The Trouble With Theorbos

Cameron Welke University of Aberdeen, Scotland


October 25, 2017

As some of you may know, I am a rather avid lute player as well as a classical guitarist. By some fortuitous stroke of luck, as a freshman at Belmont I was paired with a classical guitar teacher who also just so happened to be (as far as I can tell) the most active lutenist in Nashville’s early music community, and after a few semesters of gently persuading me towards separate lessons on lute, I eventually accepted and began an exploration of a whole new world of technique, repertoire and style. I’m grateful for how early music studies have expanded the ways in which I conceive and approach music, and I have had the good fortune of being able to continue those studies in Aberdeen on both the lute and, for the first time, the theorbo.

Now, for those of you who are about to go Google “theorbo” because you didn’t know that word even existed, fear not – this post has a video portion as well that will hopefully answer any basic questions you may have about the instrument! If you wish to skip straight to the video, feel free, but if you’re willing to wait a few moments, read on as I discuss some of the theorbo’s history and continuing legacy.

As with many early music topics (“early music,” by the way, is a term that refers specifically to music before 1750), scholarship concerning the theorbo is varied and sometimes uncertain. The exact inventor of the instrument is disputed, but its origins are Italian and it first appears at some point in the 1580s when a group of Florentine humanists restrung a bass lute and fitted it with a long neck extension to support extra bass strings. The improved lute originally had two names: “chitarrone,” a more formal term derived from the Greek “kythara,” and “tiorba,” a name used in informal circles from which the anglicized “theorbo” is derived. “Tiorba” eventually became more common, and so the name of the instrument in other languages is derived from this word rather than from “chitarrone.”

The development of the instrument was spurred by the appearance of a new style of vocal music known as “stile recitativo,” and the innovative construction of the theorbo led some to describe it as the perfect instrument for accompanying the human voice.  Its longer, thicker stings gave it a brighter and clearer sound than the lute, meaning that it could support even large ensembles of voices or instruments, a feat which it’s quieter cousin could never successfully achieve. The earliest repertoire for the instrument is pieces for voice with solo theorbo accompaniment, and it quickly became popular as an accompanying instrument for Baroque operas as well.

As the theorbo spread across Europe, it was continually altered to suit the preferences of its performers. Tunings were changed, strings were added, and notation was adapted in an attempt to continually expand the theorbo’s sonic capabilities. Unfortunately, this contributed to the instrument’s downfall since eventually the myriad of constructions, tunings, and notations made it an impractical instrument both to learn and play. Accompanied by the increased affordability and availability of keyboard instruments, the theorbo (along with the rest of the lute family) practically disappeared after 1750. It wasn’t until the lute revival of the early nineteenth century that interest in lutes resurfaced, and Julian Bream’s lute performances in the 1970s served as a major impetus for re-popularizing the lute family and its repertoire.

The world of early music is a fascinating place since it is equally static and dynamic, a field where performers are continually working to find new ways to perceive and interpret a repertoire that is set in stone. Although some valiant attempts are being made to write contemporary music for the lute family (see particularly the work of Scottish lutenist Rob MacKillop as well as Stephen Goss’ theorbo suite based on Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale), these instruments are generally quite locked into their pre-1750 repertoire, and it’s been an unfortunate tendency for some players to present this music as dry and unexciting. However, this need not be the case! The joy of engaging with early music is that the performer gets to explore the balance between learning what we can about how this music was originally performed and finding a way to make it their own, respecting its history while also breathing new life into it. As with any form of art, we must approach early music with an acknowledgement of our own experiences and prejudices, allowing these to influence our interactions in a way that makes the music uniquely our own, looking back to appreciate its past while also looking out to discover how it can still affect our present. 

Stick around for this brief video on how the theorbo functions, which concludes with a short and sweet unmeasured prelude by Robert de Visée!