‘The best way of play’

Around 13 years ago after my end-of-year recital as a student studying classical guitar in Dublin I ceremoniously cut off the fingernails on my right hand. I had decided to become a lutenist! I preferred the music, there was more of it and the possibility of far more social music making made my choice an easy one.

Approximately 5 years ago, I decided let the nails on my right hand grow. Was I intending to take up the guitar once more and shun the lute?! The answer is no – I had decided to play the lute with nails.

At the time I didn’t consider the controversy I would cause by this decision and even today I find there is often confusion regarding the authenticity of this approach. Like most people, I hate to be judged at all, but as someone for whom historical accuracy has always been of the utmost importance to, I didn’t want to be accused of historical heresy!

So, what’s the deal? Modern guitarists play with nails, lutenists don’t (or at least shouldn’t) – right?! Let’s think about that assumption for a minute: When the 20th century lute revival began, lutes were often lightly constructed and strung with very low tension strings. A modern school of lute playing evolved, where lutenists tended to play with a technique radically different to that of the modern classical guitar. Many of the pioneers of lute playing utilized a historical technique detailed in several 16th and early 17th century sources, where the thumb of the right hand is placed inside the hand (not stretched outside the fingers, like modern guitar and harp technique). The string is then plucked using the flesh of the finger only.

In the early days of the revival, this was really what differentiated guitarists from lutenists. A generation or two later and we’re in a position to re-think the assumption that there is only one appropriate historical performance technique for the lute. Whilst the technique described above is indeed a historical technique, it is in fact only suitable for the music of the 16th and early 17th centuries and it is only one of several different historical approaches. As the lute acquired more and more strings, this technique was gradually and universally dropped in favour of the technique of playing with the right hand thumb outside of the hand which facilitated in reaching the additional bass courses – Dowland himself changed his technique to the more modern ‘thumb out’ mid-career.

That’s all well and good, but the question remains: Can playing the lute with nails be considered a valid historical performance technique for historical plucked string instruments?

In his Intavolatura di Liuto e di Chitarrone (1632) Alessandro Piccinini advocates the use of fingernails on the right hand. In fact, some of the advanced performance techniques he describes in his book I don’t think are really possible without fingernails. One such technique is where the nail of the index finger plucks the string back and forth alternating with the front and the back of the nail in rapid succession.

Francesco Corbetta, the Italian guitar teacher to the King Louis 14th of France played with fingernails. As recorded by Adam Ebert in his Mémoires of 1723 ‘having had the bad fortune of breaking a nail, [Corbetta] was unable to play at the Festival with his consort’. In Gaspar Sanz’s Introducción de Musica sobre la guitarra (1674), the licenciado S. Alfonso writes ‘There are some who play with the nails, who ravish the senses, and others who grate the nerves’. The following picture shows that yet another guitarist, Domenico Pellegrini also played with nails.

Thomas Mace in his Musicke’s Monument of 1676 writes ‘…take notice, that you Strike not your Strings with your Nails, as some do, who maintain it the Best way of Play, but I do not, and for this reason ; because the Nail cannot draw so sweet a sound from a Lute, as the nibble end of the Flesh can do’. Mace obviously had a preference for playing without nails, but it’s also clear that it was not uncommon to play with nails.

Silvius Leopold Weiss, probably the most famous lutenist of his generation, travelled to Italy in the 18th century where he both saw and undoubtably played with many Italian lutenists. In a letter to Matheson regarding the lute and theorbo Weiss writes that the archlute and theorbo in Italy are ordinarily played with nails. Weiss – like Mace – expresses a preference for playing without fingernails, adding that that when heard at close range, the archlute and theorbo played with nails can sound harsh. Regardless, the fact remains that Weiss’ writings imply that it was in fact the exception and not the rule to play the theorbo and the archlute without nails in Italy in the 18th century.

I want to stress a couple of things at this point. Firstly and most importantly I’m not saying that it’s more correct to use this technique that any other historically justifiable performance technique – a point already indirectly made by both Weiss and Mace! My only goal is to demonstrate that playing with nails is a valid technique for historical plucked instruments. Secondly, I think it’s worth pointing out that this playing style is very different to modern guitar technique! I was a classical guitarist for several years before I played the lute and I played with nails. I also played the lute for many years without nails, so I figure I’m qualified to compare the styles!

The pros and cons.

Over the past several years of playing with nails I’ve made some interesting observations. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to change their technique and I’m certainly not saying that it’s better to play with nails that without. I’m also sure that the results of changing techniques will vary for person to person, but for those of you that are interested, here are some of my experiences since I started playing with nails.

The pros.

1. I can play faster. The ‘thumb-out’ technique has a reputation of being a little slower that ‘thumb-in’, but I can play much faster than I could before by using less of the flesh of my finger in the stroke and more of the nail in faster passages. If I employ Piccinini’s trick (actually it’s not just Piccinini’s trick really, the same technique is described in several 16th century Spanish vihuela sources too) of using the same finger to play fast passages, I can play really fast. It is however a bit difficult to control this and string crossings I find almost impossible!

2. I can play (a bit) louder. Using fingernails also makes the sound I produce brighter which tends to carry better in ensemble (this is all debatable I know – please remember this are just my own experiences!). Personally I find the theorbo benefits greatly from a brighter sound, but a lightly constructed lute played with nails can sound a little harsh if one is not careful. Most of my instruments are built by Ivo Magherini who doesn’t shy away from using a decent amount of wood and I think these instruments tend to sound great with nails.

3. I don’t get calluses on my fingers anymore! When I want to give a bit more, I can use a bit more nail and a bit less flesh thus saving my poor fingers.

4. Another interesting side-effect of playing with nails is that I find historical arpeggiation on the theorbo – as dictated in the theorbo books of Alessandro Piccinini and Girolamo Kapsberger – much easier to pull off with nails, in fact I would almost go so far as to say that they only really work with nails. This is all subjective though and may well be as a result of that nobody really takes historical arpeggiation on the theorbo seriously. Now that’s a post in waiting right there! Where I often struggled in the past to play Kaspberger’s prescribed right hand fingerings I find that they are greatly facilitated with nails. Kapsberger makes no mention of nails or lack thereof.

5. I find the strumming patterns of the baroque guitar to be considerably easier with nails and I also much prefer the sound now! This is all down to personal taste of course!

The cons.

I look ridiculous! I’m constantly ridiculed by my long-suffering 12 year old daughter Miah for polishing my nails in public (sorry Miah – such embarrassing parents..). Nails can be a pain to maintain and they can break. Once, whilst browsing through music for sale at the lute society stall at the early music exhibition in Greenwich in London I was asked if I was a curious guitarist…

As with every assumption regarding modern-day ideas of historical techniques, let’s not rest on the laurels of the pioneers! As historical performers it is our responsibility to question everything we hear, see or do. Let’s encourage people to find their own way and let’s learn to love and embrace the limitations of historical performance!


Thanks to Diego Cantalupi – http://www.diegocantalupi.it/ – for sending me the following images of Filippo Della Casa (1737–1810).

Della Casa

Non-interpretation of baroque music

Something I’ve been thinking about for some time is the aspect of interpretation in baroque music. Todays big stars are conductors, directors, singers and musicians – all interpreters of baroque music. But how different this is to the 18th century! There were singers and musicians who were stars of course, but the famous directors of the 18th century also wrote and performed their own music. They didn’t have to ‘interpret’ it, they just played it!

With today’s famous directors and conductors we hear countless different interpretations (what’s more we have recordings of these interpretations) of the same repertoire. 17th century opera in particular is, in my opinion, a real victim here to the pursuit of interpretation, where it’s almost taken for granted that directors will add extra instrumental ritornelli etc. to the existing music. In my experience Cavalli tends to suffer more than others – people particularly like to add instrumental parts to sections of recitative (one particular Belgian gentleman with a penchant for the recorder comes to mind).

By adding ritornelli and composing extra instrumental parts as well as by devising ever increasingly elaborate continuo scorings there seems to be a desire to create the ultimate ‘interpretation’ of a piece of music. I even played a Händel opera once where the director had even written extra viola parts for some of the arias!

I think this approach is out of place in any genuine pursuit of historical performance.

Let’s imagine a performance of a Cavalli opera in 17th century Venice. A small wooden theatre with several singers and a band composed of 2 violins and a bass violin, 2 theorboes and 2 harpsichords (we know from records that Cavalli used on many occasions a band just like this). The violins played the ritornelli. The theorboes and harpsichords accompanied the singers who just sang the music and doubtlessly added some (bad-ass) ornamentation.

In other words, they just played – and sang – the music.

Surely the ultimate goal of the historical performer is to try to recreate the music as it was heard in its original context?! If that’s the case then why do we so rarely hear Cavalli played with appropriate instrumentation in all it’s glorious unadulterated form?

I guess I’m talking about a kind of interperative-minimalism here. Get the right kit, get the right technique, play the music and see what happens! Take a step back and enjoy the music for what it is. Let Cavalli speak as vividly to us today as he did in the 17th century. Let’s forget big egos and new recordings of Händel’s Messiah. Hey, let’s even forget our preconceived ideas about what the music ‘should’ sound like!

Baroque music just needs good musicians to come alive – interpretation as in the 17th and 18th centuries could be added in the form of ornamentation, let’s not re-write the music to suit our ideals.

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the theorbo but were afraid to ask

As a theorbo player I get asked lots of questions about my instrument.

Questions like:

  • What is it?
  • Where does it come from?
  • How many strings does it have?
  • Do you play all of them?
  • How is it tuned?
  • Why is it so long?
  • How, exactly, do you play it?
  • Was it a usual member of a baroque orchestra?
  • Do you ever wish you played the flute?

I do try to answer all these questions as I get asked, but for those of you who didn’t get a chance to ask, or for those who would like to know more, I’ll do my best to explain a little bit about the theorbo.


What is it and where does it come from?

The theorbo, one of the largest members of the lute family, was a new kind of instrument conceived in Florence during the late 16th century to accompany a new style of vocal music known as ‘stile recitativo’. Owing to its gentleness and depth of sound it was considered the perfect accompaniment for the human voice.

This theorbo was gradually adopted (and in most cases, nationalised) by every European country over the course of the 17th century. The first theorbo to reach England in the 17th century was destroyed at port as is was assumed to be a weapon!

How many strings does it have and do you play all of them?

I have two theorboes, one is a copy of a German theorbo from the 1730s. It’s got 20 strings arranged in descending order like this:

One single string at the top (ie: the highest pitched string) followed by six pairs of strings (the pairs are always played together, like on a mandolin) and seven long bass strings. I do play all of them.

My other theorbo has sixteen single strings and is a copy of an Italian instrument from 1610. This one has six strings at the top and ten long bass strings.

How is it tuned and why is it so long?

Historically there are several different tunings for the theorbo. The top five strings (ie: the five highest strings in pitch) of my 18th century theorbo are tuned to a chord of d minor and the rest are tuned in a descending scale (like a harp).

The reason why it’s so long is due to the gut strings that musicians used at that time. With any kind of string, in order to get a lower pitch you have to increase the thickness (diameter). For a gut string, the thicker the string the duller the sound. If however you could increase the length of string then you can have a thinner string for a lower note and therefore a much better sound.

Modern concert harps and grand pianos still follow this principle: the lower the note, the longer the string, therefore the quality of sound for the lower strings doesn’t deteriorate.

How, exactly, do you play it?

The long bass strings of a theorbo – also called diapasons – are played with the thumb of the right hand and are never stopped with the left hand. The top strings are played with both hands, where the left hand makes the chord shapes and the right hand plucks the appropriate strings, like a guitar. Historically, the theorbo could be played with or without fingernails.

Was it a usual member of a baroque orchestra?

Yes, we have records of many baroque orchestras that used theorboes. Corelli used as many as five, Vivaldi as many as four. Händel and his theorbo player in London read from the same score and Telemann usually had two in his orchestra.

Do you ever wish you played the flute?

Only when I’m at the airport.