Have you heard of a Theorbo?

17 June 2024

From time to time, slightly unusual or unfamiliar instruments pop up in the orchestra. In our recent Obscura 1: Of Ice and Stars concert, not only did we see a vast array of recorders, but we also saw a strange long lute, otherwise known as the theorbo. Our theorbo player for the concert, Simon Martyn-Ellis, taught us about this ancient instrument while he was in town.

Mark Bain

Thank you for agreeing to chat with us Simon, to start with, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your musical background?

It’s my absolute pleasure! I started in music on the piano, back when I was eight years old. When I turned thirteen, my teacher retired, and I began to teach myself to play guitar; I borrowed an electric guitar and a massive amplifier from my uncle. I’d never had lessons when I started my Music Degree on classical guitar, and fairly quickly discovered that I wasn’t ever going to be that great a practitioner.

Thankfully, thanks to the efforts of my Performance lecturer, Rosalind Halton, a wonderful harpsichordist, I was able to access the joys of playing with others in baroque era music, at least, whenever there’s a basso continuo line. The mix of improvisation and ensemble collaboration suits my musical character down to the ground. So I begged and borrowed and did whatever I could to get my hands on lutes, guitars and theorbos.

I travelled to Europe in the late nineties on a Winston Churchill Trust, and then in 2002 thanks to a very generous grant from The Australia Council to undertake further studies in Germany with the lutenist Rolf Lislevand. I stayed in Germany for the next eleven years, working with a collection of early music ensembles and orchestras, and getting to do the most amazing things in the most amazing places! I then moved back to Australia after six years in the US. I’m still someone who prioritises chamber music collaborations over solo music, because for me it’s the most satisfying musical activity.

Tell us about your instrument, the theorbo.  When and where did it originate? How do you play it?

The theorbo is originally an Italian instrument, called a tiorba, and it originated more or less in the late sixteenth century. It was developed as a collaborative instrument for vocal performance, smack in the middle of the development of a new style of singing that we call monody today, and the emergence of opera as an art form. In many ways, it was an instrument that ushered in the baroque period. It was very quickly adopted in the rest of Europe for collaborative vocal performance, simply because it proved to be so good at it! It hung around as well in various forms until the late eighteenth century.

The most distinctive aspect to the theorbo is the neck extension that allows a second peg box to be attached. This is useful because, just like a harpsichord, or a piano for that matter, the longer the string length is in the bass, the thinner strings need to be to sound in the lower register. The rest of the instrument looks just like a lute - tear-drop body with a bowl back made of ribs of wood, a neck with frets, and a flat soundboard with a bridge long enough to take the standard fourteen courses. As I’m a right hander, my left hand fingers fret the strings, while my right hand fingers play not only the fretted courses, usually seven in number, but also the bass strings that run to the second peg box at the end of the extension. My right hand thumb tends to be very busy!

How were you introduced to the instrument and what is it about the theorbo that you love?

As soon as you start playing lutes, you’re made aware of theorbos. They are an essential instrument in a continuo player’s arsenal. But I was lucky to hear, see, and yes, touch, instruments that were brought to Uni by visiting lutenists, such as Tommie Andersson and William Carter, amongst others. The instrument maker Peter Biffin also lived in Armidale, where I was studying, and he made many lutes those days, so I got to see whatever it was he was working on and had completed before it got sent on.

And what is there not to love? It’s the ultimate rhythm instrument, with bass and tenor registers combined, and because it’s plucked, it’s essentially rhythmic. It’s very resonant, because of its size and string length; I’m a big fan of what a colleague of mine calls the “theorbo glory”, the bass register, because it’s such a distinctive sound.

Do you play any other instruments?

Apart from a raft of other lutes, such as renaissance and baroque lutes, I also play historical guitars, from baroque guitars to romantic instruments. The theorbo and baroque guitar are very closely related, despite them sounding and looking so very different, so they’re my main instruments. But I’ll still reach for my ‘lecky when I get a chance, or indeed anything with frets and strings - mandolin, ukulele… 

The theorbo is such a long instrument, how do you take it on tour with you?

The simple answer is with difficulty.

But, I’ve got to say, last year I purchased a new to me theorbo from a player in the UK, that has a neck that folds in on itself. There’s an ingenious hinge mechanism the maker came up with that works a charm, and there's a means of bending the bass strings over a sort of pulley wheel that keeps them in tension. It reduces the size of the instrument into something that’s shorter than a cello, but the case looks a bit similar. You have no idea the satisfaction that one has when for so long you needed to ask for a specific sized taxi, to just popping it in the boot!! It’s also soooo much easier to get it in the cabin of an aircraft, because it looks to similar to a cello case. You need to purchase an extra seat, but even then, full length theorbos in their case were often knocked back because they look so unusual. Now I just call it a cello, and no one bats an eyelid.

Any other special fun facts we should know about the theorbo?

Only that you just HAVE to hear one live.

There is one aspect to theorbos that many people don’t know but is central to their sound. Lutes are usually tuned like guitars, with the strings getting higher in pitch from the sixth string to the first. But theorbos are a bit different. When they first developed them, only plain gut strings were available, and attempts at making them thinner could only go so far, unlike the metal wound strings that are available today. But they were very keen to get the pitch of the instrument to the register of guitars and lutes from that time. Because of the long fretted string length that was required, no string could be made to reach the correct pitch - they were simply far too thin. So they put thicker strings on the first and second string places and tuned them down an octave. This means that the highest pitched open string on a theorbo is the third string, a b natural a semitone below middle c on a piano. We call this trick reentrant tuning, and it makes the theorbo a particularly homogenous sounding instrument. It’s a real mind bender if you’re used to the usual manner of tuning, but it’s a secret part of the special sound of the theorbo.

Thank you so much Simon, what a fascinating instrument! For more of the unexpected check out our next Obscura: Clothed in Words, emphasising voice as an instrument featuring the TSO Chorus.

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