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Other names chitarrone, theorbo lute;
fr: téorbe, théorbe, tuorbe;
de: Theorb; it: tiorba, tuorba[1]
Related instruments

The theorbo is a plucked string instrument of the lute family, with an extended neck and a second pegbox, related to the liuto attiorbato, the French théorbe des pièces, the archlute, the German baroque lute, and the angélique or angelica.

Origin and development

Theorboes were developed during the late sixteenth century in Italy, inspired by the demand for extended bass range instruments for use in opera developed by the Florentine Camerata and new musical works utilising basso continuo, such as Giulio Caccini's two collections, Le nuove musiche (1602 and 1614). For his 1607 opera L'Orfeo, Claudio Monteverdi lists duoi (two) chitaroni among the instruments required for performing the work.

Musicians originally used large bass lutes (c. 80+ cm string length) and a higher re-entrant tuning; but soon created neck extensions with secondary pegboxes to accommodate extra open (i.e. unfretted) longer bass strings, called diapasons or bourdons, for improvements in tonal clarity and an increased range of available notes.

Although the words chitarrone and tiorba were both used to describe the instrument, they have different organological and etymological origins; chitarrone being in Italian an augmentation of (and literally meaning large) chitarra – Italian for guitar. The round-backed chitarra was still in use, often referred to as chitarra Italiana to distinguish it from chitarra alla spagnola in its new flat-backed Spanish incarnation. The etymology of tiorba is still obscure; it is hypothesized the origin may be in Slavic or Turkish torba, meaning 'bag' or 'turban'.

According to Athanasius Kircher, tiorba was a nickname in Neapolitan dialect for a grinding board used by perfumers for grinding essences and herbs.[2] It is possible the appearance of this new large instrument (particularly in a crowded ensemble) resulted in jokes and a humour induced reference with popular local knowledge becoming lost over time and place. Robert Spencer has noted the confusion the two names were already leading to in 1600: Chitarone, ò Tiorba che si dica (chitarrone, or theorbo as it is called). By the mid-17th century it would appear that tiorba had taken preference – reflected in modern practice, helping to distinguish the theorbo now from very different instruments like the chitarrone moderno or guitarrón.

Similar adaptations to smaller lutes (c.55+ cm string length) also produced the arciliuto (archlute), liuto attiorbato, and tiorbino, which were differently tuned instruments to accommodate a new repertoire of small ensemble or solo works.

In the performance of basso continuo, theorboes were often paired with a small pipe organ. The most prominent early composers and players in Italy were Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger and Alessandro Piccinini. Little solo music survives from England, but William Lawes and others used theorboes in chamber ensembles and opera orchestras. In France, theorboes were appreciated and utilised in orchestral or chamber music until the second half of the 18th century (Nicolas Hotman, Robert de Visée). Court orchestras at Vienna, Bayreuth and Berlin still employed theorbo players after 1750 (Ernst Gottlieb Baron, Francesco Conti).

Solo music for the theorbo is notated in tablature.

Theorbo tuning and strings

The tuning of large theorboes is characterized by the octave displacement, or re-entrant tuning, of the two uppermost strings. Piccinini and Michael Praetorius mention the occasional use of metal strings (brass and steel, as opposed to gut). The Laute mit Abzügen: oder Testudo Theorbata that appears in Syntagma Musicum by Praetorius, has doubled strings (courses) passing over the bridge and attached to the base of the instrument – different to his Paduanische Theorba (opposite in the same illustration which seems to have single strings). The Lang Romanische Theorba: Chitarron also appears to have single strings attached to the bridge.

The courses, unlike those of a Renaissance lute or archlute, were often single although double stringing was also used. Typically, theorboes have 14 courses, though some used 15 or even 19 courses (Kapsberger).

15-course Theorbo tuning chart

This is theorbo tuning in A. Modern theorbo players usually play 14-course instruments (lowest course is G). Some players have used a theorbo tuned a whole step lower in G. All the solo repertoire is in the A tuning – the Italians Kapsberger, Castaldi, Piccinini, Viviani, Melli, Pittoni and Bartolotti, and French Robert de Visée, Hurel and de Moyne.

The re-entrant tuning created new possibilities for leading voice and inspired a new right hand technique with just thumb, index and middle fingers to arpeggiate chords, which Piccinini likened to the sound of a harp. The bass tessitura and re-entrant stringing mean that in order to keep the realisation above the bass when accompanying basso continuo the bass must be sometimes played an octave lower (Kapsberger). In the French treatises chords in which a lower note sounds after the bass were also used when the bass goes high. The English theorbo had just the first string at the lower octave (Thomas Mace).


Notable living theorbists include Eduardo Egüez, Michael Fields, Catherine Liddell,[3] Jakob Lindberg, Rolf Lislevand, Robert MacKillop, Andreas Martin, fr (Pascal Monteilhet), Nigel North, Paul O'Dette, Christina Pluhar, Lynda Sayce, Stephen Stubbs, and Axel Wolf,[4] among others.


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  2. Athanasius Kircher, Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650, p. 476
  3. Catherine Liddell, Lute Festival 2006 Faculty
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