4. Sound files for the French Théorbe de Pièces


14c théorbe de pièces by Dodd Lutherie, 2020. 76cms short-string length, 129cm diapason length. Tuned to D on the first string, a 4th higher than the largest theorbos, but the string length allows regular theorbo tuning. Currently mostly strung in gut at 392 pitch. Built after dimensions given by Talbot. Beautiful instrument. Fine-grade Alpine spruce sound board, rippled sycamore bowl. More details on construction here: http://www.lutherie.uk/catalogue/theorbos/ Performance and more details can be found here: https://baroque-lute.art/2021/04/04/introduction-to-the-theorbe-de-pieces/ and finally sound files can be heard here: https://baroque-lute.art/2021/04/05/4-sound-files-for-the-french-theorbe-de-pieces/ Price was £4500 including professional case, selling for £3500 (plus shipping and insurance) as some repair work was needed after a knock. The instrument was repaired by the luthiers who made it – Adrian and Lawrence Dodd – and it is in perfect playing condition. Contact Rob MacKillop robmackillop@gmail.com for photos, or to discuss further. Can be viewed at South Queensferry, near Edinburgh. 

The following SoundCloud playlist is devoted to my recordings of the repertoire for the French théorbe de pièces made by Dodd Lutherie. Currently it only has a few items from the Goess Theorbo manuscript, but more will certainly be added as I explore the repertoire.

The recordings were made at home, not a professional recording studio, using a Rode NT4 stereo mic into a Fostex FR-2LE hard-disk recorder. I think the sound quality is pretty decent, but you might hear the odd bird song on the background, or my breathing.

Some people have asked how they can contribute something as a thank you, so I’ve created a Tip Jar: https://www.paypal.com/paypalme/SupportRob?locale.x

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.


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:


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

2. Pre-2021 Sound Files

I once set out to record the complete Scottish lute manuscripts, but ran out of steam after a while, and no wonder: there must be around 500 pieces. Here are some of the files, starting with 102 pieces (the equivalent of four CDs) from the magnificent Balcarres manuscript for 11c lute. To the right of the track name you will see a number of plays. The first track has almost twice as many as the second, which indicates that most people just listen to the first track without delving further, and that is a great pity as the first track one of the least interesting off all 102 tracks! So delve away!

Next up are 17 items from the Panmure 5 MS, which while containing mainly French music with a smattering of Scots tunes, is of Scottish provenance. The MS calls for a 10c lute in either Harp Sharp or Harp Flat tunings. If my memory serves me well, all the tracks are in Harp Sharp tuning, which is Renaissance tuning with the first string down a minor third to E, and the second string down a tone to C, relatively speaking as the actual pitch is lower.

A few pieces from the difficult-to-read Wemyss MS, again in Harp Sharp tuning:

And finally some Bach, with my own arrangement of the second cello suite, with nothing added or taken out, though played in Gm. The score is available to purchase for a low price HERE.

1. Personal Lute History to April 2021

I started with an archlute in 1994 (coming from a classical guitar background) and was immediately called upon to play in many ensembles, the first being The Scottish Early Music Consort, who asked me to join them for a short tour of England, Ireland and Scotland, performing excerpts from Monteverdi operas. I had to learn figured bass reading in a week (!) before the first concert in Belfast, and also master the instrument. Well, I never did master the archlute, but managed to do reasonably well in the continuo department. In retrospect, figured-bass reading formed the best musical education I ever had.

I soon started work on the solo Scottish lute repertoire from the Rowallan and Straloch manuscripts, and formed a duo with early harp specialist, William Taylor, called the Rowallan Consort – every group had to be called “consort” in those days! I started doing solo concerts, and recorded my first solo album, called Flowers of the Forest..and here it is:

To my great surprise, that went to the Number One position in the Scottish Classical Music Chart [The Scotsman]! With some financial help from the Scottish Arts Council and the Russell Trust, I managed to amass a few instruments: a 10c lute by Dallas Sutherland, a mandour by Peter Forrester, and an 18th-century wire-strung “guittar”.

I found myself being in demand for a while, with concerts and radio broadcasts, and was also granted a Churchill Fellowship to study music I knew nothing about. I soon found myself in Istanbul studying Turkish classical music with a Turkish oud, and in Morocco studying their style of oud playing – until 9/11 happened, bringing a sharp end to my studies there.

My second album was called The Healing, and included not only more selections from the Scottish lute manuscripts, but also some new compositions. And here it is:

The final track, The Healing, was my reaction to the 9/11 attacks.

In those days I was not too focussed on complete lute authenticity. I used nylon trebles and copper-wound basses, and my technique was just what came natural to me, but I did play without nails. The recordings were also done in a modern “rock band” type studio, with close mic-ing and digital reverb.

More recordings followed of Scottish music, including the complete “Twelve Divertimentis for Guittar” by James Oswald, which along with the first two solo albums became my third Number One album in Scotland. But, I was not happy with the music scene and also my own playing. I gave up performing and teaching – I had been Lecturer in Lute and Guitar at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and also at Napier University – and took some time out earning a living in a library, and being a father.

Meanwhile the world was changing, and it became possible to make recordings and videos from home. I preferred this much more, and to date have about 300 YouTube videos and a good few hours of SoundCloud sound files.

I now feel a new lease of life to record music from the baroque period, with gut strings on appropriate instruments. A house sale has released some money for two or three instruments, and I have started with a French théorbe de pièces by Adrian and Lawrence Dodd, more on that later. I have commissioned a 12c lute from Dodd Lutherie.

My intention is to discuss the background to these instruments, upload sound files and videos, and also discuss aspects of interpretation. Your comments and questions will always be welcome. I also teach via Zoom.

Rob MacKillop
South Queensferry