The instrument known here in Catalonia as the viola de roda is known by many different names throughout Europe. It is called the zanfona in Galicia and Spain,  the hurdy-gurdy in England, the drehleier in Germany, the lira in Belarus, the ninera en Bohemia and Moravia, the forgolant in Hungary, the ghironda in Italy, the vielle à roue in France, the sonsaina in Occitania and the relia in Ukraine. One must go back to the ninth century to find its origins; it was then called the organistrum, and it was so big that it had to be played simultaneously by two people, one working the wheel and the other the keyboard. In time, however, it was adapted to be played by one musician and it began to be called the sinfonia, from which we get the Spanish name, zanfona.

Originally, when it had a much simpler design than complex modern models, the hurdy-gurdy was considered to be an instrument only suitable for refined music. However, around the sixteenth century this idea changed and jugglers, beggars and blind people began to play it; in some places it is even known as the blind viola (viola de cec). In this way the hurdy-gurdy became one of the popular traditional instruments which were not considered suitable for certain types of music.

The hurdy-gurdy’s luck changed in the eighteenth century when the French court of Louis the Fourteenth adopted it as the perfect instrument to liven up social gatherings at court, and for the so-called “spiritual concerts”, accompanied by an orchestra. At that time, the musician and luthier Charles Baton introduced an important change in the instrument: he gave it an oval- shaped body similar to that of a lute and known as the lute body. This modification attracted the attention of important composers like Chédeville, Hotteterre, Corrette and Boismortier, who then set about writing refined pieces for the hurdy-gurdy, pieces which were in fact for a standardised instrument. However, in spite of this surge of interest, the hurdy-gurdy was once again overlooked at the end of the eighteenth century in favour of instruments which from then until the present day would be the base of classical music: violins, violas, violoncellos and double bases.

The hurdy-gurdy is a very attractive instrument as it is quite different both morphologically and technically from any other. From its origins until the present day, apart from having improved in precision and number of strings, it has not undergone any major changes.

Different models can be found in many countries all based on the same idea: a body which can vary in size and shape inside of which there is a hub that turns longitudinally. At the point where the hub, which has a wooden wheel in the middle, exits the body there is a handle which cranks the both hub and wheel. This then rubs against the cotton-wrapped strings- the chanter strings, the drones and the mouches – which can vary in number.

The chanter strings are metallic strings which are mounted on the keyboard and which, therefore, are pressed by the keys to create the melody. The register of the instrument varies according to the number and type of strings. Thus, a hurdy-gurdy with two chanter strings in unison has a limited register, whilst a hurdy-gurdy with four chanter strings of different notes has a much wider register. The drones are metal strings which are not activated by the keyboards. Their length, therefore, does not vary; they produce a constant note, the pedal point, which accompanies the tune. The mouches or trompettes are strings made of intestines that are mounted on the buzzing bridge, a piece of wood that makes a characteristic

hammering sound on the lid when the vibration of the strings is excessive and distorted. This sound is used to create the rhythm. Furthermore, directly above the harmonic lid there are a series of strings which create sound not by rubbing the wheel but through sympathy, which reinforces the reverberation effect of the instrument. These are the sympathetic strings. It is not surprising that this complex system, which creates melodies, low notes, rhythm and a reverberation effect, is sometimes called the medieval synthesizer, or even the total instrument.

Apart from this quite generic concept of the instrument, there are different parameters that can vary and so dictate the morphology and the final sound of the hurdy-gurdy: the creativity of the luthier, technical innovations like levers to loosen strings or change tonalities, different numbers of strings of varying sizes and materials, and different body shapes, types of wood, sizes and inlaid work, all of which depend on the budget of the musician. This complexity means that the musician must be constantly alert to the features and set-up of the hurdy- gurdy.

Technically, the effort of the player is divided unevenly between the two hands. The right hand makes the handle turn, which is what gives the wheel its speed and, therefore, creates the rhythm. This is commonly known as ‘fer saltar la mosca’ (literally, ‘make the fly jump’). This hand is also responsible for the quality of the sound. In short, its functions are the same for the bow hand of the violinist. The left hand concentrates on the keyboard and on pressing the drones and it activates the strings and tuning, among other functions.

Nowadays, hurdy-gurdies are seen in many different musical formations, mainly folk music bands, but also in combination with modern instruments like the guitar and the bass, in which case adjustments to the sonority is required: three microphones and blocks below the chanter strings, drones and mouches.

In many countries the hurdy-gurdy has enjoyed an uninterrupted existence, which has aided its evolution and standardisation to the point where today it is included in many and varied musical bands. It can be found in combination with different instruments depending on the country, for example the typical French formation of accordion, hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes.

The introduction of the hurdy-gurdy into Els Berros de la Cort has opened up new avenues for expression in many areas: low notes, timbres created by rubbing or pressing strings, and new rhythmic concepts offered by the mouches. These added features are crucial in defining the sound of the group. The group’s two hurdy-gurdies were made by the luthier Sedo García ( from Vilert.