Restoration of a Hurdy-Gurdy by Nicolas Pierre Tourte known as Tourte père.
Little is know of the life and origins of Nicolas Pierre Tourte. Leading bow experts and makers Bernard Millant, Jean-Rançois Raffin and historian Bernard Gaudfroy have compiled what scant information is available in their authoritative work: "l'Archet français"*. The following present publication will, we hope, add to this effort, and thereby contribute to a better understanding of this important maker's work.
Pierre Tourte is registered as a "menuisier" (carpenter) in the first half of the 18th century. Working in the "Faubourg St. Antoine" neighborhood of Paris, which along with the hospice of the "Quinze Vingts" and the "cloisters of Notre Dame" constituted privileged working environments, he was exempted from the strict control of the guilds' authority.
In the 18th century, a "menuisier", thus freed from the constraints ordinarily imposed upon him by the guilds, was able to exercise his trade in the manufacture of a variety of objects. Aside from the production of furniture, he would be free to make smaller wooden objects such as boxes, cases, frames, and musical instruments and accessories. At that time the apprentices had stains less "noble" work, turning, ankles, buttons, accessories, and bows in this case, leaving for the master of the workshop the master pieces. The guilds' rules allowed workers living in these privileged places to be free to choose their techniques and materials, but however, required them to have no brands, and not put their address on the labels. Indeed, they would often perform piecework for their "guilded" colleagues who would then apply their own signature to the work thus produced. The identification of these craftsmen's instruments is, therefore, often quite difficult.
This is where the instrument that we present: a hurdy-gurdy built in the early 18th century. A pretty carved head in the style of the 17th, a flat soundbox with high ribs, at least some repairs to complete clumsy and disrupt the identification of the instrument, it is entirely covered with a thick orange paint.
In order to make the expertise of the instrument we must remove painted on some parts to be able to at least know what kind of wood it was made. The head, a very clever sculpture of a woman's head with a headdress and traditional scrolls, can never be the work of an amateur and already gives us an indication of the quality of the instrument. By depositing a small part of painted orange we see that the wood of the table is a Cuban mahogany, exotic and expensive wood, the body is made of flamed maple. The soundboard has been "restoerd" with pieces of ordinary wood (spruce), and it is to hide the repair unscrupulous hands repainted the instrument with a orange layer. We took off the apocryphal part of the soundboard. After removing a apocryphal pinewood graft on the soundboard, we were able to distinguish the luthier's label bearing the handwritting signature: 'Pierre Tourte, à Paris 1730'. Here was the work of the father of the most important bow-makers in the world. Encouraged by this finding, we pursued our examination of the instrument, and determined that the keys of the instrument are made of rosewood and Cuban mahogany, instead of the usual maple and ebony.
We were reminded of the work of Georges Louvet, father of the famous Parisian luthiers Jean and Pierre Louvet, who was also working in Paris at the time. Indeed, many of the instrument's features bear a strong resemblance to his work: the tailpiece, the keyboard, the soundholes, as well as the ovoid outline of the soundbox. 17th century hurdy-gurdies were produced on a trapezoidal model which was supplanted in the early 18th century by the guitar patterned models. The great rise in popularity of this instrument had led luthiers to convert lutes and guitars to supply the demand of musicians to the court of Louis XV.
Upon removing the back of the body we are able to determine that it had never before been removed, that all prior restoration work had been performed from the outside, and that it's interior was thus as Pierre Tourte had crafted it in 1730. Of traditional baroque construction techniques, Tourte had conserved the thin lower block, the shaping of the braces, as well as the tailpiece attachment to the soundbox. The axle, wheel and crank are original and untouched. He adopted the flat soundbox without ledges, and without the purfled adornments "pistagnes" which were then coming into vogue. It is interesting to note that he also applied a number of woodworking techniques more in keeping with cabinet making than with luthery, such as braces dovetailed into the linings rather than pegged to them from the outside. He also applied this same technique to the construction of the keyboard.
A particular detail attracted our attention. The wheel, which is usually pierced with a square hole through which the axle is fitted, is threaded on this instrument, and its axle is maintained against the block beneath the last brace by a corresponding thread. It is interesting to find that, while it is not until about 1745 that threaded frog tensioners are introduced on violin bows, as early 1730 Pierre Tourte is already experimenting with the mechanical possibilities of threaded rods. This instrument is the first example of replaceable-wheel on a hurdy-gurdy. This innovation was unfortunately ignored by other makers, and it was not until the end of the 20th century that Tourte's brainchild was "rediscovered" and universally adopted by luthiers.
The lower parts of the table, below the soundholes, were replaced (spruce parts), but the upper portion of the right soundhole was sufficiently well preserved for us to reconstruct the missing elements. The main bridge appears to be a replacement, but there remained one of the two lateral bridges sitting on either side of the head. All other bridges are also missing. We reconstructed them according to those found on authentified contemporary instruments. Beneath the orange paint we were able to reveal the typically 18th century ebonization of the keyboard, of the low part of the head, and of the tailpiece.
We proceeded to perform a classical restoration of the instrument, after carefully removing the layer of orange paint. Although there does not appear be any surviving hurdy-gurdy by this maker, a careful examination of a violin by Pierre Tourte (Collection Musée de la Musique, Paris, E.01262) indicates that the varnish of that instrument is very similar. In 1929 Poidras described a violin by Pierre Tourte made in 1747 from Charles Enel's collection, bearing a particularly nice carved head of a woman by Lafille (a well-known Parisian sculptor specializing in musical instruments). The style and decorations, and how it is attached to the keyboard, and finally the habits of luthiers to ask a sculptor for beautiful heads allow us to think this head could have been made by Lafille. For ordinary instruments, luthiers made a scroll, because only non-figurative ornements were authorized by the corporations. The wheel cover is missing, we made another as a copy.
Our work on the instrument was intended to return it to its original appearance as well as to restore it to playing condition. Once the hurdy-gurdy was restored and re-strung, we were delighted to observe that it's keyboard was perfectly well-tuned. This suggests to us that, before being an accomplished bow maker, in addition to carpenter, in 1730 Pierre Pie was also a very talented luthier.
After the restoration, this instrument was purchased from its owner by the Musée de la Musique in Paris, in December 2011.
Sinier de Ridder
* "l'Archet français"