Sunday, 28 August 2016

a musical curiosity

I went this evening to a concert forming part of The Suffolk Villages Festival, a recital on the theorbo by Fred Jacobs.  In truth I had never heard of Fred Jacobs before, or indeed the theorbo, but I saw in the festival leaflet that it was a kind of gigantic lute.  I've been to a few Suffolk Villages Festival events over the years, though I am not a regular supporter, and always enjoyed myself, and I was intrigued by the idea of adding the theorbo to the tally of obscure stringed instruments I've seen performed, to go with the oud and the clavichord.  And the concert was held in the church at Nayland, which ought to be interesting itself whatever the theorbo was like.

There was a free talk before the concert, which I went to as well since if I were bothering to go to Nayland to hear an obscure early musical instrument I might as well learn something about it.  The first theorbo in England was brought from the Continent in 1605 by Inigo Jones, who was marched off to explain its innocent purpose to the authorities who suspected it of being some engine of war to be used against the King.  After that they caught on to a moderate degree , before going the same way as the lute and being swept aside by classicism and the rise of the orchestra.

A theorbo is like a lute with a very long neck, but tuned differently.  That I think is the essence of it in a nutshell, according to the lecture.  The point of the long neck is so that the bass strings can be longer and thinner, which gives better and more carrying sound quality than trying to get the low notes by putting very thick strings on a lute.  The problem is that the top strings then break while trying to get them tight enough to hit the high notes, so the top one or two strings on a theorbo are dropped by an octave.  If they aren't then it is just a lute with a very long neck.  Some modern theorbos are strung with wire, which seems to be cheating according to the early music purists, and some modern theorbos are so small to make doing twiddly bits easier that they might as well be lutes.

I counted fourteen tuning pegs on this evening's instrument, implying fourteen strings if I counted right, seven at the head of the instrument and seven half way down the neck.  The longest strings were not fretted, but flew at a slight diagonal over the lower set of tuning pegs to end up closest to the performer's body when playing.  The shorter strings starting half way down the neck were all fretted, I think.  I'd have liked to take a closer look, but it wasn't really possible.  They were all gut strings and took a lot of tuning, because, as Fred Jacobs explained not entirely approvingly, we were all breathing.  In order to reach to tune the bass strings he had to stand and up-end the theorbo, which was several inches taller than he was.

The theorbo can form part of the continuo in an ensemble, and I think Fred Jacobs was doing just that earlier in the festival, but tonight was a solo gig.  The first half was by Giovanni Giralomo Kapsberger (1580 - 1651) and the second by Robert de Visee, and beyond that I know not because I never managed to buy a programme.  They weren't obviously around before the lecture, and when I tried in the interval nobody had them for sale, but surreptitiously sneaking a look at somebody else's I gathered that it covered the whole festival with only one page about tonight's concert, and I didn't really need the entire words to The Coronation of Poppea.

I enjoyed the theorbo.  Not so much that I'm necessarily going to buy an album, as I did after my first live encounter with a marimba.  I would not say it has the expressive powers of the cello, or the sheer pizzazz of the harpsichord.  But it is a delicate sound, worth listening to for its own sake and because it takes your imagination back into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Pepys recorded in his diary that he was having four extra strings added to his lute, and the theorbo was the in thing at the court of Louis XIV.

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