Monday, December 01, 2008

The Symphonie

Are there pipes in that thing?

That's the question audiences are asking about Winter Harp's latest acquisition. This year I added another rare and unusual instrument to the collection: a symphonie. It is best described as an early hurdy-gurdy and it dates back to the 12th century where it was popular in Southern France and Northern Spain. The instrument has a distinctive sound -- almost bagpipe-like. It is about two-feet long and has a crank handle at one end which the player turns with the right hand. A rosin covered wheel rubs against the strings, very much like a violin bow rubs across strings, causing them to sound. The keys, when pressed by the fingers of the left hand shorten the strings and thus create the different notes. The symphonie also includes drone strings which is what gives it its characteristic bagpipe-like sound.

The symphonie is related to the organistrum that you see at our Winter Harp concerts. The organistrum, first described by Odo of Cluny (c. 878-942), dates to the 10th century. It could be considered the father of the symphonie which dates to the 12th and 13th centuries.

One of the best depictions of the instrument is contained in the Cantigas de Santa Maria collected during the reign of Alfonso X El Sabio (1221-1284). Some of these songs are in Winter Harp's repertoire. It’s one of the largest collections of monophonic (solo) songs from the Middle Ages. All of the songs at least mention the Virgin Mary, and every 10th is a religious hymn. Some of the manuscripts containing this music also contain colored miniatures showing pairs of musicians playing a wide variety of instruments.

I had been looking for a symphonie for several years, and there were certain things which I wanted on an instrument that were not exactly “common” or even entirely historically correct. However, I wanted to have something which could be made to look and sound historically accurate, but which would secretly have the capability of playing a much wider repertoire. In my case, I specifically wanted a chromatic keyboard – the originals would have only been able to play in one key. The other thing which I wanted was a trompette, also likely not original, but very useful and characteristic of later hurdy-gurdies. Another useful feature which having a box-like instrument allows is extra keys disguised as normal playing keys. In my case, my instrument has five keys which don’t actually play notes, but are designed to engage and disengage strings without having to open the lid and disengage a string. Finally, a cleverly concealed internal electronic tuner and pickup allows the instrument to be played in concert and compete with all the other amplified instruments.

If any of you are interested in acquiring a symphonie, or any other type of hurdy-gurdy for that matter, I can’t recommend Neil Brook highly enough. He is an excellent craftsman and his instruments are as innovative as they are practical. As well, he is willing to experiment and do custom work (within reason) so a unique instrument is definitely possible.

Winter Harp's other unique medieval-styled instruments include the nyckelharpa, the cello-nyckelharpa and the bass psaltery. Learn more about the instruments on the instrument page at

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