A theorbo (Italian: tiorba, also tuorbe; French: théorbe, Spanish: tiorba, German: Theorbe, Portuguese: teorba) is a plucked string instrument. As a name, theorbo signifies a number of long-necked lutes with second pegboxes, such as the liuto attiorbato, the French théorbe des pièces, the English theorbo, the archlute, the German baroque lute, the angélique or angelica. The etymology of the name tiorba has not yet been explained sufficiently. It is hypothesized that its origin might have been in the Slavic or Turkish "torba", meaning "bag" or "turban". According to Athanasius Kircher, tiorba was a nickname in the Neapolitan dialect that actually denoted the grinding board used by perfumers for grinding essence and herbs.
Theorboes were developed during the late sixteenth century, inspired by the demand for extended bass range for use in opera developed by the Florentine Camerata and new musical works based on basso continuo, such as Giulio Caccini's two collections, Le nuove musiche (1602 and 1614). Musicians adapted bass lutes (c.80+ cm string length) with a neck extension to accommodate open (i. e. unfretted) bass strings, called diapasons or bourdons. The instrument was called both chitarrone and tiorba. Although theorbo and chitarrone are virtually identical, they have different etymological origins, chitarrone being a descendant of chitarra italiana (hence its name).
Similar adaptations to smaller lutes (c.55+ cm string length) produced the liuto attiorbato and the archlute, also similar-looking but differently tuned instruments.
In the performance of basso continuo, theorboes were often paired with a small pipe organ. The most prominent players and composers of the chitarrone in Italy were Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger and Alessandro Piccinini. Little solo music for the theorbo survives from England, but William Lawes and others used it in their chamber music, and it also appeared in opera orchestras. In France, theorboes were appreciated and used in orchestral music just as well as in chamber music, until the second half of the 18th century (Nicolas Hotman, Robert de Visée). Court orchestras at Vienna, Bayreuth and Berlin employed theorbo players still after 1750 (Ernst Gottlieb Baron, Francesco Conti).
Solo music for the theorbo is notated in tablature.
The tuning of large theorboes is characterized by the octave displacement, or reëntrant tuning, of the two uppermost strings. The courses, unlike those of a Renaissance lute or archlute, were often single, though doublestringing was used too. Typically, theorboes have 14 courses, though some used 15 or even 19 courses (Kapsberger).
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 reëntrant tuning created new possibilities for leading voice (voice leading ) 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 reëntrant 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 chord member 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).
Athanasius Kircher, Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650, p. 476
"Zwischen Mars und Venus - Joel Frederiksen/ Ensemble Phoenix Munich - Projekt Martinelli, Sonntag, 25.04.2010 Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Mars-Venus-Saal - München Ticket". Muenchenticket.de. 25 April 2010. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
Ekkehard Schulze-Kurz, Die Laute und ihre Stimmungen in der ersten Hälfte des 17. Jahrhundert, 1990, ISBN 3-927445-04-5, available at the author's homepage
Robert Spencer, 'Chitarrone, Theorbo and Archlute', Early Music, Vol. 4 No. 4 (October 1976), 408-422, available at David van Edward's homepage.
Diego Cantalupi, "La tiorba ed il suo uso in Italia come strumento per il basso continuo", pre-press version of the dissertation discussed in 1996 at the Faculty of Musicology, University of Pavia. Freely downloadable at Diego Cantalupi's homepage