13-string Archlute, various models
By BC luthier Clive Titmuss, 2019
(Click for larger image)
Rather than copying a particular model, this archlute is designed by canvassing French, Italian and English lute bodies, consultation with iconography, and deriving a general design. The archlute was used and frequently mentioned in the title pages of important collections by John Blow and Henry Purcell. Only a few printed works are specifically written for it, including music by earlier Italians of the later 1600s (who referred to it as “liuto attiorbato”), such a Melii (with six books!), Gianoncelli, and the last lute print in Italy in the early 1700s by the Neapolitan, Giovanni Zamboni. There are actually subtle differences between the attiorbato and the archlute, including body shape, string length and musical intentions. There are virtually no preserved examples which can be specifically called archlutes, something of an enigma, like many in this field.
The English instruments were quite different and variable in their architecture, as we can see by studying portraits and genre paintings of the post-1700 period. The body is very flattened in profile, to facilitate holding it comfortably with a shoulder strap, and the theorboed string length is in 3 to 2 relationship with the playing strings, consistent with contemporary practice. Some English models (see Mace, various protraits) had a proliferation of stepped nuts, but I thought a French-style head would be simpler to cope with for most players.
Though the actual literature is sparse, this instrument is excellent for accompanying the voice in later 17th and early 18th C. music. Lately, the archlute is displacing the theorbo on many recent recordings of vocal and ensemble music from this period. It allows for an obbligato-style accompaniment, more elaborate than the 17th C. continuo practice.
The body is Asian rosewood, the top is Serbian or Slovakian spruce, very fine-grained and a slightly softer variety than German spruce, though the species is the same. The head is elderberry, close to pear-wood in colour, texture and working properties—it is much lighter than most fruit woods or maple, to lower the weight of the neck extension, making the instrument more comfortable for the continuo player. Anyone who plays the theorbo will understand the problem, because they are hard to hold up for hours at a time. Because of the shape and width, the instrument is very comfortable to play at a table, wonderfully depicted in the Pitoni lute book.
The pegs are heart-of-plum, Thomas Mace’s preferred peg wood. There is a nice thick wall on the head pegbox, to make popped pegs a thing of the past. Fruitwood is ultra-stable in humid and dry weather. The peg heads and shafts are large and more widely separated, to make tuning easy. The diameters of the strings are larger than double-strung instruments, facilitating “bebung” (vibrato), which Mace called “The Sting”.
It has great clarity, and the basses, which take advantage of contemporary early 18th C. string technology, are overspun with copper. They have a tremendous power, especially the lowest notes. The comparatively shorter upper string choir has a plangent single-string dark colour, and it is easy to play up the neck on lower strings, something that often does not work out so well on the double-strung 13-course German-style theorbos of the early 18th C. by Hofmann and others.
It’s a stunning looking instrument, with a real parchment (sheepskin) binding, easily removed by gentle application of moisture, if the top must ever come off. It can be cleaned with anhydrous alchohol. The archlute is stable, easy to play and tune, and has great presence on the stage for the continuo player–quite unlike an earlier 17th C.-style lute.
The possibility of playing transcriptions of Purcell’s simpler keyboard pieces, works by Blow, Roseingrave, and much cognate Italian music (Michelangolo Galilei), makes it a tempting solo lute. Some players use archlutes to play Bach, in whatever tuning you like, it is that flexible and adaptable. If you don’t mind a bit of anachronism, you can play almost any lute music on it.
On my YouTube channel, EarlyMusicStudio, the videos dealing with mould making, turning pegs, using Roman nails for body/neck joint, and the fitting of ribs, you will recognize this instrument in its formative stages.
All instruments built by Clive Titmuss come with custom-fitted cases.
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