capabilities from all of their instruments, and the hurdy-gurdy was relegated to the lower classes.

During the 18th century, the hurdy-gurdy enjoyed a brief resurgence of interest as the rococo tastes of Europe idealized all things pastoral, along with the bagpipe. It was thought that the bass drone, the very thing that made Renaissance people discard them, made these instruments seem more woodsy.

During the 18th century, the hurdy-gurdy was outfitted with sympathetic strings that moved as a result of the movement of neighboring strings (the effect that is so pleasing in the harp and the psaltery). The addition of a little bellows-like attachment to the wheel admitted a constant stream of air to tiny pipes like an organ.

More common, though, was a hurdy-gurdy with three to six strings, of which at least two act as drones. This was a pet instrument of the aristocracy, who had a somewhat leisurely idea of pastoral life, all draping gracefully on a blanket and eating from a basket and none of the work.

The most common 18th century style of hurdy-gurdy was the six-string vielle a roué, with two melody strings and four drones, tuned in such a way that by turning the drones on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys.

It’s also during the 18th century when Slavic countries and German-speaking areas of Hungary picked up the hurdy-gurdy.

In the 20th century, hurdy-gurdies have mostly disappeared. In the Ukraine, blind hurdy-gurdy-playing buskers were purged by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. One was played in the film “Captains Courageous (1937), by Spencer Tracy’s character.

In our times, revivals have begun in Sweden, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Hurdy-Gurdy Structure

The organistrum, symphonium, and hurdy-gurdy have a wooden wheel in the interior, turned by a crank, which presses on the strings from below and sets them all vibrating simultaneously. The strings are shortened with wooden pegs, called tangents, that operate by a system of keys with the player’s free hand (the other turns the crank) and changes the note played by some of the strings.

Before the 13th century, this instrument required two players—one turning the handle, and the other operating an unwieldy keyboard. It was called an organistrum and had a shape with a waist, like a modern guitar. Later versions were more compact, requiring only one player and capable of faster music. They were lute-backed or occasionally rectangular and boxy. These later versions had a single melody string and several fixed-pitch drone strings.

By the 16th century, the instrument had more strings and a chromatic keyboard, and was called a symphonium. Sadly, by this time, it was largely relegated to beggars and wandering minstrels and had been given up by trained musicians and musically inclined aristocracy.

The rosin-coated wheel acts like a bow on the strings as it turns. Single notes sound much like a violin. The wheel is made of wood, and is kept sticky with rosin, like a violin’s bow. This is the most precarious aspect of the instrument and is the hardest part to keep properly shaped because it tends to warp in warm or wet weather. Players can turn the wheel, called the coup, faster or slower for musical effect. It doesn’t change the pitch, but provides a rhythmic thrumming.

Small wheeled instruments (with wheels about 5.5 inches in diameter) are from central and eastern Europe. These have a broad key box with the drone strings running through it. These usually have only three strings: one melody, one tenor drone, and one bass drone.

Large wheeled hurdy-gurdies (with wheels of 6.6 inches in diameter) are from western Europe. These usually have a narrow key box with drone strings outside it. They can have doubling or tripling of strings (where the notes are the same). Some have as many as 15 strings, although the usual number is six.

The strings are historically made of gut, which is still preferred today. Metal strings have become common in the 20th century, especially for the heavier drone strings or for lower melody strings if octave tuning is used. Nylon is sometimes used.

The strings are wrapped in raw cotton. The cotton used on melody strings is quite light and is heavier on the drone strings. Improper cottoning results in a raspy tone, especially at higher pitches. The height of the melody strings is adjusted to be above the wheel’s surface by shimming small pieces of paper between the strings and the bridge. Shimming and cottoning can both affect the pitch of the instrument’s strings.

Melody strings can play an octave, with both a B-sharp and a B-flat, nine notes in all. Drone strings are tuned to the octave and a fifth, although there’s no specific identification of this in the literature.

The tangents (components of the keyboard) are wooden pegs that change the notes by shortening all three melody strings simultaneously, providing the typical medieval sound of the octave, fourth and fifth all changing notes at the same time and playing in parallel. The lowest string is left free so that it sounds without being touched by the tangents and provides the drone.

Tangents can be adjusted to tune individual notes, so any temperament is possible. Most contemporary hurdy-gurdies have 24 keys that cover a range of two chromatic octaves. Notes are played by dividing the string lengths by depression of the tangents against the string, called Pythagorean tuning. (A string divided exactly in half will play a fifth interval on one half and a fourth on the other, and additional divisions make additional notes. It’s how pianos and all stringed instruments function.)

Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses the tangents against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. The soundboard underneath the strings makes the vibrations of the strings audible.

Tuning is usually Pythagorean (where the intervals are not equal, in order to get perfect fifths), but later tunings offer equal temperament (where every note is an equal distance from the next, making it hard to tune octaves) for ease of playing with other instruments.

Most have several drone strings, which give a constant pitch, like a bagpipe’s drone, and provide accompaniment to the melody. Because of this similarity, the hurdy-gurdy is often asked to play bagpipe tunes, particularly in older French and contemporary Hungarian and Galican folk music.

Some hurdy-gurdies have a vibrating bridge that creates a buzzing noise. On the Hungarian instrument called the tekero, some control is achieved by using a wedge that pushes the drone string downward. The player uses his or her wrist to control the buzz.

To make the bridge buzz, the tail of the bridge is stuck into a vertical slot or held by a peg. The free end of the bridge, called the hammer, rests on the soundboard of the hurdy-gurdy and vibrates freely. When the wheel turns, the pressure on the string holds the bridge in place, sounding the drone. When the wheel is turned faster, the hammer lifts up and vibrates against the soundboard, creating a rhythmic buzz used to make a percussive effect.

On French-style instruments, the buzzing bridge can be altered with a peg, called a tyrant, in the tailpiece of the instrument that is connected by wire or thread to the trompette, which is the highest-pitched drone string. The tyrant adjusts the pressure on the trompette based on the speed of the turning wheel.

These are the parts of a hurdy-gurdy:

  • Trompette: the highest pitched drone sting that features the buzzing bridge, if any
  • Mouche: the drone sting pitched a fourth of fifth below the trompette
  • Petit bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the trompette
  • Gros bourdon: the drone string pitched an octave below the mouche
  • Chanterelle(s): melody string(s), also called chanters or chanter strings in English
  • Chien: (literally the “dog”) the buzzing bridge
  • Tyrant: a small peg set in the instrument’s tailpiece that controls the buzzing bridge.
  • Coup: The wheel

It’s a mechanically complicated instrument for a medieval innovation and must be constructed with great precision. In addition, the player has to keep adjusting things to control the balance between the drones and the melody.

There are relatively few makers today. It’s not too hard to find the box-like versions, but the really best lute-backed ones come from France. There are some kits here: Music Maker Kits if you want to try building one yourself.

There are folk music festivals in Europe that feature music groups with hurdy-gurdy players, with the most famous faire held in central France on Bastille Day.

The Name

In English, it’s a hurdy-gurdy, but it’s also called the organistrum or symphonia. “Hurdy-gurdy” is thought to be from the Scottish term for uproar and disorder; “hirdy-girdy” and “hurly-burly” are old English terms for noise or commotion. It’s sometimes called a wheel fiddle in English, but not by people who play it. (I suppose it’s the same as no San Franciscan ever calling the town “Frisco.”)

Musicologist Robert Green says that the term organistrum is reserved for the three-stringed instrument played by two people in aristocratic and church settings, and symphonia is the smaller instrument played by one person in secular circumstances.

There was a misnomer in the 18th century, calling a barrel organ a hurdy-gurdy. The barrel organ is a cranked box with organ pipes, a bellows, and a barrel with pins that rotated and played the tunes. It functioned like a player piano. This was a common choice for street musicians because all that need be done was to turn the crank. There the similarity ends.

But I digress. In German, the instrument is called Baernleier (peasant’s lyre) and Bettlerleier (beggar’s lyre). The Dutch call it a draailier, much like the German name drehleier. In French, it’s a vielle a roué or simply vielle (although there’s another instrument with the same name).

In Hungarian, it’s a tekerlant and forgolant, both of which mean “turning lute.” It can also be called a nyenyere, which is thought to onomatopoeic with the sound of the wobbling wheel.

In Italian, it’s a ghironda or lira tedesca. In Spain, it’s called a zanfona, except in Catalan, where it’s known as a viola de Roda. In Basque, it’s called a brenka.

In the Ukraine, it’s a lira or relia, which means “wheel lyre.” There, they are still played by professional, often blind, itinerant musicians known as lirnyky. Their music sounds Baroque and vaguely religious.

Famous Composers

Nicolas Chedeville (1705-1782) wrote “Il pastor Fido” for the hurdy-gurdy, which was wrongly attributed to Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741).

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote “Lira organizzata” not for the simple hurdy-gurdy with strings, but for the more complex instrument with the organ attachment (mentioned in the history section in the 18th century above). Haydn composed numerous nocturns and concertos for the instrument that pleased the King of Naples so much that he tried to convince Haydn to move to Naples. Haydn almost did, but at the last minute, he accepted an invitation to go to London.

Other composers for the hurdy-gurdy include Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) and Franz Schubert (1797-1828).

The pop star Donovan wrote a 1968 rock song, called “Hurdy-Gurdy Man.” No actual hurdy-gurdy was played during it, but it sparked a new interest in the instrument, particularly in the Olympic Peninsula area of Washington.

Another modern hurdy-gurdyist is Giles Chabenat, who’s still playing, mostly in England.

Famous Players

  • Faustin Santalices, currently playing in Spain
  • Ethan James was a talented musician who hung out in San Francisco in the 1960s and became a recording artist in Los Angeles. He died in 2003.
  • Patrick Bouffard is still performing in France.
  • Giles Chabenat is still playing, mostly in England.
  • Jean-Francois Dutertre is a French singer/songwriter.
  • Regine Chassagne in Quebec performs with the band Arcadie Fire.
  • David Miles plays with Metallica.
  • Garmarna and Hedringarna are Swedish groups that
    specialize in the hurdy-gurdy.
  • Nigel Eaton is the English son of hurdy-gurdy maker Christopher Eaton and has made his own name as a player.
  • Jimmy Page played with Led Zeppelin.
  • Brendan O’Brien played the hurdy-gurdy on a Bruce Springsteen album.
  • Anna Murphy plays with folk metal band Eluveitie’.
  • Sting plays the hurdy-gurdy.
  • A hobo on top of the train plays a hurdy-gurdy in the movie “Polar Express”

Players of this instrument are called hurdy-gurdyists or hurdy-gurdy players, except in France, where they’re called viellists.

Sources:

“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1949.

“Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1940.

“A Dictionary of Early Music: From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.

“Women Making Music; The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987.

“A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music,” edited by Ross W. Duffin. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000.