sizes: the uncomfortable truth
of the questions I am frequently asked is how large a theorbo one should
buy - or rather, to be more accurate, how small a theorbo one can get
away with! Modern theorbo players in the majority are marked by their
extreme reluctance to use instruments of historical size, preferring
instead to commission inauthentically small instruments. There are two
main - and perfectly understandable - reasons for this. One is that
larger instruments are more tiring to play than smaller ones, especially
for solo music. The other is that the extreme length of a large theorbo
makes it very difficult to travel with, especially by air.
I will address those specific difficulties later, but first I must be
blunt here: many of the so-called theorbos which modern makers are producing
(often at the request of theorbo players) are in no way historical.
Many have too many strings on the neck, and thus a larger chromatic
range and a weaker bass register than their historical counterparts.
The overwhelming majority of surviving theorbos have only six stopped
courses, which is enough to play all of the surviving Italian and French
solo theorbo music. Many modern theorbos are too small in all of their
dimensions, but especially in their string lengths. As a result of this,
a great number can only work in theorbo tuning if they are strung with
overtly modern strings, such as fluoro-carbon trebles and overspun nylon
diapasons. The small size of the instruments results in a small volume,
which is usually compensated for by increasing the string tension and
playing with nails, for which there is at best, very limited historical
evidence. Needless to say, the sound is far from that of a large, historically
Historically, theorbos came in several sizes, almost all of them larger
than the average modern instrument. The largest are instruments by Buchenberg
and Graill, which have stopped string lengths of 98-99 cm. Not far behind
are instruments by Giorgio Sellas at 96cm, Magno Dieffopruchar at 93cm,
and Alban, Schelle, Buchenberg and many others, in the high 80s. These
are not the exceptions but the norm: surviving old theorbos which are
significantly smaller are extremely unusual, yet these are the
In scaling down modern theorbos purely for convenience, we are attempting
the equivalent of making a cello function as a double bass. A bass presents
different technical problems from a cello, and of course it is more
cumbersome to carry around - but people still learn the bass! If we
have any respect and love for historic instruments, (and why else would
we want to play or make them?), we should respect them for what they
are, and learn to play on them as they are, not on scaled-down toy versions.
Opting for inauthentically small instruments may save us the effort
of learning to play on the big ones, but in doing so we are not recreating
the historical theorbo; we are inventing a new instrument, and one which
is wholly dependent upon modern string technology in order to function.
There is another good reason to revive the large historical theorbo,
rather than to continue to rely on its modern, reduced counterpart.
The volume of a theorbo, and the incisiveness of its timbre, are directly
related to its size and especially to its string lengths. A full-sized
theorbo will easily hold its own within a baroque ensemble, even a large
one. The modern small theorbo, even with the dubious benefits of modern
strings and nails, will be largely inaudible, mainly because its timbre
lacks the incisive, nasal edge of the larger instrument. As the economic
situation in the Arts becomes ever more difficult, we theorbo players
have increasingly to justify our presence in an ensemble, and directors
are unlikely to employ us if they cannot hear us. If we play on properly
built, authentically strung, full-sized historical theorbos, they will
hear us! If we play on under-sized, compromised instruments which have
little or no historical basis, we not only ignore the skill and experience
of generations of historical lutemakers, who created the theorbo, but
we are also undoing much of the valuable work done by our modern-day
colleagues who made the theorbo an indispensible part of the early music
scene during the 1980s and 90s. In short, we are making ourselves obsolescent
through inaudibility and laziness.
At this point I must return to the main difficulties of playing a large
theorbo. First, the technical problems. The vast majority of the perceived
difficulties with large instruments are caused by one or more of the
1) The instrument is badly set up. Many makers assume, quite reasonably,
that the larger the instrument, the higher the action and the wider
the spacing must be. In fact the action does not need to be higher;
the string tension on a large instrument needs to be tighter than on
a small one, and this will compensate for any perceived tendency for
longer strings to rattle against the frets if plucked hard. The bridge
spacing does not need to be wider - it can be anything you like within
reason. The nut spacing of the stopped strings needs to be significantly
NARROWER than on a smaller instrument. You can ask your hand to stretch
along the strings, or across them, but not both simultaneously. With
a long string length we have no option but to stretch along the strings,
so we must reduce the stretches across the fingerboard to compensate.
2) The player attempts to use left-hand chord shapes derived from the
lute, without paying sufficient attention to the differences encouraged
or dictated by the re-entrant tuning of the theorbo. This can lead to
unnecessary effort for the stopping hand, duplicating notes on two strings,
stopping notes where an open string is available, or reaching for a
note which is available more conveniently on a different string, purely
because of lute-based habits.
3) The player is reluctant to make full use of the diapasons, (usually
because of a fear of plucking the wrong one). However, using the diapasons
wherever possible not only increases the volume and audibility of the
instrument, but also releases the left hand from the necessity of stopping
large chords. Surviving tablatures in the song accompaniments of e.g.,
Castaldi and Kapsberger, indicate that heavy use of the diapasons, often
doubling the written bass line an octave lower, was normal.
4) The player attempts to use too many thick chord voicings, (again
a habit often carried over from the lute, which requires denser chord
voicings because of its higher register and lighter timbre). The stronger
sound and lower pitch of a theorbo mean that thinner chord voicings
- two or three notes only - can still provide good continuo support.
So, as a means of taming a large theorbo into playability, I suggest
1) Examine your instrument, and see if its set-up can possibly be improved.
2) Examine every chord shape you play, to see if duplicated notes can
be removed, or hard-to-reach notes located elsewhere.
3) Practise using the diapasons routinely, not as a special effect.
4) Think carefully about the tuning of your diapasons when playing continuo,
and be prepared to change them to suit the key of a piece, in order
to give you as many useful chordal options as possible.
And so to the difficulties of travel... This is, I think, the only legitimate
reason for hesitation before choosing a large theorbo, especially as
a first or only theorbo. A large Italian theorbo is intractably long,
and since the spaces between rows of airline seats have closed up dramatically
in recent years, it is often now impossible to fit a theorbo into a
seat, since its body will only fit between the rows if the instrument
is bolt upright, which means there is never sufficient head room to
accommodate its length. I must confess I have long ago given up attempting
to travel on airlines with my large Italian theorbo (which measures
just over 2 metres in its case). Since I am based in the UK, and separated
from the rest of the musical world by an inconvenient stretch of water,
I have had to find other solutions, usually taking the big theorbo via
the Channel Tunnel, or a car ferry. Sometimes it means flying with a
smaller one. I hope one day to have a full-size, uncompromised Italian
theorbo with a detachable neck extension, which will be able to travel
in an airline seat, but for the moment I sometimes have to compromise.
For me, a French theorbo has been a good compromise for an instrument
in A. Historically, French theorbos seem to have had shorter diapason
lengths, which significantly reduces the problematic length of the instrument,
without severely compromising the body size or the stopped string length.
On the issue of travel, the bass players appear to have the advantage
over us, because their instruments are more standardized, and there
are commercially-made flight cases available, which are designed to
enable the bass to travel safely in an aircraft hold. In fact stories
of broken basses are not uncommon, and the cases are formidably heavy
and expensive. We also have the option of putting our large theorbos
in the aircraft hold for flights, of course. Personally Im very
reluctant to do this, because my biggest theorbo is now 18 years old,
hes been repaired several times already, and hes rather
more fragile than he used to be. However, we all have to make our own
individual decisions about this. If you decide to put your theorbo in
the hold, youll find some tips on flying with instruments on my
writings page. Flying with a
large theorbo remains a problem, and I would be glad to hear from anyone
with suggestions or contributions to a debate on this. However, not
every performance requires a flight... Many professional lute players
own many lutes, but usually only one theorbo, even though it frequently
accounts for more of their work than the other lutes put together. Many
amateur players are skilled accompanists, and do not have the same problem
of flying to engagements on a regular basis. In both situations, a historically-based
large theorbo would be an asset, not a liability, and if more such players
were prepared to invest in large theorbos, the future of the historical
theorbo rather than its modern mongrel counterpart would be assured.
This essay was written partly to answer a question which frequently
crops up in my email in-box, but also to encourage players to consider
a full-size theorbo. Theorbos of one kind or another are frequently
seen on the concert platform. It is time for them to be heard as well.
2005 by Lynda Sayce
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