5 course baroque guitar by Ivo Magherini for sale

Update: The guitar has now been sold!

I’m selling my guitar built by Ivo in 2006. Ivo is probably most well known for his guitars and this is a great instrument that has served me well in the opera pit and concert hall for many years!

Due to it’s life as a working instrument the guitar has a bit of wear-and-tear on the soundboard but is otherwise in good condition. Comes with a Kingham case (in good condition).

I’m looking for 22.500 SEK / £2200 for the instrument. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with any questions you might have.

Obbligato bass instruments in 17th century Italian instrumental chamber music

Today, it’s practically a given that the continuo part in 17th century Italian instrumental chamber music will be doubled by a bowed bass (or other bass) instrument. Is there any evidence to support this practise?

In 17th century Italian music, the continuo instrument is often unspecified, but where it is specified (for example in the books of Castello) it is the organ, and where another instrument is suggested it is the harpsichord, or spinetta.

Whilst I don’t think it sounds bad to have multiple continuo instruments accompanying a sonata, I have never found any evidence to support this approach. It’s clear from surviving music that the most common continuo instrument for 17th century Italian chamber music was the organ. There is no evidence to suggest that the continuo (keyboard) part was doubled by any other instrument – this includes the theorbo!

Evidence!

I think it’s fundamentally wrong to, lacking any evidence, simply assume that the continuo part was doubled by any other instrument. Nonetheless, this has become an accepted part of modern practice. And it pisses me off. We shouldn’t just accept earlier assumptions about historical performance and that what we hear on recordings to be historically correct!

I feel that doubling the continuo part gives it undue importance for this repertoire. The continuo parts rarely if ever contain thematic material, rather serve to support the solo parts. As a continuo player myself, I know this is no ‘minor’ role, but nor should it have too much attention drawn to itself.

Ok, enough already. If it is the case that the continuo part was not doubled, when is it appropriate to use a bowed bass instrument? The answer I believe is simply: When there is an obbligato bass part.

Obbligato Bass Parts

There are TONS of sonatas with obbligato bass parts from the 17th century. Frescobaldi (amongst others) even writes sonatas with more than one obbligato bass part. Fontana is good example – he lists the cornetto and violin as possible soprano instruments and the bassoon, theorbo and ‘violino’ as potential bass instruments for his sonatas. These bass instruments should only play when there exists a part for them, they are not mentioned or intended to be ‘continuo’ instruments. In fact, no mention of any continuo instrument is made, and we can assume this to be the organ, or harpsichord.

The Role of the Theorbo

This is another article in itself, but I’d like to mention here that the theorbo isn’t suggested as a continuo instrument for instrumental music in Italy at all in the first half of the 17th century. (There are 2 exceptions, which in fact aren’t really exceptions… Rossi and Marini, where the theorbo is listed as the only bass instrument [ie. without organ]. Here however the theorbo part is both a continuo and obbligato part, equal to the other solo parts). However, the theorbo is mentioned as an obbligato bass instrument by many composers of the period including Frescobali, Uccellini, Marini, Turini, Corelli, Sanmartini, Pittoni, Cazatti, Cavalli, Guierierro etc. etc. It seems clear to me that the theorbo, whilst an unlikely continuo instrument for this repertoire, was frequently employed as an obbligato bass instrument.

For what it’s worth

My advice: Don’t use a bowed bass (or any other bass instrument, including the theorbo) unless there is an obbligato bass part. If you have a group with theorbo, organ and violone, find a sonata with 2 obbligato bass parts, or take it in turns to play sonatas with obbligato bass parts.

I must stress that my ramblings refer only to 17th century Italian instrumental chamber music. We shouldn’t apply the same rules to secular vocal music for instance, where the theorbo was a hugely popular continuo instrument and the organ was seldom used.

Violone: 8 foot or 16 foot?

Finally – ‘violone’ is a really confusing term that meant different things at different times in different places. However, we can be pretty darn sure that for 17th century chamber music – including and especially for music by Biber and Schmeltzer – that ‘violine’ implies a bass instrument that plays at 8 foot pitch. Bibers’ battallia for instance has 2 ‘violine’ parts, each clearly intended for an instrument that plays at 8 foot pitch. I have no doubt that 16 foot instruments existed at this time, but their role in chamber music is doubtful at best.

In short, if historical accuracy is your bag, I recommend not doubling the keyboard part, if not – happy doubling!

Open historical music blog

I’m in the process of planning a website where people can freely share knowledge and musings on all aspects of historical performance. All would be welcome to contribute and all articles free to access for all.

Articles don’t have to be as strictly written as for say a masters, PHD etc and ‘musings’ or thoughts on whatever floats your boat – as long as it relates to historical performance – would be welcome. Articles would also be freely commented upon by all and sundry, so as to encourage healthy debate. All in all, much like my own blogging on issues relating to music.

Research has for too long been a closed community with limited access to information. The Internet can help to promote a more open approach, to make information freely available to everyone (which is where it belongs).

If you might be interested in contributing to this idea, go ahead and get in touch. I’m still in planning stage at the moment, but ideas are most welcome!

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!