theorbo

An 18th century theorbo

Choosing the right continuo instrument for the job is something that I have spent a large amount of time thinking about and a revelation about a (relatively) new theorbo has prompted me to write down some of my thoughts and observations about this very subject.

The first lute I owned was a 13 course ‘baroque’ lute in d minor tuning. As it was the only instrument I had in the beginning, I learnt to play both solo repertoire and continuo on this lute. After a few years, I bought a small English theorbo (a meagre 78cm) that I used in Italian tuning (that is to say in A with the top 2 courses at the lower octave). A few years later I upgraded to a more realistic (or historical, depending on your degree of fanaticism) Italianate theorbo with a string length of 88cm. That was better, but on occasions, if found this instrument couldn’t really make the kind of sound I wanted, especially for 18th century repertoire.

I wanted something with a brighter tone, something with more bite than the standard theorbo. I decided what I needed was an archlute. I got one, great. Problem solved..?

Old habits

When I studied in London, I often read that the archlute gradually replaced the theorbo in the 18th century as the tessitura of the bass lines went progressively higher. It’s a nice idea, but it’s not exactly true

If we look historically at where and when the archlute was really popular, we must look to Rome. In Rome we have tons of mentions of the archlute (as well as loads of obbligato parts – way more than we find elsewhere) in the 2nd half of the 17th and the first half 18th century, give or take a few decades. Corelli, Stradella, Colista, Lonati and many more all wrote obbligato parts for the archlute, as did Händel whilst in Rome. So why was the archlute so darn popular in just Rome of all places?!

It seems as though pitch is the answer. We know now that the ‘standard’ pitch in Rome at this period was low – really low. Somewhere between A = 360 and A=392.

Most of the surviving Roman archlutes have really big bodies and long string lengths (somewhere between 72 – 77cm). The vast majority of the instruments people play on today have much shorter string-lengths and smaller body sizes – with good reason: with a top string (especially in gut), there is a physical limit to how the top string on a lute can be tuned before it breaks.

At this relatively low pitch, in order to produce any kind of decent sound on the theorbo, you need a pretty massive instrument (sure enough some of the largest surviving theorbos are indeed from Rome). Where the theorbo has many disadvantages at this lower pitch, (very long string lengths, a less bright tone, etc) the archlute on the other hand gains hugely by having a longer string length and a larger body that still remains relatively easy to play.

The result will be a really big lute with a big sound and plenty of bite – especially if you play with nails, which seems to have been the norm in Italy at this time (see my earlier post about this). The problem is that an archlute at this pitch is pretty useless nowadays, with our modern pitch standard of A = 415. Unless you want an archlute in F .Try playing a Händel opera on that, go on I dare you…!

Tecchler

The archlute I commissioned (from the very gifted Ivo Magherini) was a copy of a big Roman instrument made by D. Tecchler in 1725. Ivo and I talked a lot about trying to retain the original body size, but then, like the majority of modern copies of archlutes, we decided that it would be better to scale the whole thing down a bit. We ended up with a stopped-string length of 68cm (that worked just about ok at A = 415) and a body around the size of a French small theorbo in D. It was a great lute and certainly packed a punch.

Although the copy was a great one, I think that with scaling down both the body size and string length, we lost just a bit too much oomph. In fact, being perfectly honest, although the brightness of a good archlute is almost always a very pleasing sound, I’ve never really heard or played one that had enough depth or quantity of sound to compete with a theorbo.

The ‘d minor theorbo’

It was around this time that I started considering a theorbo in d minor tuning. I spoke with Ivo about potential models and we decided to take it to the max and make a copy of the beautiful and rather massive 18th century theorbo by Schelle, currently hidden away from mortals in the basement of the museum in Nüremberg.

The d minor theorbo is an instrument described by both Baron and Weiss. According to Weiss, this type of theorbo was identical to the Italian theorbo, with the only difference being the tuning. The tuning is identical to that of the ‘baroque’ lute, minus the top string. The top string (d) is a single course, with unison double courses for the 2nd, 3rd & 4th courses and octave courses for the 5th, 6th & 7th courses (as on a ‘baroque’ lute).

Then, we’re on to the big guns: the diapasons. Courses 8 – 13 (or 14) are single diapasons tuned to either GG or  even FF. My copy of the Schelle has string-lengths of 85 / 170cm, with 13 courses, but space for a 14th. 85cm is pretty much the max string-length for a top string of D at A=415.

The point I’m trying to make here is that I think that this is the ultimate continuo lute for 18th century music (and late 17th too!). I think it’s an excellent alternative to the archlute and an instrument that I would really encourage players to try (then you can make your own minds up!). The sound is really big, bold and bright. It really carries in ensemble, primarily thanks to the rather massive body and the bass is awesome, but the sound still retains the character of a lute.

A d minor theorbo is really just a massive lute, which is really what I reckon a big archlute should sound like. The problem if we scale them down too much, they just end up sounding like small lutes.

Weiss

In a letter Weiss’ wrote to Mathesson regarding the lute as a continuo instrument, he remarks that the lute is well suited to accompanying solo cantatas as well as trios and quartets. He’s talking about chamber music. Weiss goes on to say that the theorbo is much better suited to playing with large ensembles as the lute can easily be overpowered. If one plays on small archlutes in larger ensembles, we won’t stand to produce much more sound that a decent ‘baroque’ lute, which according to Weiss, just doesn’t cut the mustard. No sir.

An idea for a modern, historical archlute

There is one further alternative worth mentioning here, but this one is a little difficult to justify historically… What about a proper, full-sized archlute tuned as a ‘baroque’ lute, that is to say in d minor? It’s unlikely that Roman archlutes were ever tuned in this way, but it would enable us today to play on a really big instrument and thus enjoy all the benefits!

Finally, if you’ve never played continuo in d minor, then you’re really missing out! It’s a fantastic, versatile tuning that may admittedly take a little getting used to, but once you’ve got your head around it, you’ll find it can cope with almost any key you can throw at it (within reason of course!).

Here’s a few pictures of this handsome beast!

14 thoughts on “An 18th century theorbo”

  1. Hej Richard!
    Kalasbra text i din blogg :)! Vilken grej alltså och vilket sammanträffade… inatt kunde jag inte sova så bra så jag steg upp kl 5.00 på morgonen och råkade på Tecchlers ärkeluta, på Michael Schreiners hemsidan. Wow, att du har haft en sådan och att den inte fungerade som vi önskar i kammarmusiksammanhang. To be contiued… Kram D

  2. Hi Richard,
    I’ve often felt that theorbo in a tuning, while perfect for Monteverdi or Marais, is quite unsatisfactory for say Handel.
    Perhaps one other reason might be that we have equivalent solo repertoires for both Italian and French continuo practice but none for 18th century German music.
    It must feel quite logical to play Weiss and a theorbo in the same tuning.
    One question: does your copy have the same dimensions as in the original?
    the body size in relation to the string length is so much bigger than on an Italian theorbo.
    It looks great and I’d love to hear it in action!
    All the best for the New Year,
    Yair

  3. Bra tankvard text Richard. Jag undrar ofta vad Handels lutenister spelade med for instrument. D-mollstamningen var ju vida spridd aven i England. Till en borjan var jag skeptisk mot ditt forslag till att stamma en archlute i dmoll, men nu blir jag mer och mer nyfiken pa hur det skulle kunna lata!
    Keep up the good work!

    Magnus

  4. Yair, sorry it took me so long to reply – it’s a really good point about not having any German solo repertoire for a theorbo in a. The big guy really does just feel like playing on a huge d minor lute so that point really makes sense to me.

    Regarding string length vs body size: The body size is indeed the same as the original, but the neck it seems was altered at some point. I’m not 100% sure what happened to the instrument under its lifetime, but it seems that it was at one point converted from a d minor theorbo to a theorbo in a. As it was a d minor theorbo originally, the string length makes sense. It also doesn’t feel disproportional, actually, I guess it follows the principle of the big archlutes, with big bodies and proportionally short necks.

    The body size is really what makes the instrument work. It is of course possible to have a small theorbo that make a decent sound, but I think for this type of theorbo a big body is really essential. The body is also really deep, which takes some getting used to, but again that’s part of what makes the lute so great, so we just have to adapt to the instrument.

    I’m hoping to do some recording with this soon! Will keep you posted.

  5. This makes buckets of sense. The soundworld, tuning and of course the incision needed. And with a pitch standard in London more approaching A=420Hz it’s not so far fetched to consider the instrument for Handel. Waiting to hear this in action as well. Luke

  6. Thanks for your very interesting article! Great instrument that I look forward to hear on YT soon.
    You say above “The body size is really what makes the instrument work”.
    Do you mean that body size is the what primarily makes the instrument so powerful (particularly in the bass) ?
    How about the string length of the diapasons? Would you lose significant power by reducing their length by, say, 20 cm everything else unchanged ?
    Regs,
    /Ed

  7. Hi Ed, thanks for you comment. Yeah, I do think that the massive body size is really what makes the instrument work and the bass really powerful. I guess you could shorten the diapasons, but the thing about a theorbo in this tuning is that the first diapason is in fact E.

    My Italian theorbo has 16 courses (6 + 10) and the diapasons are 15-20cm shorter. It works fine, but the first diapason is a G (I’ve also got a G sharp as the 16th course), so the shorter string length doesn’t really matter, whereas if you shorten the diapasons on the d minor theorbo, they’re likely to sound a bit dull, which, considering that the rest of the instrument sounds really bright, might be a bit of an issue.

    It could still work fine of course, hard to say without trying it, but it’s something to keep in mind. I did consider a d minor theorbo with double diapasons, which could be much shorter – ca. 120cm would be plenty long enough, or maybe even a bit too long! – but you would lose a lot of power in the bass and that would be a shame.

  8. I see. Your instrument is indeed an archlute as it lacks re-entrant strings (which is the distinct property that, in my opinion, characterizes a theorbo).
    Do your really use double-strings on courses 2-7?
    Also, shouldn’t the deepest notes on course 13 and 14 be A and G as on a baroque lute?

  9. Hi Ed,

    This instrument is a theorbo, despite the fact that the tuning is not re-entrant. It is similar in sound to an archlute, but an archlute it is not! Most surviving theorbos have double courses, even the Italian instruments, except France I suppose, where they seemed to most commonly use an instrument with single courses.

    Because the first course on the d minor theorbo is D, not F, like on a d minor lute, my 13th course is G.

    Hope that clarifies things for you!

  10. Yes, of course I (wrongly) counted from F instead of D.
    Reg single vs. double strings: I believed that many theorbists prefer single strings as they allow you to play forte notes with no risk for annoying ratttling noise. But you do use double-strings anyaway on some courses…you don’t find it problematic ?

    Out of curiosity: how do you distinguish a theorbo from an archlute ?

  11. Oh yes, of course, I wrongly counted from F instead of D.
    Don’t you find it problematic to have double strings when you need to pull out forte notes for hours? How about that rattling noise of colliding strings ?
    Also, out of curiosity: how do you distinguish a theorbo from an archlute ?

  12. Thanks for taking the time to write this interesting article.
    I was reading about theorbos (theorba?) and ran across this. The d minor theorbo sounds interesting.

  13. Hej Richard, I have recently received a new archlute built by Lars Jönsson to my specs. It\’s a 14-c archlute intended for continuo, and is tuned in straight (i.e. non re-entrant) D minor just as an ordinary baroque lute (top string is an f). The string lengths are 75 cm (stopped strings) and 110/125/140/155 for the diapasons. Single strung all the way. If you are member of Lute you can see photos of it there. Hälsn. /Ed

  14. Hello Richard,
    your thoughts on the d-minor theorbo are very good. I am thinking of having one made, but don’t know exactly how yet. My current idea is having all the strings double.
    The size of the instrument also makes sense in the St.John’s passion by bach, the famous lute arioso. “normal” d-minor lutes don’t seem to be loud enough against the low bassoon. They are just too beautiful for continuo.
    Suzanne

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