After a few months of waiting, my new Chris Allen Symphonie arrived this week. It’s a beautiful instrument and so I thought I’d post some photographs and provide some initial impressions. The Symphonie is modeled on the earliest form of hurdy-gurdy, the mediaeval symphonie, which was in use from the 12th Century onwards. Little is known about exactly how they were configured, but this model is based on a modern stringing - with two chanterelles (tuned together in g), and with a drone in G and trompette in C, all strung with oiled gut. The drone and trompette are fitted with capos to allow them to be changed to C and D respectively - allowing the instrument to be played in the keys of Gmaj/Gmin and Cmaj/Cmin.
The instrument is very quiet - a characteristic of Symphonies - with a delicate, sweet tone. It is well suited to practicing in a household shared with others, for accompanying singing or for use in mediaeval reenactments. The trompette reacts very easily and the chien produces a pleasant rasping buzz when it sounds. A tirant allows the sensitivity to be quickly adjusted - a must, particularly when engaging or disengaging the capo.
One of the most delightful aspects of the instrument is the keyboard, which is is beautifully smooth and has a fantastically light and fast response. Although full-sized, it feels small and compact and makes playing around the two-octave range a joy. I found no difficulty playing the full range of notes, with even the highest notes having a clean sound.
The tangents are made from wood and screwed into the key, which should prevent issues of loose tangents and buzzes with humidity changes. The key travel is damped with a green felt strip, and the resulting action is very quiet.
You can play the instrument with or without the lid attached. Playing with the lid on provides a slightly quieter, softer tone, with the chanterelles sounding relatively quieter (compared to the drone and trompette) than with the lid off. With the lid off, you get brighter sounding chanterelles, with less noticeable difference on the trompette and drone. I haven’t yet decided which I prefer.
The strings are tuned with four standard mechanical tuning pegs. There’s no fancy geared tuning pegs on this instrument (in keeping with its mediaeval design) and so I’ve cheated and fitted some violin fine tuners which clip onto the chanterelles and trompette and allow me to easily make fine tuning adjustments. At only €1.60 each, I thoroughly recommend them for any hurdy-gurdy - although you may need to find a good luthier to get hold of them, as most violins use fine-tuners that mount in the tail-piece.
Overall, this is a delightful instrument. If you are after a loud instrument for dance music or playing in sessions, then this is not for you. However, if you want an instrument to accompany singing, to practice without disturbing the family or to carry about whilst dressed as a wandering minstrel, this is the instrument for you.
More details on Chris Allen’s website.