So remember how I said I might blog about hurdy-gurdies? That was mostly a joke. Until now. Because on Sunday I went to a concert featuring this most splendiferous instrument. It was a performance by the ensemble Les Surprises Baroques, and the theme was “The Muse of the Countryside: A Rustic Divertissement.” The concert description is pretty entertaining:
The French aristocracy of the late baroque era has been characterized as a volatile bunch of scheming manipulators, cutthroat back-stabbers, hedonists, and Libertines…and connoisseurs of every well-developed fine art. Their cynical, and often appalling, proclivities are almost belied by their infatuation with an idealized vision of a mythical Arcadia, populated by innocent nymphs and shepherdesses and their swains.
The French embrace of all things pastoral included the hurdy-gurdy, the magnificent droning and singing instrument that had been a fixture in European peasant life since medieval times.
Join well-known hurdy-gurdy guest artist Curtis Berak and Les Surprises Baroques for a ramble through this bucolic soundscape, as imagined and realized by such composers as Boismortier, Corrette, Marais, and Rameau.
The concert was wonderful. The musicians played period instruments, including a beautifully painted harpsichord with the phrase “Sic transit gloria mundi” inscribed on the underside of the lid. Most of my exposure to the hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue–wheel viol–in French) has actually been through French Canadian traditional music, so I was surprised to learn that in the 18th century the French aristocracy was quite enamored of the hurdy-gurdy, so much so that it was a court instrument and noblewomen learned to play it. Personally, I found it odd to hear it played accompanied by harpsichord or as part of an ensemble that also included strings, recorder, and oboe.
Mr. Berak, the guest hurdy-gurdy player, explained how the instrument works. Most of what he said I already knew, but not the part about the buzzing bridge. Basically, one of the drone strings has a bridge (kind of like the bridge of a violin or cello) with one end free, and if you turn the crank that rotates the wheel fast enough, that free end buzzes. You can crank in a way that allows you to add rhythmic buzzes on top of the drones and the melody played with the keys. I think I must have heard that buzz before and assumed it was just the way one of the drone strings was vibrating.
In addition to the hurdy-gurdy, another beloved instrument of the 18th century French court was introduced as a surprise after the intermission (I guess that’s why they’re called Les Surprises Baroques?). This was the musette, which is a small bagpipe and thus another instrument with drones. The hurdy-gurdy and musette played a duet, and they were also both featured in other pieces.
According to the program, Mr. Berak has the largest collection of antique hurdy-gurdies in the United States (I’m not sure how stiff the competition is, though). Between two pieces, he also brought out two large portraits of aristocratic women posing with their hurdy-gurdies. These were reproductions, but they were still displayed in massive gilt frames. Mr. Berak regaled us with his theory that one of the paintings depicted Maria Leszczyńska, the Polish queen of Louis XV of France, and that the other depicted her daughter, the princess Marie Adélaïde, who was known to have played the hurdy-gurdy.
Furthermore, he suggested that one of the hurdy-gurdies from his own collection, which he showed us, might actually be the very one shown in the portrait of Marie Adélaïde. Not only that, but there was evidence of wax seals having been scraped off the side of the wooden keybox–maybe during the French Revolution! Mr. Berak’s hurdy-gurdy and the one in the painting above did bear a decent resemblance to one another, but frankly I think these appealing stories are fueled more by fanciful speculation than real evidence. That’s not to say they weren’t enthralling!
Finally, one of the pieces Les Surprises Baroques performed with hurdy-gurdy was the Concerto Comique no. 3 “Margoton,” by Michel Corrette. Apparently these concertos comiques were meant to follow operas because audiences weren’t ready to go home yet. They were also based on popular songs. The ensemble’s artistic director told us that they had tracked down the text of the song “Margoton,” and she summarized it for us. As she was describing the story, which tells of a young woman who falls into a well and the three horsemen who come riding by and ask what she’ll give them if they rescue her, I realized it was essentially identical to that of another song I know, “La Ziguezon” (“M’en va t’à la fontaine”) by the French Canadian group La Bottine Souriante. No coincidence, I’m sure.