If you’ve been following along on Early Music Sunday, you’re at least somewhat familiar with the looks & sound of the theorbo, a rather over-sized member of the lute family that was developed in the 17th century & had its heyday in the Baroque period, with its role diminishing through the 18th century. There were several notable composers for the instrument; we heard a piece by Johannes Kapsberger last week, & this week we are hearing a “Chaconne” by Robert de Visée, a composer & musician in the court of Louis XIV, though there is speculation that he was Portuguese by nationality. In fact, de Visée wrote music not only for lute & theorbo, but also for the guitar, though of course this means the baroque guitar which differed from what we know as a guitar in several respects—it was smaller, had doubled strings (like a modern 12-string or a mandolin) & had only five string courses (either 9 or 10 strings total, because the highest pitched string often wasn't doubled), while the conventional modern guitar has six strings with no doubling.
The Chaconne is an interesting form. Although the name is French (or ciaconna in Italian) it is thought to be Spanish in origin, & there’s some speculation that the Chaconne form ultimately derived from Native American music. It is, in the words of Wikipedia:
a type of musical composition popular in the baroque era when it was much used as a vehicle for variation on a repeated short harmonic progression, often involving a fairly short repetitive bass-line (ground bass) which offered a compositional outline for variation, decoration, figuration and melodic invention.
We encountered the “ground” or “ground bass” recently when listening to the venerable “Greensleeves.” In essence, the Chaconne in its baroque manifestation was an opportunity for improvisation.
Today’s performer is Xavier Diaz-Latorre, who specializes in early instruments such as the theorbo, baroque lute & baroque guitar. He studied with the renowned Hopkinson Smith, & has performed with period ensembles such as Hespèrion XXI & Le Concert des Nations, as well as with other respected European orchestras & consorts.
The image of Xavier Diaz-Latorre links to its source at www.br.de