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Les Sylvains
Composer: M. Couperin
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Theorbo after an anonymous French model late 1600's, by Richard Berg, 1983
-used for Les Sylvains de M. Couperin

Around 1600, with the development of monody by the composers Jocopo Peri and Giulio Caccini, it became to fashion to adapt bass lute designs of the previous century for a new purpose. By adding a single extended pegbox and single gut or brass bass strings, the chitaronne was born. The name is an Italianization of the ancient greek kithara, a word which also found its way by a different route from Norman French, to describe the guitar.

The chitaronne was originally adapted for use in the theatre, to accompany the intermedii, musical intermissions in wedding ceremonies and plays. Gods and godesses descended, wrought havoc among mortals, and then returned to the heavens or were subjected to metamorphosis. The chitaronne was used to characterize Apollo or other avatars such as Orpheus, the Romanized Apollo. The word theorbo is believed to come from a Roman vernacular word for stick, tiorba. In the same manner of revival of classical language, early harpsichords were described in English by the term virginal, from the Latin virgulus (stick), referring to the key lever. The lute was referred to in medieval Latin as testudo or turtle, a reference to the Roman Orphic myth in which Orpheus serenades Eurydice with an instrument made from a turtle's carapace.

The classical world is one of the touchstones of the high Renaissance in Italy as the revival of the classical past, encompassing mythology, painting, sculpture, politics and widespread literacy. The early operas were intended as contemporary interpretations of classical dramaturgy with music, in the style of Greek and Roman tragedies and comedies.

The original large chitaronne was musically of very little use other than for simple chordal accompaniment for arias. It was more of a theatre prop than a musical instrument, and surviving Roman instruments by Beuchenberg and Graill are very elaborate with up to 51 ribs. The theorbo was developed from this initial phase, intended for use in the continuo band to accompany the sonate da camera (chamber music) and da chiesa (church music). Its design changed as it became more manageable in size, with fewer ribs, flattened back, single rather than triple roses, single strings throughout. To minimize tuning and increase utility, re-entrant tuning was widely adopted in which the top one or two courses are in the lower octave. The theorbo became important as a solo instrument in the hands of Piccinini and Kapsberger in Italy, in French opera, airs and ballets de cour. The principal advantages of re-entrant tuning are the avoidance of doubling of a solo line, the simplification chord positions, and the capability of rendering rapid passages in the same range as the upper strings of the cello and viol, with the fingers rather than the thumb.

It became a standard continuo instrument for over 150 years, well into the 18th century, and was used in ensemble and opera, serving a valuable function as a much louder and simpler alternative to the introverted complexities of the lute.

This particular theorbo, after an anonymous French model by Richard Berg, is an exceptionally fine example, with rosewood ribs, ivory fillets, and ivory marquety on the back of the pearwood neck extension. It has wonderful balance, the basses are not too loud for the treble, it is easy to hold and play, and the artisanry is excellent.

As a vehicle for the interpretation of the exceptionally fine theorbo music found in the theorbo section of the manuscript of the Vaudry de Saizenay, containing the theorbo works of Robert de Visée, it simply has no peer.

(Visitors who look among the tablatures on this site will note that its musical potential inspired me to create interpretations of the C major and D minor cello suites. See the Foreword to those suites for more details about the way in which the music has been adapted for the theorbo.)


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