Introducing the Baroque Theorbo


At the end of the sixteenth century in
Florence something strange happened in the musical world which had an impact on lute players but also singers, stage directors, choreographers and this was
known as opera and musical theatre scene so the small lute that everybody had been happily playing for centuries, on which beautiful, very intimate
counterpoint, polyphony, very complex mathematical music could be played
wasn’t quite pizzazzy enough for the new forms of theatrical music so the players
were scurrying around with their lute makers thinking about what they could do
to address the challenge of playing with louder singers, coming in maybe on a
cloud accompanying somebody you can’t see, they needed a bit more beef and a
bit more welly for their money. So this is one of the things that resulted.
Hieronymus Kapsberger was one of the pioneers but the person who claimed to
have invented this instrument, the chitarrone or therobo as it would be called
was Alessandro Piccinini and he said that his great innovation was to invent a
second neck. If I point up there, that’s the second peg box, this is the first peg
box. So essentially I’m playing a lute with an extra neck. Piccinini called his
invention the archlute and other makers at the same time were working on a
different kind of prototype called a chitarrone. This was meant to evoke the
music of the spheres, the ancient Greek kithara and was a very intellectual
enterprise. However, because it looks a bit daft it acquired a second name, a theorba. So you have kithara for ancient Greece and theorba which was essentially
a country instrument, some old geezer playing a hurdy-gurdy and what I love
about the instrument is that these two identities, the serious one and the daft
one existed and still co-exist. When I catch the tube in London the capona or the blockhead identity comes out people complain a lot about the space that I
take up. The other interesting thing about
the instrument is that the top string is buried in the middle. It’s a little bit
like a ukulele and this is because half of the instrument came from a bass lute
and the other half was kind of grafted on. So in order to get strings that would
be this long to have the big resonant sound, different strings had to be used.
If you used normal gut it broke so the solution was just to tune these down the
octave in order that you could have the extra length for this octave as some of the soloists would play it. But this meant you could play You had a considerable range but going
downwards instead of upwards and as the strings are made of gut I’m going to
have to tune this one… These two features of the instrument are what give it its slightly eccentric character. So you have the bass strings going down sometimes
even arpeggiated or very sad which lent itself to the kinds of
improvisation that were going on in opera for example the C minor chord would ring on and along comes Penelope in Il returno odyssey to sing a lament about her long-lost husband.
So laments, vocal accompaniments were what the instrument was conceived for
but of course once you put a piece of kit like this in a player’s hand they’ll
do other things with it. So because of the tuning I now have I have a lot of strings tuned a tone
apart so although we’re in early music territory this gives me a lot of
harmonic options for example So all those clashes which we
wouldn’t normally find in music of this period are suddenly very gratifying to
play under the hand and we even have Turkish influence pieces such as That’s also a piece by Kapsberger called the colascione which is a three-stringed
turkish instrument so around 1600 there’s all sorts of innovations
happening. So what could you use this instrument for if you’re in an orchestra
or in a band or in a theatre? Improvisation comes very naturally you
build it around chords and to do that rather than have all the composers learn
lute tablature they wrote just one single bass note. So a single D could
mean or the same D could mean depending on the mood of the piece. So
theorbo players learnt to improvise, to harmonize their own particular bass
lines they might share a line with a harpsichordist or a viol player or a
harp and play in big groups or sometimes just one voice and one lute was the
kernel from which larger operas were built. So Italy was the nerve center of
innovation where this instrument was invented but it did travel. It traveled
to France where interestingly it lost its chitarrone name and became the
théorbe or theorbo lute and also it ended up in England where it was a theorbo and theorbo came to mean just the word for anything that had an extra long
neck and in different people’s imagination the instrument took on a
different character so we had all those clashes and dissonances in the
Italian music but the French used it for a much more melodic purpose, things like
this and then dance music and so on, so it was
then used for playing in Suites so you could play in one key for a while before
you would have to stand up and retune to change key and this is where the suite
came from, you’d have a whole group of pieces all in D major or C minor or B
minor and this was a particular French invention around these tunings on the
lute. The therobo went to England as well it was brought in by Inigo Jones in
the 1600s but he was stopped at Dover at customs as they thought the instrument
was a Popish engine to destroy the King so the theorbo got confiscated and not
reunited with its owner until some time after. Me and airport officials across the
world have a similar kind of relationship as I travel quite a lot
with this instrument these days.