This year’s performance of Handel’s Messiah at Roy Thomson Hall is under the able baton of Jean-Marie Zeitouni (no, that’s not a German name, it’s Arabic in origin and he’s French-Canadian, but so many people seem to see the Zeit and just assume…). He is using a baroque orchestra, rather smaller than the usual full-stage cohort. And sticking up among them is something I don’t recall ever seeing in a Toronto Symphony performance before: a theorbo.
“Theorbo?” you think. “O, bother. Is this yet another one of his weird instruments? The boor.” Well, yea and nay. It was very common at one time in England – and, for that matter, on the continent (and perhaps all across the orb – o!); it did originate in Italy (in which part of Europe, then? in her boot!). What it’s doing in the Messiah is playing the basso continuo, not throughout but in parts, including the recitatives. And basso continuo was just the sort of thing it was designed to play.
Well, let’s look at the word first, and then I’ll turn back to the thing. It’s a bit of a strange word, isn’t it? Words that end in o have a way of coming from Romance languages, while words that start with a th that’s actually pronounced as a fricative are typically Germanic or Greek. Because the fricative is voiceless, it doesn’t really seem like the, even if it looks like it; it appears to have more affinity with theo, as in the Greek root referring to god(s), and that may have influenced its English form. I find the orbo to have a certain vibrating feel to it. And the rounded back vowels suggest a larger size.
Well, large it is, anyway. It’s the biggest lute you’ll ever see, big enough that you would expect it to be played by some he-robot. A good-sized theorbo is about two metres long. It has fourteen or more courses of strings – which usually just means fourteen or more strings, but some use double-string courses like on a mandolin. There’s one set of strings that have stops (i.e., frets, like on a guitar); these are the smaller ones, not quite a metre long. Then there’s another set of strings, stretching farther up the neck to a second pegboard, without stops. This is an instrument that can produce some quite low notes, though the tone can still be rather bright. If you want to learn more about it, I suggest Lynda Sayce’s theorbo.com.
Oh, and where does this word theorbo come from? French théorbe or téorbe, which in turn comes from Italian tiorba, the source of which is disputed – some say it’s from a Venetian word for a travelling bag, borrowed from Turkish; others speculate that it was named after its inventor, whoever that may have been.
Well, whatever, wherever. I prefer to take the counsel of Thomas Jordan, a seventeenth-century poet:
Let us drink and be merry, dance, joke, and rejoice,
With claret and sherry, theorbo and voice!