A Unique and Highly Important Neapolitan double-manual Cembalo-Tiorbino (Theorbo-Harpsichord) attributed to Gasparre Sabbatino

Naples, Circa 1710

Exhibited: Ritorno al Barocco, da Caravaggio a Vanvitelli, Naples, Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, 12 December 2009 - 11 April 2010, illustrated exhib. cat. vol.II, p.14-15.

Compass: GG without GG# to f3.

Disposition: 2 x 8 foot brass-strung stops on the lower manual, the back 8 foot with buff-stop slider; 1 x 8 foot gut-strung tiorbino stop on the upper manual, the registers and slider operated by brass hand-stops set into a panel above the key-blocks.

Pitch: A 440.


Total Height: 3 ft. 5 in. (104 cm)
Total Length: 8 ft. 10 in. (270 cm)
Total Width: 3 ft. 6 in. (107 cm)
Height with lid open: 6 ft. 3 in. (190.5 cm)

The instrument:
Length 8 ft. 4 ½ in. (255 cm) Width: 3 ft. 1 ¾ in. (96 cm) Height 9 in. (23 cm)

This remarkable theorbo-harpsichord (the most appropriate English expression for a combined cembalo and tiorbino) is currently the only known example of an important class of keyboard instrument to have survived with its original disposition essentially intact. Indeed, the principal literature in English on the subject is an article entitled 'The Tiorbino: An Unrecognised Instrument Type Built By Harpsichord Makers With Possible Evidence For A Surviving Instrument' (published on the Claviantica website www.clavantica.com of Grant O’Brien, incorporating a translation of an article by Francesco Nocerino entitled 'Il tiorbino fra Napoli e Roma: notizie e documenti su uno strumento di produzione cembalaria', originally published in Recercare, Fondazione Italiana per la Musica Antica della Società Italiana del Flauto Dolce, Vol. VII, Rome 2000).

Written prior to the discovery and restoration of the present instrument, the surviving instrument referred to is a small spinet in the Teatro della Scala Museum in Milan (Catalogue Nº MTS-TP/04). However, the same article refers to extensive archive material indicating the production in Italy, particularly in Rome and Naples of theorbo-harpsichords, whose description in contemporary documents leaves no room for doubt that at least some were of exactly the same type as the present instrument with three courses of strings, two of metal and one of gut.

The present harpsichord is of an extremely unusual disposition for an Italian instrument in that it has a double rather than a single keyboard. Furthermore the specially constructed high nut and bridge for a third set of strings at 8-foot pitch is clearly intended for a special purpose. In examining and analysing the instrument with a view to restoration to playing condition, the restorer, Olivier Fadini, observed indentation marks on the upper nut which clearly indicated that the instrument had once been strung with gut rather than metal on the upper bridge played from the upper manual.

In the absence of a clear signature, it has been possible to attribute the instrument to Gasparre Sabbatino with unusual security by direct comparison with the single-manual harpsichord by Gasparre signed and dated 1712 in the Beurmann Collection at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg. The very distinctive wide-grained non-aromatic cedar of the soundboard placed at an angle of approximately 4 degrees to the spine, the construction and cut of the registers, and the double moulding on the jackrail are in all cases identical, to the extent that it cannot be merely a case of common generic Neapolitan features. Indeed, case mouldings show evidence of being made by the same moulding plane. The apparent signature on the wrestplank of the present instrument has been almost entirely effaced but is in exactly the same position as that on the Hamburg instrument.

Significantly, the earliest reference, discovered by Nocerino, to a harpsichord with two courses of metal strings and a gut tiorbino stop is an entry in the Medici inventory referring to a theorbo-harpsichord made by Girolamo Zenti in 1653 during his stay at the court of Queen Christina in Stockholm. Zenti’s nephew Antonio Sabbatino was apprenticed to him from 1646 to 1648 and a purchase contract for a tiorbino dated 26th June 1676 between ‘Antonio Sabbatino Cimbalaro’ (harpsichord-maker) and don Flaminio d’Angelo survives in the Archivio Storico della Banca di Napoli. A further document in the same archive dated 1733 refers to the purchase of two tiorbini from Antonio’s son, Gasparre, on behalf of the Duchessa di Calvizzano. It is reasonable to suppose that as members of a family of harpsichord-builders they continued the practice of making combined harpsichords and tiorbini established by Antonio’s uncle.

The present double-manual instrument is an elaboration of the basic single-manual instrument. The second manual allows for simultaneous combinations of registration and, especially with the hand-stops, which are almost certainly a later, mid-18th century addition, allows for rapid changes of registration during pieces. In particular, the second manual allows the theorbo stop to be used as an accompaniment to the main registers and even in combination with the buff stop. This is of considerable musical utility, as the true theorbo was used to accompany singers and as a continuo instrument in orchestras of the period.

The rediscovery of this fascinating instrument and, now that it is so skilfully restored, of its particular tonal qualities, adds a new dimension to our understanding of keyboard instruments and musical colouring in the late baroque period in Italy. The celebrated Galleria Harmonica of Michele Todini in Rome with its mechanised combination of keyboard instruments including an organ and a tiorbino is but an extreme example of the search for complex combinations of sonority in Italian late baroque keyboard instruments (Patrizio Barbieri, ‘Michele Todini’s Galleria Armonica: its hitherto unknown story, since 1650,’ Early Music (30.4) 2002, p.265-583). It is clear that the present instrument, although unusually elaborate, was by no means a unique production, but followed of a tradition, established at least as early as the middle of the 17th century, of providing metal strung harpsichords with gut registers to expand the tonal range. No doubt careful examination of other Italian harpsichords of the period will reveal a similar arrangement, subsequently suppressed. It is probable that in the few surviving instruments with three eight-foot stops, at least one register was intended for gut strings.

A clue to the poor survival rate of such instruments with their original disposition intact is offered by more than one document discovered by Nocerino in the Neapolitan archives. In the 1676 purchase contract between Flaminio d’Angelo and Antonio Sabbatino referred to above, d’Angelo makes it a condition of purchase that the maker be permanently on call at a rate of ten carlinos per year to tune and maintain the instrument. In another purchase contract of 1687 between Cavaliere don Stefano and a harpsichord-builder Salvatore Sanchez, the purchaser imposes the condition that the harpsichord builder be obliged to repair or even replace at his own expense a new tiorbino if it did not maintain its tuning within a period of twenty days. A theorbo has fourteen gut strings to tune. The harpsichord-tiorbino has at least fifty (in the present instrument 58). Naples was a renowned centre for the manufacture of gut strings in the seventeenth and 18th centuries, but whatever the quality of the material and manufacture, it is in the nature of gut strings to be very sensitive to changes of humidity and to be more easily breakable than metal strings.

An experiment with the present instrument during the restoration offers telling evidence of the problem. Strings made of goat-gut in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco are perhaps the closest modern equivalent to the strings made in Naples in the early 18th century. A set of such strings of various appropriate diameters was acquired with considerable difficulty and only after a wait of several months. The harpsichord was first strung entirely with this material, but the strings proved very difficult to tune and those in the treble snapped with alarming regularity. They have now been replaced, except for the heavier strings in the base, with sheep-gut strings of French manufacture of the type used by orchestral musicians playing on authentic early stringed instruments. This has proved very much more reliable, but while the metal strings are easily tuned and have maintained their pitch with remarkable stability, the gut strings are more difficult to tune and are liable to change their pitch with variations in temperature and humidity. It is probably this factor above all that resulted in the tiorbino-harpsichord dying out as a genre, probably before the middle of the 18th century, and for the fact that no original German equivalent from the same period (known as a Lautenwerk) has survived. It is probable that many instruments of the present type were re-strung in metal later in the century or had their gut registers suppressed. Re-stringing the gut register in metal would in most cases have resulted in excessive strain on the soundboards thus hastening the redundancy and destruction of such instruments.

The explanation for the preponderance of such instruments in southern Italy may be sought beyond the importance of Naples and Rome as centres for the manufacture of gut strings. Harpsichords of this type were commissioned by great aristocratic families, many of which presented operas in the great salone of their palaces. Zenti, for example, worked for several members of the Barberini family in Rome who were by far the most important patrons of opera in the city. They were used rather less frequently as solo instruments than as continuo harpsichords in the elaborate operatic productions and chamber-concerts, which often took place on several nights of the week in such palaces. At the period in which this harpsichord was made, there was, particularly in Naples, what can only be described as a mania for pastoral operas; indeed, the mania spread all over Europe and was much mocked by Steele in the Tatler in 1710 and Addison in the Spectator in 1711 (Tim Neufeldt, ‘Italian Pastoral Opera and Pastoral Politics in England, 1705-1712,’
Discourses in Music, Volume 5, Number 2 (Fall 2004); www.discourses.ca).

It is no coincidence that the principle symbolic element in the decoration of this instrument is the head of Pan, both in carved boxwood (with glass eyes) on the instrument itself and in gilt-wood on the outside of the case. Pan was the god of shepherds and rustic music. The pastoral and its contrast with the urban is a recurrent theme in all Italian art and particularly in opera. The tiorbino stop, plucked close to the nut, has the particularly nasal quality associated with rustic instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy or musette. The ‘rustic’ quality of the tiorbino stop, so much in contrast with the golden ‘Apollonian’ sound of the metal strings, undoubtedly accounts for the presence of this mischievous satyr on the case.

The harpsichord is of ‘true inner-outer’ construction. The decorative elements inside the outer case above the key-blocks are removable, thus allowing the instrument itself to be removed from the case. Although the harpsichord itself is moulded, the unsophisticated surface on the parts concealed from view by the case would not suggest that it was ever intended to be removed during performance.

Like most instruments of its period, it has undergone a number of restorations in its history. All the essentials of the instrument are original: the walls, the base, the nuts, bridges, keyboards, registers and the vast majority of the jacks. The soundboard is also original, with only a narrow strip of previously damaged material replaced near the spine in the recent restoration by Fadini. The only significant amendment to the specification appears to date from the mid 18th century when hand-stops were introduced above the upper key block for convenient changes of registration. This is an elegant arrangement with well-made levers and handsome shaped back-plates.

There is no reason to suspect that the keyboard is not original to the instrument as made in the early 18th century, although on the almost identical keyboard (single-manual) of an anonymous instrument in the Historisches Museum in Hamburg (also most probably by Sabbatini) the lower key is dated 1754. However, it is clear from the style of the outer case and the close similarity to the 1712 harpsichord by Gasparre that the present instrument was made at least thirty to forty years earlier.

A more recent anonymous restoration, probably carried out in the last fifty years, involved the opening of the bottom to introduce various crude reinforcements; these have been removed during the recent restoration by Fadini.

The outside of the outer case and stand has its original colour and gilding with minimal restoration. The internal frame of the stand had been crudely reinforced, apparently by the same restorer who had opened the baseboard of the instrument. The recent restoration by Italian specialists involved careful cleaning of all the surfaces to preserve original glazes and gilding, the removal of the previous inappropriate reinforcements and the reconstruction of the internal frame and accompanying moulding. Prior to the recent restoration, the main part of the lid was decorated with a fête champêtre in the crudest Watteauesque taste dating from about 1900 and lamentably painted in oil directly onto the underlying wood. If there had been a pictorial decoration previously, careful examination indicated that it had been entirely effaced. There was no trace whatsoever of an oil or gouache painting below. The front part of the lid had a much degraded mid-18th century commedia dell’arte scene of very poor quality. In the interest of harmonising the overall decoration of the instrument with the minimum of intervention, these distracting non-original elements were first isolated with a thin lining of fine canvas and then a neutral and idiomatic scheme was introduced in painted gesso with gilded incised ornament of a type frequently found in south Italian instruments of the period, the ornamental border copied precisely from the incised gesso decoration of Neapolitan doors of the first quarter of the 18th century. This is completely reversible, and we consider that the present harmonious appearance of the harpsichord entirely justifies this approach. A full report and analysis of the harpsichord and case restorations will be produced in due course.

After the present conservation programme, the harpsichord can be considered one of the best-preserved and most interesting Italian harpsichords of the late baroque period, and its fine playing condition casts new light on early 18th century Italian performance practice.

Alan Rubin