14-course theorbo-lute

14-course theorbo-lute after M. Hofmann 1690’s by Clive Titmuss, 1996
– used for Prelude, Fugue and Allegro by Bach, Partie in A major by Falkenhagen and Sonata in G major by Straube

EMS_LUTE - 01_sm EMS_LUTE - 02_sm EMS_LUTE - 05_sm

Martin Hofmann worked in Leipzig in the late 17th century and his son Johann Christian went on to make lutes, violins, violas and cellos in the same city in which Bach culminated his long career as the Cantor of the Thomaschule. The Hofmann family probably provided Bach’s orchestra with stringed instruments, and there is a connection between J.C. Hofmann and S. L. Weiss. It’s thought that Weiss commissioned J.C. around 1719 to build the first 13-course lutes with a bass rider to accomodate the two lowest string B/Bflat and A/A flat, added to the classical 11-course lutes current since the mid-17th century.

Martin Hofmann’s lute, now housed in the Nuremburg museum, has undergone a transformation from its probable origin as an 11-course lute by having a theorbo extension substituted for the original pegbox. A new bridge would have been made and the assymmetry of the current position is still evident. Further, the back of the pegbox is carved in an imitation of Roccoco architectural details of leaves, ovals and foliage, typical of the period 1715-20. There is some debate about the exact date of the conversion to a theorbo-lute.

M. Hofmann’s original 11-course lute (see my notes for that instrument) is characterized by nine wide figured-maple ribs, conservative neo-Renaissance barring with a single treble bar and j-bar, a very thin neck and stained fruitwood (original?) pegs. It is not really a luxurious instrument, as many German lutes were at that time. The lutes of Hamburg luthier Joachim Tielke are replete with marquetry panels of ebony and ivory. Hoffman’s lute is workmanlike and simple by comparison in its overall impression and materials.

I decided, having viewed the original, that this instrument would make a fine basis for a 13- or 14-course theorbo-lute with which to play the works of Bach and his Leipzig contemporaries, Falckenhagen and Kropfganss. The desire to play the cello suite BWV 1010, which Bach himself rendered into pitch notation (probably at a keyboard instrument such as the Lautenwerk) as Suite pour la Luth par J. S. Bach, BWV 995, inspired the addition of a 14th course.

Having made the instrument it remained to discover the best use that it might serve in the actual pieces. With so much sheer substance in the bass strings, which are not stepped in their speaking length according to pitch (as with later models of theorbo-lute such as those by Jauch, or the illustrations of Mace’s Musick’s Monument) the challenge is to find a balance. While the lute is not really a handful to play, it presents a challenge in playing such complex music as the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro, but well suited to playing the relatively simply tonic-dominant harmonies of Falckenhagen.

When playing the Suite BWV 995 the lute really comes into its own, providing a satisfying combination of ease of play (the shorter string length) and profundity as provided by the long bass strings, which Bach uses quite selectively.

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