The Lira after the sixteenth century
As scarcity prevails in the sources, these questions are difficult to answer.
The number of sources is increasing, but apart from notes in dictionaries and glossaries they consist only of short notes made by people having an inadequate knowledge of the musical culture of the broad masses. This means for instance that the names we have do not necessarily and perhaps rather seldom reflect the names used by the musicians themselves. This ‘upper-class’ filter is evident frequently. Many of the sources also relate to facts and circumstances present many years earlier than told by the authors, another constant reason for uncertainty.
Sweden’s last Catholic archbishop, Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), published his History of the Nordic Peoples in 1555 while in exile in Rome. Although a rich source of knowledge of the mediaeval Nordic countries, it is coloured by a naive and romantic longing for a dim and distant past. Moreover, as the book is written in Latin, the meaning of the instruments in use is often obscure. The lyra is mentioned several times, but can thanks to the context sometimes be interpreted as the hurdy-gurdy.
Nearly one hundred years later the Danish scholar Hans Mikkelsen Ravn (1610-1663) tells that “the folk instrument (lyra vulgare) called lire or nøglefeile (i.e. ‘key fiddle’) has not yet fallen into disuse“. And from the end of the sixteenth century we have a note in a church record from the then Danish province of Skåne, mentioning a certain Lauritz liirere, presumably referring to a hurdy-gurdy player.
The musical revolution that took place in Europe during the sixteenth century influenced the Nordic countries later. Drone instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy and the bagpipes were relegated as new tastes and instruments appeared, though in rural areas the old instruments still played an important role and were well established.
The violin can be taken as a symbol for that revolution. However, it was not until 1646 that Queen Kristina of Sweden set the seal of nobility on it by engaging a group of French violinists. A Frenchman at her court remarks in his diary that the Queen preferred the French violin music to the vielles and cistres of the Swedes. The word melle was at that time already used in France for the hurdy-gurdy, but the writer may have meant the nyckelharpa since, as far as it is known, it did not have a French name.
Within a few decades the violin had whisked away the older mostly drone instruments, even in the Nordic countries. The Swedish priest Marcus Simming (1630-1690) wrote in 1685 an account of wedding traditions in the village of Västra Vingåker, in the province of Södermanland. Here he says: “Earlier they used nyckelgiga (nyckelharpa), juulgiga (wheel fiddle), siickepijpa (bagpipe) or horn. But now they use violins, which even farmhands have in their own way learned to fiddle and play”.
Eighteenth century lira sources
During this century the variety of our sources broadens beyond the scope of dictionaries. For Sweden, knowledge of musical life in this period is very closely associated with Bellman, whose songs and poems are today so deeply embedded in our cultural heritage. Bellman lived most of his life in Stockholm, at that time a European Calcutta that could not feed its roughly 70 000 inhabitants. The death rate exceeded the birth rate, and misery, famines and plagues were rife.
Bellman won great popularity in all social classes and his evocative ability makes his Stockholm come alive even today. He mentions the hurdy-gurdy several times in his works and judging from his notes, it cannot have been too uncommon. His Epistle No.33 mentions “a blind old man with the hurdy-gurdy”. Nor was it merely a beggar’s instrument; in no.34, Bellman’s character, the witty musician Mowitz, is described as saving his instruments, and among them a hurdy-gurdy, from becoming the prey of a fire. The hurdy-gurdy is also heard in an inn, being played for dancing and still later together with ‘horns and fiddles’ at a wedding. These and other examples clearly show that the hurdy-gurdy must have been well-known in society, rather than being played only by occasional visiting itinerants.
Holberg places the hurdy-gurdy among the rural population. In some of his plays his own stage directions call for the hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes. There are even a couple of short melodies preserved, composed especially for these performances. His use of the hurdy-gurdy however must be seen as an exception, unlike in France for example where the instrument did experience social acceptance by the upper classes. In the Nordic countries the hurdy-gurdy was never played by fine ladies and royal princesses but remained exclusively an outcast, like those who played it.
From Norway we have little evidence of the hurdy-gurdy being used. In 1786 the authorities annulled the rights for a market in the port of Skien not far from Oslo. Among the reasons they alleged that “…foreigners with their small wares and their Lire and other kinds of Instruments…” promoted “…lechery, drunkenness and other excesses”.
The same may also apply to the holy springs just outside Copenhagen where residents of the Danish capital used to ‘pilgrimage’ at weekends. From the middle of the eighteenth century these springs constituted a sort of permanent fair which, a century later, attracted over 50 000 visitors during one weekend. This posed certain problems for the authorities who tried to stop the masses from gathering by forbidding musicians to play ‘lecherous songs’. A frontispiece from a late eighteenth century chapbook shows one of the musicians playing his Lire while a ‘wood-nymph’, i.e. a prostitute, stands in the background looking out from one of the many brothels housed in tents.
However, the hurdy-gurdy also found its place among the wandering people throughout the rural areas. These were small groups of people, often whole families, who tramped from village to village earning food or money by undertaking tasks commonly regarded as degrading. They were tinkers, chimney-builders and glaziers, they were hired to bury suicide victims, and to flay the raw hide off animals dying of natural causes. “Their hurdy-gurdies were simple instruments that were far from masterly played”, one observer remarks in the middle of the nineteenth century. Another source tells about ‘Henrik with the hurdy-gurdy’ who had made his long three-stringed instrument by himself. One of the melodies he was said to play was the wellknown Mallebrok or “Marlboroug s’en va en guerre”. ‘Lire-Anders’ was another of these musicians who, according to one observer, had two wives and played beautifully but hid his instrument under the table while playing.
 “Et almue-instrument, som endnu ikke er gået af brug, det kaldes hos os en Lire eller en Nøglefeile” (Heptachordium danicum – Hans Mikkelsen Ravn).
 ”Tillförende hafwa de brukat Nyckelgiga, Juudgiga, Säckepijpa heller Horn. Män nu bruka de fioler, hwar på ock bondedrängiar någre hafwa lärt sigh, efter sitt wijs, stryka och spela”
 “Blinda Gubben med Liran” (Carl Michael Bellman – Epistel 33 “Stolta Stad”)
Most of the information on this article is taken from “Lirans hemligheter – En studie i nordisk instrumenthistoria” by Per-Ulf Allmo and Jan Winter, 1985, ISSN 02828952, published by AllWins förlag HB, Stockholm, Sweden. You can buy the book here. All translations from Swedish into English are mine.