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..?
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…!
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.
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!