Elizabeth Kenny (England), theorbo - Saturday, June 8, at 4:00 p.m.

Theorbo (lute)
Cleveland Institute of Music, Mixon Hall
Saturday, June 8, 2019, at 4:00 p.m.


Theorbo Fantasy: old and new music for the long-necked lute

Alessandro Piccinnini (1566- c. 1638)   

Toccata Cromatica
Partiti variate sopra la Folia

Hieronymus Kapsberger  (c.1580-1651)   


James Macmillan (b.1959)

Motet I (from Since It Was the Day of Preparation)              

Benjamin Oliver (b.1981)

Extending from the Inside


Robert de Visée (fl late c17)   

Suite in C minor

Les Sylvains de M Couperin

Nico Muhly (b.1981)   

Berceuse with seven variations (World Première) *

* Written for Elizabeth Kenny

Elizabeth Kenny performs on a theorbo by Klaus Jacobsen 1992 after Italian originals.

The use of electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets, iPads, and lap top computers in Mixon Hall is prohibited at all times. Photography, video, or audio recording are also not permitted at any time.


At the end of the sixteenth century the lute underwent one of its periodic metamorphoses in tuning and structure.  Players and makers in Florence and Bologna were racing to see who could add presence, sound and more bass to the instrument.  This, they reasoned, would add theatricality as well as sound,  making it worthy of being winched onto a cloud or teamed with a mythological character in an opera or a masque.  Like most renaissance innovations, this was done in the name of the Ancients, harking back to the kithara which everyone was sure they knew all about… The new “chitarrone” soon acquired a nickname, the ”tiorba,” or ”theorbo,” roughly
translated as an old man playing a hurdy gurdy.  Both identities - intellectual, but also a bit daft (the butt of many long and axe and giraffe jokes) - have stuck. 
Though from Bologna Alessandro Piccinini, (1566-c1638) was familiar with the leading lights of the humanist academies in Florence, and he was an early adopter of the instrument. He published his collection of music for arciliuto (an ordinary lute with a neck extension which he claimed to have invented) and for chitarrone in Bologna in 1623. Piccinini’s theorbo had the two “top” strings tuned down an octave, as gut strings could not withstand the tension of being tuned higher and higher on the large-bodied instrument.  He gave detailed instructions of how this new tuning could sound beautiful in arpeggio patterns, and also how it could be used to sound with fingernails, where one could play tirate (extended slurs not found in earlier lute music), trills and other innovations. His toccatas veer engagingly between old and new: sometimes a Gabrieli-style canzona will pop out of a series of improvisatory chords, and sometimes the fingers and the tuning lead to chromatic musings bursting with unprepared dissonances and other rule-breaking figures.

With the “nobile alemano” Hieronymus Kapsberger, (he was born in Rome but his father was a colonel in the German army), we come to a definitively new voice.  A notoriously curmudgeonly character who was not averse to removing other composers’ music from the choir stalls of the Papal chapel in which he worked, his compositional range was impressive.  In his motets and madrigals he explored the affective possibilities and sudden shifts of mood to which vocal virtuosity was being harnessed, and his theorbo music does no less.  He published 4 books of music for chitarrone between 1604 and 1640. The first Toccata from Book IV is a monument to his fierce technique but also to his expressive and sometimes tender leanings.   Again rules of harmony and counterpoint are frequently broken and the re-entrant tuning leads into startlingly original territory.  The “chitarrone” character morphs into “tiorba” territory with the group of pieces in G, using popular forms like the Canario and Capona (“blockhead”) mixing with quasi-Turkish exoticism in the Coloscione.   This last is named after the three stringed Turkish instrument, many variants of which were in contemporary Neapolitan and Roman instrument collections.

If the chitarrone was all about chords and unexpected voice-leading, the French “théorbe” was a creature of mellifluous sophistication. Player-composers like Robert de Visée (fl late c17) combined solo activities such as playing for the coucher du roi (a public bedtime ceremony), with teaching aristocratic amateurs such as the Comte Jean-Étienne de Saizenay, whose lessons resulted in a vast compendium of repertoire.  De Visée also played chamber music as one of Louis XIV’s musiciens du roi, and in the operas of Lully. His music sits within a court culture where ideas and pieces, such as the lovely Les Sylvains de M Couperin, originally written for harpsichord, were in daily exchange.

The open bass strings meant that a melody could be sustained in the higher register over a coherent bass line, without the need for the left hand to stretch impossible distances.  This, and a fondness for dance rhythms and forms gave unexpected grace and ease to French theorbo music.  Lutenists of the  French school had already established the habit of writing dance suites, grouping pieces in similar keys together to avoid having to re-tune strings between them (especially irksome on this instrument for those with average-length arms who have to stand up to re-tune).  The suite in C minor includes an Allemande where the public, the semi-private courtly, and the personal collide: La Plainte, Tombeau de Mesdemoiselles de Visée, de M leur père.  How many daughters are included in this memory is a detail he reserved for himself.

Proponents of “historically informed performance” like myself seek out old instruments not to try and recreate a lost world, but to stimulate imaginative possibilities that may be hidden behind our own cultural habits.   We may not be that much closer to the truth about the seventeenth century than they were to the Ancients. But exploring this kind of musical technology – and the tablature that represented it – is like looking in the mirror at an image that is related to but not the same as ourselves. I’m privileged to present some 21st century encounters with its sound.

James MacMillan (b1959) uses it to conjure up old but transcendent histories.  His Motet opens his 2012 work Since it Was the Day of Preparation, written for the Hebrides Ensemble. Five singers and five instruments tell the story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Each instrument has extended solos which can also be played as free-standing meditations.  In the context of the piece the theorbo acts as an emblem of human fragility and sadness, while the other four instruments dramatise the terrifying power, and hope, of the resurrection.

Benjamin Oliver (b1981) writes:

“Extending from the inside is the first in a continuing series of works developed in response to the first part of Arvo Pärt’s ‘Ludus’ in Tabula Rasa, which I was analysing for teaching purposes around the same time I composed this theorbo solo for Liz Kenny. The opening of ‘Ludus’ consists of clearly defined sections in which four distinct materials are gradually extended and elaborated. The form is, in a way, a very simple additive structure the extension but the nuanced repetition and elaboration of materials means that the listening experience is rather more complex than the idea suggests.
Although my musical language is somewhat different to Arvo Pärt, I took this formal idea of elaborated variation as the springboard for Extended from the inside, which consists of six sections that contain three main musical materials. These materials are presented in their simplest forms in the opening page and are then gradually elaborated and extended as the work develops”.

Like Oliver, Nico Muhly (b1981) was persuaded to write his Berceuse after an encounter with my own brand of randomly assorted manuscript and printed copies of favourite pieces from the repertoire. He writes:

Berceuse with Seven Variations is constructed around a cycle of twenty-four chords, spaced with maximum distance between the lowest and highest notes. Each variation explores various paths through this cycle, but always keeping the idea of a cradle-song, a berceuse, in the background. Some of the variations treat this music subtly and calmly, and other times, exploding the chords into fast-moving notes found at the extremes of the instruments.  The piece ends with the chords dispersed, inverted, and made gentle again”.

- Elizabeth Kenny