First published 7th May 2015. With kind permission from Classical Music magazine.

As he leaves the piano to try his hand at the hurdy-gurdy at this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival, Robin Green chronicles a pianist’s journey back to square one.

In these days of extreme musical compartmentalisation, musicians are encouraged to specialise. However, I have always been inquisitive by nature and searched for as much experience as possible from all paths of music. So when I was asked by composer John Metcalf to learn the hurdy-gurdy as part of this year’s Vale of Glamorgan festival, of course I couldn’t say no!

Besides the piano, I have played many different instruments in concerts, including the clarinet, oboe, wood block, radio, celeste, African thumb piano and the Royal Albert Hall organ. But the hurdy-gurdy is a step in a different direction.

My first encounter with this special instrument was ‘Der Leiermann’, the haunting final song of Schubert’s Wintereisse. It describes a hurdy-gurdy man, cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. His begging bowl is always empty, no one listens to his music, but his playing never stops. The protagonist asks, ‘Strange old man. Shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?’

Well known in many European countries from Spain to Ukraine, the hurdy-gurdy has been variously associated with beggars and royalty during its career. In the 17th century, it was common to depict the instrument in the hands of vagabonds and beggars – the blind beggar in particular. Perhaps this is how it got its English name; hurdy-gurdy means ‘diabolical racket’, a noise that the hurdy-gurdy can make with ease. In 18th-century France, it was fashionable for the rich to have elaborately decorated instruments made. It nearly died out completely in the early 20th century, victim to the industrial revolution and world war one, but thanks to a small number of die-hards, mostly in France, the secrets of the makers and the tradition of its playing are now safe.

The task ahead is a performance of Spinning a Yarn by the Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova. I will perform this alongside the violinist Sara Trickey at this year’s Vale of Glamorgan festival on 14 May. At first glance, the piece looks beautiful and simple. A playful improvised melodic line with rhythmic inflections floats above a drone of a repeated ostinato D. The piece is in 3/4 with the drone inflections on the first and third beat each bar.

Tabakova writes: ‘Spinning a yarn, also an expression meaning to tell an elaborate story, grew quite physically from the nature of playing the hurdy-gurdy. The turning of the wooden wheel brought images of a spindle and spinning wheel and the fantastical world of the Brothers Grimm tales.’

My guide is the wonderfully warm and passionate hurdy-gurdy expert Chris Allen. One crisp winter morning, I visited Chris at his house in Wales for my first lesson. I was greeted with a huge smile and generous enthusiasm. ‘You are crazy,’ he said, ‘but I like that,’ enthusiastically starting to unravel the mysteries of the instrument.

The hurdy-gurdy could be described as a mechanical fiddle. The ‘bow’ is a polished and rosined wheel; turned by handle, which can bow several strings simultaneously. It is fitted into an acoustic body, usually of lute or guitar shape, but in place of a neck is a key-box.

The instrument is similar to bagpipes, in that a drone accompanies a melody. As described by Allen, ‘There is no competition between hurdy-gurdy players and bagpipers, as not spitting through bits of grass into a sheep’s bladder rather sets it apart’.

Something else that sets the hurdy-gurdy apart is the built-in drum called the trompette. The phenomenon of a vibrating loose bridge is put to work, so that by turning the wheel a little faster, it over excites the string. The vibrating bridge, called the dog, makes a zipping noise that can be controlled to be short like a clap, or long depending on the musical context.

I placed it on my lap and started to rotate the wheel. The sound is remarkable, with a warm deep tone. The resonance of the instrument vibrates though my entire body. As a pianist, I am essentially pressing keys to make beautiful sounds, but with this string instrument, I have a more immediate connection with the sound. I have always wanted to learn a string instrument, this is as close as I have come. Next, coordination of the hands.

The right hand is responsible for turning the wheel in a controlled constant motion.

This looks easy, but to get a constant sound requires constant control, much like the foot-pumped harmonium. To articulate the first and third beats of the drone, I have to momentarily accelerate the wheel with a nudge of fingers and wrist. This is known as a coup. For Tabakova’s piece, I am making three revolutions of the wheel per bar, one per beat. Beats one and three are geographically in the same place; around 3 o’clock on a rotation.

In the lesson I would often apply too much movement in the upper arm, a familiar problem from my piano student days. Practice awaits!

The left hand must play the keys firmly and unapologetically, like a celeste. But the keys are not visible, as I must wrap my hand around the key-box. Another counter-intuitive issue is that the keys are in different positions from the piano. All the chromatic notes exist, but in a different order. This means I must learn the left hand from memory.

What a pleasure it is to start from square one again. As musicians, we are constantly mastering and perfecting our principal instrument to the umpteenth degree. To learn a new skill as specialised as the hurdy-gurdy is exhilarating.