The Theorbo and how to use it: some information for music directors

This page attempts to answer some of the questions I am frequently asked by music directors who are considering using a theorbo in a concert, but aren't quite sure what it can do, or what is appropriate repertory. If you are a music director and have a question I haven't addressed here, please email me and I'll do my best to answer it. Please note that the information is based purely on my own experiences and research; my colleagues may not agree with all of it!

What music is appropriate for a theorbo to play?
The theorbo was invented in Florence in the 1580s, and eventually faded into extinction during the 18th century, lasting longer in some parts of Europe than in others. During this period it was used extensively for continuo in opera and oratorio, sacred and secular cantatas, solo song in various genres, and instrumental music in churches, courts and theatres. As a rough chronological guide, it could be considered for music within the following periods:

Italy: c.1590 - c.1750, especially operas and oratorios by Cavalieri, Monteverdi, Rossi, Cesti, Cavalli, Scarlatti, Sartorio, Handel, Vivaldi, Conti: solo songs by Caccini, Peri, Frescobaldi, Strozzi, Ferrari,etc: instrumental music by Gabrieli, Marini, Uccellini, Castello, Cazzati, Corelli, etc.

France: c.1630 - c.1730, especially airs de cour with continuo accompaniment, operas by Lully, Marais, etc; instrumental chamber music with flute and / or viol.

Germany and central Europe: c.1620-1740, especially 17th century continuo Lied, concerted sacred music, church cantatas and oratorios, instrumental ensemble and solo music. Italian-influenced and/or Italian-trained composers are especially suitable. Composers include Schütz, Schein, Praetorius, Biber, Muffat, Telemann, early members of the Bach family (though not JSB).

Britain: c.1620-c.1720, though the Italian theorbo made little impact in Britain. However, lutes of several kinds, and a distinctive lute-like type of English theorbo were the preferred continuo instruments for many types of music. Repertory includes solo song (Johnson, Lanier, Wilson, H Lawes, Purcell, Blow), instrumental consort and chamber music (W. Lawes, Locke, Hudson, Simpson, Jenkins, Matteis, Finger), opera and semi-opera (Purcell, Blow, Banister), odes and cantatas (Purcell, Blow, Draghi).

These lists are rough guidelines only, and are in no way exhaustive!

What does a theorbo play from?
The theorbo plays a chordal continuo part, like the harpsichord or chamber organ, and the most useful part for it to play from is a bass part with continuo figures. If the only available bass part is unfigured it is useful to send the player a score as well, from which to figure the bass part. Playing from the score is only occasionally feasible, because page turns are much more disruptive than on a keyboard instrument. (We usually can't keep playing with one hand while we turn with the other.) Theorbos can also be used to play elaborate bass parts, especially in early 17th century Italian instrumental music, by e.g., Cavalli, Marini, Frescobaldi. In this context the theorbo will mostly play just the bass line when it is very busy, adding chords when the bass moves more slowly.

The score mentions 'chitarrone': what is the difference between that and a theorbo?
Chitarrone and theorbo are just two different names for the same instrument.

What range and keys does the theorbo play in?
The theorbo is essentially a tenor and bass range instrument. Its bottom note is usually the G' below the cello's C string, its highest string is usually the b below middle c', and its highest practicable note is usually around g' on the second line of the treble stave. Most instruments have at least a couple of notes above this, but they are often not easily accessible. Note that the bottom octave is diatonic only, so chromatic notes will not be available in this register without retuning. Retuning (e.g., the F string to F sharp, or the E string to E flat) is perfectly feasible between pieces, but not during a piece. Because of the instrument's range, high bass lines will be realized more thinly than lower-lying basses. A theorbo will usually play mostly at the written pitch, sometimes playing down an octave for extra volume or support, for example in big tutti sections. A competent player can play in any key which was in common use during the baroque era, but the colour and available technical resources will vary from key to key.

Can I combine a theorbo with other continuo instruments?
Certainly, and some combinations were commonly used during the baroque era. A particularly successful and authentic pairing is theorbo and chamber organ, which can sound wonderful in sacred music such as Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers. Continuo operas often use two or three theorbos, plus keyboard instruments (both organ and harpsichord), sometimes harp and /or violone. One characteristic of many baroque scores is that they ask for a plucked string instrument OR a bowed bass. These fulfill the same role of etching in the bass line, (though of course the theorbo will supply some harmony as well). Although you might want both available, it it not always particularly successful to use both simultaneously, especially in small scale pieces. However, it is perfectly acceptable to use a bowed bass with a string ensemble (for example, in the ritornelli of a continuo opera), and have the theorbo play the bass in sections where the violins don't play.

What pitch does a theorbo play at?
A professional player should be equipped to play at any pitch, but players would appreciate advance warning if you want to play at one of the more extreme or unusual pitches, e.g., A466 for Venetian early baroque, or A392 for French music. This is because these will often require restringing rather than retuning, and the strings and the instrument will need a few days to stabilize.

Will the audience be able to hear it?
A properly played theorbo should be able to hold its own in the company of other baroque instruments, even quite a large ensemble, if used judiciously. Its audibility depends on what else shares the continuo line with it, and on what is being accompanied. For example, if you want to accompany a small choir or string group with a chamber organ and a theorbo, the theorbo should be at least as audible as the organ. If, however, you have 20 brass players enjoying Gabrieli at his most exuberant, you are unlikely to hear the theorbo on the continuo line. Even in large scale operas such as those by Handel, the theorbo can add a great deal to the overall sound if used intelligently, for example, to accompany recits and lightly orchestrated arias. It is unlikely to make an audible contribution to a large chorus accompanied by full orchestra.
With modern instrument ensembles, balance can be a problem, partly because modern instruments (especially woodwinds and brass) are much louder than their baroque equivalents, and partly because some modern schools of playing favour long legato articulations and heavy vibrato. The seamless wall of sound which results leaves little space and air between the notes. An intelligent player will adjust his or her playing in such a situation, choosing registers and textures to complement the prevailing sound, rather than attempting to compete in volume.

Where should I put the theorbo on stage?
Obviously this depends on the venue, the size of the ensemble, and the role you would like the theorbo to play. If it is going to be accompanying prominent solos it is best to position it somewhere where the soloist can stand close by. In most cases theorbo players will appreciate good contact with their continuo colleagues, so somewhere close to the organ, harpsichord, cello, etc, is usually a good spot. However, in front of a harpsichord is usually a poor choice, because the two plucked sounds will come from exactly the same area, and will tend to merge into one unfocused sound, rather than two clearly defined timbres. Theorbos are very directional, so if the instrument faces straight out to the audience, it will be more audible than if it faces inward or across the stage.
Most players are right-handed, which means the theorbo's neck extends to the player's left. This can cause difficulties if the player is sitting immediately next to a pit wall or the edge of the stage.

Will the theorbo take ages to tune?
It shouldn't, but in certain conditions the theorbist may need to make small adjustments to the tuning periodically, because gut and nylon strings are sensitive to changes of humidity and temperature respectively. If a venue is cool and dry at the beginning of a performance, and hot and sticky by the end, the theorbo (and other stringed and keyboard instruments) will go out of tune and require correction. The theorbist may also need time between pieces to adjust the chromatic notes at the bottom of the instrument; this should take no more than a few seconds.

Is it reasonable to expect a theorbo player to play anything else?
Most theorbo players also play other kinds of lute and baroque guitar, and it is quite common to use lute and theorbo, or guitar and theorbo within the same concert. Please remember that the player will need somewhere to put down the instrument which is not being played, and enough time to change from one to the other. Also, taking two instruments, one of them very large, can hugely complicate travel if any part of the journey involves public transport, especially flights. Please don't ask us to bring five different instruments to add a bit of colour to your concert. We have only two hands with which to carry them, and you probably don't want us to tune for hours...

Can I treat the theorbo as mobile continuo?
It is common in some elaborate works (such as Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers) to have some sections performed from different parts of a building. A theorbo is obviously a more portable continuo than a keyboard instrument, and such moments can be very effective. However, if a theorbo has to be carried into a very different climate, however briefly, this will affect its tuning adversely. Also such situations usually require a large and very fragile instrument to be carried to and from the new performance area without its case, and often at speed. Please spare a thought for the safety of the player and the instrument before sending us all over the building. My theorbo and I have been asked to negotiate an unlit spiral staircase in pitch darkness, and to play from a tiny unfenced gallery with a rather alarming 10 metre drop to a stone floor, all to deliver a few bars of echo continuo. The desired effect can often be achieved by the theorbist moving into an immediately adjacent part of the building, perhaps behind a monument or a screen if in a church, and facing away from the audience, rather than running the length of a cathedral, or scrambling into an area where a theorbo was never designed to go.