The most shared & watched theorbo video on the internet! Now that’s something to see. But hang on, what is a theorbo? The notes on the drop-down menu under the video are both comprehensive and instructive, so I’ll keep it brief. Essentially a theorbo is a large lute, adapted to make it both sound lounder and more suitable for accompanying singing.
Now, a lute is “any plucked string instrument with a neck and a deep round back enclosing a hollow cavity, usually with a sound hole or opening in the body (Wikipedia)”. The first type of theorbo, the Italian, was devised in the early 17th century. The last variation of theorbo was the German-type developed by Silvius Leopold Weiss in the 1720s.
The theorbo so masterfully played by Chris Hirst in the viral video is a slightly scaled-down replica of the most significant surviving German theorbo. Constructed in 1728 by Sebastian Schelle, the instrument is housed in the German National Museum, Nuremberg. Whereas the Schelle instrument has an 86 cm fingerboard length (close to the limit), on Hirst’s it is 80 cm, which allows the top string to be a bit thicker and makes the instrument more suitable for solo playing.
The big difference between types of the theorbo is the tuning. The German tuning is closest to the lute, yet some notes like high F are problematic. Also, since the German theorbo was used almost exclusively for the basso continuo accompaniments that are integral to Baroque music, finding pieces to play solo requires careful selection. The theorbo is not the only instrument Chris Hirst plays. With singer Polly Green, he is the core of Contrapuntal, and plays a number of acoustic stringed instruments:
On the Daydream video, Chris Hirst plays the mandora & melodica while James Halsey plays cello. The full group includes Andrew Knights on cor Anglais, although Hirst and Polly Green often play as a duo.
According to Contrapuntal, Daydream originates from a 2004 instrumental that was reworked into a song in 2018. The lyrics address daydreaming on a lazy summer day. “Looking up at the birds high above, you imagine that you are with them, flying over the coast and looking down at the waves crashing into the rocks far below. This type of scenery surrounds us on the Isle of Wight where we live”.
Quatrapuntal tends to play original songs and instrumentals. Their music is a fusion of classical music, especially baroque, with traditional Portuguese and Italian music. Their influences also include musicals, film soundtracks, trad British folk, Brazilian folk, pop songs, and even a little thrash metal!
Chris Hirst trained as a lutenist, which explains his love of baroque music as this was the golden age of the lute. He started writing songs around 2001, often setting existing poems to music (initially Portuguese poems & 3 poems by Siegfried Sassoon). Hirst only committed to putting a group together to play his music in 2018. Polly Green was an obvious choice as Hirst and Green had played Baroque music together on occasion. Once the band was together, Hirst decided that the classical guitar he was using didn’t suit the arrangements, so he commissioned the making of a mandora lute.
Quantrapunctal are in the process of recording an album. If you are interested in the theorbo, here is Chris Hirst answering the top 10 questions he has been asked about the rare instrument since his video went viral: