Several times now, friends have unwittingly followed me to their first classical performance to be confronted by an orchestra of period instruments. Since all our instruments look pretty “period” to them, my explanation of gut strings, no valves and simplified keywork are all a bit lame. Without fail, though, they all point to the phallic mast growing out of a lute and towering over the rest of the rhythm section, and make the perfectly reasonable enquiry “what the hell is that?”
“It’s like a guitar and bass guitar all at once.” I say. “It’s like the Jimmy Page double-neck, but lengthwise.” There were plenty of other ways to make loud bass in the the Renaissance, but none were quite this punchy, and carry-on restrictions were considerably more lenient. Listen to this performance of Jan Grüter playing the beautiful Kapsberger/Piccini “Chiaccona”.
It’s a really cool instrument. It’s capable of great power and tremendous gentleness of tone. It has the biggest range of any instrument in the guitar family and it comes in a box that looks like it should carry a rocket launcher. So before I go on, I want to be really clear: I love this instrument, I admire both the way it is played and the sacrifices made by those who play it. The thing I don’t understand is why performers get these things out at gigs and act like there’s nothing funny going on.
I used to play the French horn, so I understand about struggling to be taken seriously. I once sat in the front row of a comedy show. The performer asked me what I did for a living. When I told him, he replied that I didn’t need to bring my own jokes. “I bet you wish you played the piccolo” is a feeble gag that follows double bass players around for their whole lives. But seriously. You cannot walk on stage with a theorbo and expect nobody to have questions.
The giant lute is a relative newcomer to the period performance revival. The skills to make and play them took a long time to rediscover. Some of them have more than 30 strings. They’re oddities. Outliers. At the extreme end of something that is itself quite amazing. Amid the rattle and hum of a good baroque ensemble, it is often hard to tell which unfamiliar noise is coming out of which unfamiliar instrument.
So please. If you’re staging a concert that involves an instrument half as bizarre as one of these, how about you arrange to have the players take questions during the interval? Nothing bad will happen, and with any luck, somebody might actually develop an interest in what you’re playing.