14 November 2013

Hurdy Gurdy: Contemporary Destinations (III)

Pivotal transformations of the 'vielle' in the Eighteenth Century

During the Rococo period in France, the vielle became of interest to aristocracy and nobility seeking inspirations in regional music and a rural ‘idyllic’ way of life. Early instruments however have been found as sophistically inadequate to appear in the courts as an acceptable musical instrument. For a while they appeared as ‘props’ and ‘novelties’ in operas, theatre and musical works imitating its drone effect.

One of the ‘promoters’ of the vielle at the French court was Henri Bâton (born Late Seventeenth Century – died 1728) – a luthier and instrument maker from Versailles[1]. Diminishing participations of theorbos, lutes and guitars in court music filled his storeroom with many unused instruments – many of them of the superior quality built some time a century earlier. Bâton used bodies of lutes and guitars and modified them to accommodate a key box, wheel and new peg box.

Bâton’s sense of fashion and visual artistry turned new vielles into richly ornamented and spectacular pieces of luthiery. He crowned his peg boxes with sculptures resembling those of viols and violins. His undertakings were not merely for decoration. He balanced the velocity of strings – especially between bourdon drones and melodic chantelles. The new vielle become sought-after and very popular with female aristocrats.[2]

The success of Bâton's ideas can be gauged in many ways: by the number of paintings and engravings of the period in which members of the nobility were portrayed playing musettes or hurdy-gurdies, by the number of stage works of the period which featured the instrument, by the many title-pages which suggested that their music was suited for these instruments, by the several instruction books published, by the number of makers who turned out these instruments, and by the number of virtuosos on them. The instruments were heard at the Concert Spirituel at Christmas 1731, 1732 and 1733, and were praised by those glad to hear simple tunes but criticized by those who regarded rustic instruments as too primitive.[3]

As has been said, the overall efforts of Bâton into creating new quality for a vielle were not only of a cosmetic nature. His design extended the scale of the instrument to two chromatic octaves while mounting tangents on the movable points, hence enabling finer tuning after new applications of cotton to the strings.[4]
Most importantly, the use of finest wood, thinner sound-board and new shapes of the body allowed Bâton to accommodate the instrument into the culture of chamber performance and concert music. The balance of the sound attained gave performers more control over timbre, dynamics and overall sonic efficiency:

Bâton imagined that, since the hurdy-gurdies mounted on the bodies of guitars had had so much success, that instrument would take on yet more mellow sounds by mounting it on the bodies of lutes and of theorboes. Accordingly, in 1720 he carried out this new idea, and the hurdy-gurdies in the form of a lute had an even greater success than the others. It was then that the hurdy-gurdy began to be taken as seriously as other instruments and to be admitted into concerts...[5]

[1] Source: http://www.richardhaynesmusicservices.com (accessed June 2012)
[2]Robert Green; Hurdy-gurdy in XVIII Century France. Publications of the Early Music Institute,
Indiana University Press
, 1995
[3]Neal Zaslaw. ‘Bâton, Henri.’ In: Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.ezp.lib.unimelb.edu.au/subscriber/article/grove/music/02316
(accessed July 2012).
[4] Raw cotton is used to cover string at the contact point with the wheel – quality, technique and amount of the cotton applied often alter the nodes on the string as well as overall sound quality and timbre
[5] Robert Green; Hurdy-gurdy in XVIII Century France. Publications of the Early Music Institute,
Indiana University Press
, 1995

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