Theorbo: A ‘Strutting Rooster’ of Musical Power

“I had a huge crush on lutenist Julian Bream because of the recording he made of Elizabethan Consort Music. I went as wild over him, as my peers went over the Beatles.” ~ Catherine Liddell, theorbo and lute, Aston Magna Music Festival

Although Bream was among the most distinguished classical guitarists of the 20th century, and was credited with renewing popular interest in the lute, Liddell’s inspiration came from much closer to home — from mom and dad.

How did Liddell come to master the theorbo and lute?

Catherine Liddell

I suppose one could say that the instruments were discovered for me! I grew up in a musical family. My father, in particular had an interest in Renaissance and Baroque music. He bought whatever recordings were available, so this was the music we heard at home.

Both of my parents played recorder for a while, then took lessons on viola da gamba. I and several siblings also took lessons on viola da gamba, but I had difficulty coordinating my fingers with the bow.

Gradual awareness that the lute had the same tuning, but didn’t require a bow, led to my parents buying me my first lute when I was in 10th grade. All through high school I played in ensembles with that lute. I studied lute through college and then in Switzerland at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. My parents might not have thought those lessons would lead to an actual profession, but that’s what happened. What appealed to me then was the music and the fun of playing in ensembles.

What appeals to me now about the lute and theorbo is how expressive they can be. Being hand-plucked, as opposed to plectrum-plucked by a keyboard mechanism, there is infinite variety in how the strings are played. Combine that with the function of accompanying, which is my favorite thing to do, and one can really enter and contribute to the emotional content of the song and where the singer takes it. I love the intimacy of accompanying, and theorbo can be ever so gentle one minute and fiercely rhythmic the next. In the case of accompanying the viola da gamba, the sound-meld of theorbo and viola da gamba is an aural piece of heaven.

I’ll be using both of my theorbos this summer. In the first concert of Monteverdi music, when I’ll be accompanying more than one singer and violins, I’ll be using my largest theorbo with a more forthright, assertive sound. For the next program of Marais, when I’ll be accompanying just viola da gamba, I will use my smaller (although still much larger than a lute) instrument. If theorboes were chickens, the one theorbo would be a strutting rooster and the other one would be a nesting hen, capable of being fierce, but happiest one-to-one.