Herbert Stumm



Musical instruments have extended the repertoire of many a model engineer in recent times. The hurdy-gurdy by Herbert Stumm that we have here, and shown at Doncaster in 2017, is not the barrel organ for which the name has also been used, but  a stringed instrument that produces sound by a hand crank-turned rosined wheel rubbing against strings.

The wheel functions like a violin bow, and single notes played on the instrument sound similar to those of a violin. Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses ‘tangents’, small wedges usually made of wood, against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. It has a sound board and cavity to amplify the vibration of the strings. Most hurdy-gurdies have multiple drone strings, which give a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in bagpipe sound.  The hurdy-gurdy can be regarded as interchangeable with bagpipes.

It probably originated from fiddles in either Europe or the Middle East  some time before the second millennium. During the Renaissance, the hurdy-gurdy was a very popular instrument with a buzzing bridge (the ‘dog’) an asymmetrical bridge that rests under a drone string on the sound board. When the wheel is accelerated, one foot of the bridge lifts from the soundboard and vibrates, creating a buzzing sound.

By the end of the 17th century the hurdy-gurdy had drifted to the lowest social classes but during the 18th century French tastes brought the hurdy-gurdy back to the attention of the upper classes, where it had great popularity among the nobility, with famous composers writing works for the instrument including Vivaldi.

At this time the most common style of hurdy-gurdy developed, the six-string vielle à roue. This instrument has two melody strings and four drones. The drone strings are tuned so that by turning them on or off, the instrument can be played in multiple keys (e.g., C and G, or G and D).

Interest was renewed in the 1960s when Donovan had the hit pop song, Hurdy Gurdy Man whose lyrics sparked curiosity and interest among young people.

Today, the tradition has revived again. Revivals have been underway for many years around Europe and musicians have used it in a variety of styles of music, including contemporary forms not previously associated with it.

There is no standard design and 23 forms have been recorded. You can can build one from a kit.