English Theorbo

English TheorboEnglish Theorbo

78cm and five stepped nuts to 135cm, 13 or 14 courses, (2 x 1, 5 x 2 + 1 x 2, 1 x 2, 1 x 2, 1 x 2, 2 or 3 x 2) my own design based on available iconographic, manuscript and musical evidence, 35 ribs of yew, rosewood or ebony, neck and extension veneered in ebony with holly lines to your taste. Single rose, soundboard edged with holly and ebony.

This was commissioned by Lynda Sayce specifically for the English repertoire such as Purcell, Blow etc. The double diapasons give quite a different sound from the normal Italian theorbos, providing a wonderfully supportive rich harmonic texture for singers without obtruding. This has a body based on the Harton in Nürnberg (MI 56) in heartwood yew and ebony.

You can hear this instrument played by Lynda Sayce on a fine CD by Charivari Agréable: Two upon a Ground, Signum Records, SIGCD007 [1998]

Price: £5800
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English theorbo

Thomas Mace, Musick's Monument (London. 1676)
The English theorbo half of Mace’s home-made Lute Dyphone.

This principle of stepped nuts for bass strings of gradually increasing length smooths the transition between the fingered strings and the diapason basses. This suits the English style of equal voiced polyphony which was giving way to the Italian and German style of melody and continuo baroque music. Unusually for a theorbo this had double strung courses in the bass which still further smoothed the transition across the range. This is also confirmed by another contemporary rough sketch made by the antiquarian collector of odd facts, Randle Holme, which shows the pairs of pegs for each succeeding bass course down the long theorbo extension.

English theorbo

Randle Holme (1627-1700), The Academie of Armorie 1688

No instruments of this type have survived and this painting below is one of the few to show this English form of the theorbo in action.

English theorbo

Lady with a Theorbo (c. 1670) by John Michael Wright (1617- 1700)
Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Ohio, U.S.A.

Further information about the English Theorbo can be found in articles by Lynda Sayce in Early Music Review (March 1995) and Early Music (November 1995)

Talbot's English Theorbo Reconsidered

David Van Edwards

In the course of designing an "English Theorbo" with its stepped nuts on an extended neck, as described and illustrated by Thomas Mace in Musick's Monument (1676), I have re-examined the measurements given for this kind of instrument in the Talbot MS rather more closely than before. (Christ Church Library Music MS 1182, reprinted in an abridged form in GSJ XIV, 1961 pp.52 - 68 by Michael Prynne) As a result I believe I have discovered an anomaly which sheds a different light on the problems of reconstructing this type of lute. Previous discussions of the string length of Talbot's English Theorbo, such as Bob Spencer's articles in Early Music [Oct 1976] and FoMRHI Comm.337, have given the length of the fingered strings as 88.5 cm [Prynne wrongly calculates it as 91 cm] which is really rather long for the repertoire and which, when extrapolated to the other half of Mace's lute dyphone, gives a string length for the twelve course two-headed lute of 75.6 cm, which is far too long for all the available tunings or repertoire for that instrument. Indeed it would turn that lute itself into a theorbo, since 75 cm is reckoned by most makers to be the point at which theorbo tuning starts to become necessary. This would be especially odd as the English two-headed lute measured in Talbot is given as having a fingered string length of only 59.7 cm. However the string lengths from the Talbot MS are themselves extrapolations, because he does not give this measurement directly but instead gives a series of running measurements from which the string length can be deduced. The problem is that, because of this arrangement, any doubt or ambiguity about any single measurement or measurement point creates doubt and ambiguity for all the other measurements in the chain.

Talbot usually ends his running series of measurements by adding them all together and giving that total as the total length of the instrument, however in this case he has left this space vacant, and this was what first raised my suspicions that all was not quite right. I therefore drew out all the measurements full size on a large sheet of paper and it became apparent that the body of the lute was exceptionally long and the neck so short that only seven frets could be fitted to it, even though he specifically notes that English Theorbos have nine or ten frets to the neck and indeed this is required for the music of the period. All the other measurements looked very plausible. However the way this part of the manuscript is laid out implies that the diameter of the rose is included in the running total, whereas in some of the other instruments he measured, such as the eleven course lute and the angel lute, he has given the rose diameter as a separate measurement not included as part of the total length.

If we now re-calculate the measurements for the English Theorbo on this basis, leaving out the 11.4 cm diameter of the rose, everything falls rather neatly into place. The string length comes down to 77.1 cm, an entirely normal small theorbo size, the body of the lute resumes a normal proportion in relation to its width, 9 frets on the neck become possible, as Talbot says is the case, and, by extrapolating this new string length onto the two-headed lute half of Mace's dyphone, we get 65.7 cm, which is much more in keeping with the repertoire and other paintings of such lutes. That this is a possible mistake for Talbot to have made is reinforced by the many crossings out and alterations throughout the rest of the manuscript. His failure to complete his running total for this instrument could, on this view, point to a realisation that the measurements did not add up properly and, maybe, to an intention to sort it out later. Three hundred years later, perhaps it has been done!

I have now made a theorbo for Lynda Sayce based on these re-calculations, with a fingered string length of 78 cm and stepped nuts along an extended neck and it has proved to be an entirely workable instrument, with, as we had assumed to be the main point of this type, a very smooth transition from the fingered strings to the extended diapasons.

First printed in FoMRHI quarterly, Bulletin 78, 1995

Copyright 2000-16 by David Van Edwards