Vielle à Roue.
An explanation and description of
the
baroque Vielle à Roue
or
Hurdy-Gurdy.

Should we call the instrument a Hurdy-Gurdy or a Vielle? The instrument is still called a Vielle (fiddle) in France today as it was during the Eighteenth Century in various spellings. The English word hurdy-gurdy whilst certainly having a particular evocative magic seems to have originated as a derisory term of some kind, opinions vary.
Consequently whilst 'hurdy-gurdy' remains an entirely acceptable name for the instrument, those of us particularly interested in the French Baroque often find ourselves using, and preferring to use, the French word Vielle. It is an essentially unimportant distinction.


The Hurdy Gurdy or Vielle à Roue (wheeled fiddle) is in its essential character a violin type instrument (cordophone) which varies from the violin in that the strings are sounded by the continuous rubbing of a rosined wheel rather than by the violin's bow of horsehair and the melody strings are 'noted' by means of a keyboard pressing tangents (little wooden flags) against the strings rather than by the violinist's fingers.

 

 

 





From the Essay on the History of the Vielle written by
A.Terrasson (Paris 1741) we learn that the instruments was developed in two distinct forms by the luthier Henri Bâton from an earlier less refined style of vielle. First to appear, in 1716, was the guitar shaped instrument. This instrument was to come to be regarded as having an advantage for the performance of chamber music where its more intimate tone blended and balanced well with the other chamber instruments of the day.



Then in 1720 the lute-bodied instrument was first created. In a later age this design was to come almost to dominate the definition of the instrument in its new home as a French folk instrument. Even during the mid-18th century many preferred the lute-bodied instrument for its bolder, more resonant tone.

 

It is probable that instruments intended for cultured and refined use tended at that time to be constructed with relatively small bodies and mahogany soundboards. Although, the size of instruments varied during the 18th century and small instruments can be loud and have a lot of penetration depending on the string gauges chosen. The soundboard, or 'top', made of mahogany is believed to have a more focussed and refined sound than the 'lively' European Spruce tops that are to this day preferred by Folk musicians.

One other notable feature mentioned in the Methods
published at the time is that the crank handles by which the player rotates the wheel were generally made quite long in order to maximise the control over phrasing and the coup de poignet that was required in the complex music that appeared in the early part of the century. Other less visible factors such as material thickness and higher wood qualities almost certainly contributed to the sound that a musician of the day would have expected.

Confusingly, even at the time and certainly as one moves towards the historically critical watershed of 1789, instruments were being produced by the master luthiers that were likely intended for more popular forms of music. We may, but not certainly, be able to identify these instruments as often having relatively bigger bodies and shorter handles to allow for the louder and more rhythmic playing of vaudevilles and other popular tunes. This has made simple chronological analysis of instrument-design-function virtually impossible
. Bouin describes vielles as costing between 4 and 12 Louis in 1761. If we compare these costs with available figures on annual incomes in Paris at the time then although the figures are confusing and sometimes wide ranging it seems clear that purchase of the instrument would have been unachievable by those below upper-middle income, such as teachers and other professionals, church officials and local government officials.  Bouin is clear that decoration was responsible for the very highest prices but we are left ignorant as to whether the important question of soundboard material was an acoustic or a financial choice.

 

  This photograph, taken by E.Puzzovio in the Paris Museum, is of an 'exploded' J.Louvet and is dated 1733. The label reads: "Vielle à roue, Jean Louvet, Paris, 1733, Acquis en 1890, E 1412 (?????). Cette vielle a été faite à partir d'une caisse de guitare. La table d'harmonie (dont on aperçoit la trace de la rose) a été emplyée pour renforcer l'intérieur du fond." (This vielle has been partly made of a guitar body. The guitars soundboard (of which one can make out the trace of the sound-hole) has been used to reinforce the inside of the back of the vielle.) Of interest are: the guitar sound-hole marked on the back ; the sympathetic string anchor points for apparently 8 strings being in front of the wheel (an early model?); the absence of any support for the back-centre-joint; the rounded rather than sloping shoulders; and, the sound-board being (appearing to be) made of 'European Spruce' (?) and therefore perhaps  an indication that the instrument may have been intended for more popular music, vaudevilles, brunettes etc.


It is difficult to be absolutely sure about the history and evolution of the vielle as the written records, I have been led to believe, only take us so far.


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