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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 herbage[1]


Origin and development

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.

Theorbo tuning

The tuning of large theorboes is generally characterized by the octave displacement, or reëntrant tuning, of the uppermost of the two (sometimes one) uppermost strings, thus limiting the upper range of the instrument. The courses, unlike those of a Renaissance lute or archlute, were often single, though double-stringing was used too. Typically, theorboes have 14 courses, though a very few pieces from the early Baroque period require a 19-course theorbo.

15-course Theorbo tuning chart.

This is theorbo tuning in A. Modern theorbo players usually play 14-course instruments, though (lowest course is G). A number of theorbo players will use an alternative tuning in G, a whole step lower, to facilitate playing in flat keys, which are unwieldy on instruments tuned in A, better suited for sharp keys.

While usually players will have the top two courses down an octave in reëntrant tuning, this does create problems for voice leading and the playing of harmonies above the bass when accompanying and playing Basso Continuo. A solution is to have only the top course down an octave (English theorbo).


Notable living theorbists include Lynda Sayce, Pascal Monteilhet, Eduardo Egüez, Nigel North, Hopkinson Smith, Paul O'Dette, Andreas Martin, Rolf Lislevand, Christina Pluhar, Ugo Nastrucci, Jakob Lindberg, Robert MacKillop, Stephen Stubbs, Axel Wolf,[2] and Jan Grüter, among others.


  • 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

See also

  • Torban, a Ukrainian relative of the theorbo


  1. ^ Athanasius Kircher, Musurgia Universalis, Rome 1650, p. 476
  2. ^

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Theorbo — The*or bo, n. [F. th[ e]orbe, t[ e]orbe, formerly tuorbe, tiorbe, It. tiorba.] (Mus.) An instrument made like large lute, but having two necks, with two sets of pegs, the lower set holding the strings governed by frets, while to the upper set… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • theorbo — [thē ôr′bō] n. pl. theorbos [Fr théorbe < It tiorba < ?] a large 17th cent. lute with a double neck and two sets of strings …   English World dictionary

  • theorbo — theorbist, n. /thee awr boh/, n., pl. theorbos. an obsolete bass lute with two sets of strings attached to separate peg boxes, one above the other, on the neck. [1595 1605; < It teorba, var. of tiorba, special use of Venetian tiorba, var. of… …   Universalium

  • theorbo — Theorbe нем. [тэо/рбэ] théorbe фр. [тэо/рб] theorbo англ. [ти/обоу] теорба (басовый струнный инструм. из семейства лютен) …   Словарь иностранных музыкальных терминов

  • theorbo — noun (plural bos) Etymology: modification of Italian tiorba, teorba Date: 1605 a stringed instrument of the 17th century resembling a large lute but having an extra set of long bass strings …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • theorbo — noun /θi.ˈɔɹ.bo/ A baroque lute having an extra set of open bass strings …   Wiktionary

  • theorbo — [θɪ ɔ:bəʊ] noun (plural theorbos) a large lute with the neck extended to carry several long bass strings, used in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Origin C17: from Ital. tiorba, of unknown origin …   English new terms dictionary

  • theorbo — the·or·bo …   English syllables

  • theorbo — /θiˈɔboʊ/ (say thee awboh) noun (plural theorbos) a medieval musical instrument of the lute class, having two necks, one above the other; archlute. {Italian tiorba} –theorbist, noun …  

  • theorbo —   n. 17th century double necked lute …   Dictionary of difficult words

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