With its very long neck and large size, the theorbo is easy to spot in any ensemble.
Developed in the late sixteenth century in Florence, the Italian name is ‘tiorba,’ but the English found that too foreign and anglicized it to ‘theorbo’.
How was this marvellous looking instrument invented?
There was a demand in Italy for more bass instruments for use in opera. Florentines became keen to recreate the recitation style of the ancient Greeks, to instrument accompaniment. The musicians already used large bass lutes, so they stuck to what they knew and adapted it. Evolution, you might say. The sound was much stronger and could be more clearly heard when used to accompany the voices (the lutenist Antonio Naldi is credited by some as its inventor).
Below is an example of the instrument in Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea, first performed in Italy in 1643.
To make the theorbo, a bass lute was re-strung at a much higher pitch. However, the tension caused the top strings to break. To solve this they replaced them with much thicker strings tuned an octave (8 notes) lower.
The savvy among you will have a question developing. If the top strings are re-tuned an octave lower, would this not make them lower in pitch than the third string?
Yes. Yes it would. The theorbo has a very odd tuning:
The reason the first six strings have two note heads is because the instrument retained the double strings of the lute (just two strings next to each other tuned to the same note, played at the same time, to create a warm tone). Additional single bass strings were added, tuned to a diatonic scale, similar to the bottom octave of a harp.
A very versatile instrument, the theorbo is able to play scalic passages on the upper strings, and have a strong bass line on the single bass strings. It was great for basso continuo (a type of accompaniment used in baroque music).
Lutenist Elizabeth Kenny explains how and why the theorbo was developed in the 17th century, what it was used for, and what it’s like to carry it around on the train: