German Theorbo
Swan-necked Baroque Lute
by Gregg Miner, as part of


Still, Still, Still
(Austrian carol, 1819)


13-Course German Theorbo Swan-necked Baroque Lute - John Rollins, 1993 after Joachim Tielke, Hamburg, ca. 1670

UPDATE: Since the early '90s, when I commissioned this instrument, it has been shown that the "German theorbo" (the alternate term for this instrument) is actually a very similar, but different and distinct instrument (see The Lute in Europe 2)

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Disclaimer to Internet readers: The following text is a humorous essay written for the layperson. It originally appeared in a companion booklet to my 1995 Christmas Collection CDs. The information, while factual, is presented in a personal, unorthodox manner. No offense is intended toward my fellow musicians or fellow musicologists.

It should be pretty clear by now that, as far as I’m concerned, one can’t have too many strings on an instrument. With twenty-four, the seventeenth century theorbo seems just about right. As in the lute, these are arranged in pairs, except for the first two high strings (courses) which are single. In fact, the theorbo is essentially a lute. Asked to provide a greater range in pitch, luthiers just kept adding more and more lower range courses over the years – seven, eight, nine – eventually reaching thirteen or fourteen in these and similar “archlutes.” The fingerboard strings (seven courses in this case) are fretted and plucked with the fingers, while the thumb plucks the five unstopped bass courses. The tuning of this German theorbo is identical to the Baroque lute (AA,BB,C,D,E,F,G,A,d,f,a,d’,f’). This is completely different from the old Renaissance lute tuning (see song #7 (LINK) because Baroque music had become more sophisticated and the composers wanted to make it hard on everybody, I guess. The “Baroque period” lasted roughly from 1600 to 1750, when lutenists decided they’d had enough of this tuning.

Playable examples of original theorbos and such do not exist, and if they do, are in museums with much more prestigious names than mine. Fortunately, there are a surprising number of individuals building accurate reproductions. I’m thoroughly amazed that luthiers the likes of John Rollins even exist – specialists who not only build common lutes for that relatively small market, but dedicate their lives to studying historical and practical luthierie techniques for other, even more obscure instruments from our past.

And then there’s this whole other specialized world of players who major in Historical Performance Techniques, analyzing everything about these wonderful forgotten instruments, the music and composers, to preserve and recreate the past through their live performances and recordings.

This Austrian carol was written in 1819, not in the Baroque period, but I’m still required to use this tuning.


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