Thursday, August 2, 2012

Theorbo Envy

The announcement of our new season inspires me to reflect on some of the things we are going to hear. We are in that awkward period of “killing time”: our first concert is months away! I think you will find the season has something for everyone, maintaining our position as one of the leading early music performance hosts in the U.S.: we have really big names–again!

But, I want to step back and point out a personal favorite and that is over six months away: Hopkinson Smith performing Bach on the theorbo as a part of our recital series. The opportunity to hear a solo recital on the Theorbo is, well, not a common occurrence. This is a unique opportunity to hear Bach from a different perspective by one of the very greatest musicians of our day.

I find that many have a hazy idea–at best–of what the theorbo is. You get points for recognizing it as a “big lute with a long neck,” but the theorbo has both history and ideosynchracies that make it special–and interesting. Yes: it is big, typically over six feet in length, making it possibly even more awkward to transport than a double bass. The theorbo was first conceived as an accompaniment instrument, designed to have sonorous sound that complemented the singer. Credit is often given to Giulio Caccini for its invention, and it seems to have been first introduced in his two collections, Le nuove musiche (1602 and 1614). To get its really low and full sound, the instrument’s neck was made so long that the top two strings simply couldn’t be brought up to standard lute pitch, so they were dropped by an octave. This is referred as “reentrant tuning.”
Reentrant Tuning
Another thing that sets the theorbo apart from other lutes is that it is usually strung with a single string per course. This may seem like a minor point, but it results in a pure tone that projects well and makes it possible to play with greater virtuosity.

Conceived as a continuo instrument, and given the awkwardness of reentrant tuning, you might be surprised to learn that there is a solo literature for the theorbo. In fact, I was first introduced to the theorbo by Hopkinson Smith’s 1978 recording of the music of Robert de Visée. I don’t know if this recording is even available any longer, but it remains probably the best out of my library of nine solo theorbo recordings.

Despite the challenges of transporting such an awkwardly large instrument, the theorbo is becoming increasingly common in early music ensembles. We have seen it a number of times at our concerts over the last several years. Thomas Boysen accompanied Paolo Pandolfo a couple of years ago and Benjamin Perrot provided the continuo for La Rêveuse just this last year.

Hopkinson Smith’s solo recital is guaranteed to be a more unique opportunity. Just because this recital is over six months away doesn’t mean you should wait to get your tickets! Order now: simply download this order form and mail it in.