3. Introduction to the Théorbe de Pièces

The above instrument (a detail from Les Charmes de la Vie, by Antoine Watteau) is not a théorbe de pièces, but an angelique. It is the closest illustration we have to the small French theorbo created for playing the solo French repertoire. “Small” is a relative term, the full-size theorbo being much larger, and of a deeper pitch. The first string of the large theorbo was tuned to A, that of the smaller theorbo a fourth higher at D. And as regards pitch, like many performers, I do like to play at 392hz, meaning D sounds as a C at 440 pitch. The string length of the petite jeu (the fretable strings) is 76 cms, that of the grand jeu (diapasons) being 129 cms. Theorbo courses in France seem to have always been single.

The théorbe de pièces I have was made by Adrian and Lawrence Dodd of Dodd Lutherie, and you can read what they have to say about it on their website HERE. The measurements come from one James Talbot, who in 1650 wrote down in manuscript various measurements taken from a variety of musical instruments. Talbot referred to it as the “Lesser French theorbo for lessons” – “lesser” of course meaning smaller (in a non-derogatory way), and “lessons” referring to complete pieces of music as opposed to exercises or a visit to your local theorbo teacher. In short (so to speak) this théorbe de pièces was created to play and compose the French solo repertoire, in contrast to the operatic continuo role of the large theorbo.

Théorbe de Pièces by Dodd Lutherie

From the Dodd Lutherie description: The theorbo is modelled after dimensions given in the Talbot manuscript. The general appearance of the instrument is based on iconography and an angelique (now in Paris). The back is rippled sycamore. The soundboard is a fine grained piece of Alpine spruce. The pegs are blackened plum; the bridge blackened walnut. The extension is pear veneered maple that is then blackened, and the neck is ebony veneered.

Repertoire

The greatest body of work by far comes from Robert de Visée (1650 – 1725) who was in the employ of Louis XIV and subsequently Louis XV. He also wrote for the 5c guitarre and the 11c lute, and is know to have also been a violist. Many of his theorbo pieces are to be found in the manuscript of Jean-Etienne Vaudry (1668–1742), seigneur of Saizenay, Conseiller au Parlement de Besançon. A facsimile of this Vaudry de Saizenay manuscript can be downloaded from The Lute Society website HERE. But a word of warning, de Visée’s music is not easy to play if you are not already an experienced theorbist…

A somewhat easier repertoire can be found in the Goess Theorbo Manuscript, with music by Pinel, Hotman, d’Angelo, Reusner, and possibly St. Luc. The same manuscript also contains music for archlute and Dm-tuned 11c lute. Although easier to play than the théorbe music by de Visée, it is not uniformly easy, but good intermediate repertoire as the following video will show:

Technique

Any classical guitarist looking for a baroque lute to play will be pleased to learn that it was not unknown for theorbo players to play with the nails of the right hand – we can only assume this also extended to the “lesser French théorbe” – but we are also fairly certain that no-nails players played it as well.

The best tip I can give for navigating the diapasons (long bass strings) is to NEVER look at your right hand. Believe me, looking at it won’t help much as it is almost impossible to differentiate any of the strings: they all look the same, especially if the instrument is entirely strung in gut (as it should be). And always use rest strokes with the thumb. Always. Not only will rest strokes help you judge distances to other strings, you will also get the best tone out of the instrument. The index and middle fingers always play free strokes. The pinkie or little finger rests almost all of the time on the soundboard, with some players raising it when the index and middle are playing on the lower fretted strings. Note I say “rest” and not “planted” – tension in the pinkie is your enemy.

The left hand will be engaged in playing a string length of 76 cms, so some small hands might be stretched a little more than normal – unless, of course, you play a large theorbo already, in which case the lesser théorbe will feel like a ukulele! There are almost no barré chords to worry about, as most of the bass notes are open strings.

I intend to write another blog post – at least one – discussing the interpretation of this repertoire.

Rob MacKillop
South Queensferry
April, 2021

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