The theorbo is a plucked bowl-lute chordophone of Baroque Europe that has several courses of strings some of which are stopped against a fingerboard (like a Renaissance lute) and others that are sounded only at their full length. The theorbo pictured here was made in 2000 by the Canadian luthier Michael Schreiner, who modeled it after an extant Baroque instrument by Venere (possibly a maker of German descent working in Padua, Italy, c. 1611). One of the most common chord-producing continuo instruments during the Baroque era, the theorbo is especially well suited for accompanying singers. While invented in Italy, it came to be widely distributed throughout Europe and used in a variety of ensemble groupings in addition to being a favored accompanying instrument for solo singers. It is called for in a substantial number of works as a continuo instrument (for which much of the realization of the part is left to the performer in the moment of performance), and a modest repertoire of solo works in a specialized tablature notation was created for it. Since the middle of the 20th century a number of luthiers making replica instruments and amateur and professional performers of the theorbo have emerged as part of the early music movement.
This instrument’s vaulted resonator body is made from 27 slats or ribs of wood that are individually shaped and bent before being glued together. The resulting egg-shaped hollow body is covered with a flat soundboard of straight-grained softwood (spruce or pine) that, near its center, has a circular space (called a rose or rosette) with carved perforations in an Arabesque pattern serving as the resonator’s soundhole. A long bridge is glued to the soundboard just above its bottom end, and three wooden frets of varying length are glued across the soundboard near its top end. Running from side-to side on the bottom side of the soundboard are a number of wooden bars the ends of which are glued to the resonator’s top-most ribs, enhancing the sound quality of the instrument and strengthening its delicate soundboard. A broad neck made of hardwood rounded on its backside but flat on its front side is securely attached to the top of the resonator. Its front side serves as the instrument’s fingerboard. The top end of the fingerboard terminates in a nut. Nine gut frets are securely tied around the neck between the resonator and the nut. Joined to the backside of the top of the primary neck is a second very long and tapering neck the base of which serves as the pegbox for the seven courses of strings that pass over the fingerboard pegbox. A second nut and pegbox is located at the top end of this long extension to the neck and it has eight tuning pegs one each for the set of long strings that vibrate only at their full length. The instrument’s fifteen single course strings (historically from gut, but nylon line and wire wound strings are also used on this replica) are organized into two groups: the eight lowest ones (called diapasons) are long (61.5 inches between bridge and nut) and not stopped, the seven higher-pitched ones are shorter (32 inch vibrating length) and pass over the fingerboard against which they can be pressed.
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The theorbo is typically performed by a seated player with the side of the resonator body resting on the lap and the soundboard facing outwards. The instrument is held with its pegbox end raised up to about a 45-degree angle. The strings are plucked with the thumb and first three fingers of the right hand. The shorter courses of strings are stopped against the fretted fingerboard with all four fingers of the left hand (the left-hand thumb hooks around the neck and supports the weight of the neck and pegbox), while the diapason strings are not stopped and vibrate only at their full length. One of several possible tunings of the theorbo is as follows: E2 - G1 - A1 - B1 - C2 - D2 - E2 - F2 - G2 - A2 - D3 - G3 - B3 - E3 - A3. Most theorbos have only 14 courses, so perhaps the first diapason string on this replica is an innovation by the maker of this replica instrument; the typical arrangement of pitches has the G1 as the first pitch. Many theorbos will have double strings for the top seven courses that are stopped. The instrument can be strummed to produce chords or played polyphonically and has a narrow dynamic range.
Origins/History/EvolutionLate 16th century Florentine court musician Antonio Baldi is usually credited with the invention of the theorbo, but it must be remembered that the core of the instrument is basically a bass lute with centuries of historical evolution preceding it. Baldi is also credited with inventing a very similar instrument called a chitarrone for the accompaniment of solo singing a few years prior to the first mention of the theorbo. What exactly differentiates these two instruments is not clear; the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments has separate entries for the two but does not explicitly say they are synonymous, while Smith (2002) and O’Dette (1994) use them interchangeably for the same instrument.
Harwood, Ian, James Taylor, and Robert Spencer. 1984. "Theorbo [theorbo lute]," NGDMI v.3: 574-575.
________, and Robert Spencer. 1984. "Chitarrone," NGDMI v.1: 358-360.
O’Dette, Paul. 1994. "Plucked Instruments," In A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music. ed. Jeffery T. Kite-Powell. New York: Schirmer Books, pp. 139-153.Smith, Douglas Alton. 2002. A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance. [Lexington, VA?]: Lute Society of America.