The Orpharion

I was listening to the lutenist Paul O’Dette play John Dowland’s Mrs Winter’s Jump and thought, Well chop off my legs and call me shorty, that sounds like a virginal! Listen for yourself:

Turns out it’s an orpharion. Typical of the Renaissance, the name ‘orpharion’ is derived from Orpheus and Arion. It was invented in England at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, and became a fairly common alternative to the lute. It’s tuned the same way as a lute, and various contemporary books list it as an alternative to the lute, but there seems to have been very few books written specifically for the instrument.

While the lute was clearly the more esteemed instrument, the orpharion may well have been equally popular in the home: in 32 examples between 1565 and 1648 of household inventories which mention musical instruments of any kind, the bandora (its larger sibling) and orpharion occur as frequently as the lute.

An orpharion built by Francis Palmer in 1617 (see more photos here)

The orpharion differs with the lute quite significantly in terms of its shape, most notably the flat back. But the more important difference is its use of wire strings instead of gut. The subsequent brighter, metallic sound, and the more limited timbre and dynamic range it presents, are no doubt why I nearly mistook it for a virginal. Harpsichords, unlike the piano which uses hammer-action, are plucked instruments just like the lute and orpharion, so the method of attack is also similar.

Right-hand technique, however, differed between the orpharion and the lute because of the wire strings. William Barley published the first collection of music specifically for orpharion in 1596, and in it he wrote that

whereas the Lute is strong with gut stringes, the Orpharion is strong with wire stringes, by reason of which manner of stringing, the Orpharion doth necessarilie require a more gentle and drawing stroke than the Lute, I mean the fingers of the right hand must be easilie drawen over the stringes, and not suddenly griped, or sharpelie stroken as the Lute is: for if yee should doo so, then the wire stringer would clash or jarre together the one against the other

Here’s an orpharion being played. There seems to be very few videos on YouTube of the instrument — and half of them are by this guy:


8 thoughts on “The Orpharion

  1. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen an orpharium– wonderful post. Is there some necessary reason for the shape of the instrument, or is that simply customary design; the two of them illustrated have different scrolling shapes.


    1. Are you referring to the undulated sides or literally the ‘scroll’ — the pegbox? The pegbox is indeed oddly shaped, more like a violin than a lute. This might be because John Rose, ostensibly the instrument’s inventor, was a viol maker. As for the body design, one unsurprising suggestion is that the shell-like shape comes from classical antiquity. Apparently the shell has long been an important musical symbol, which I did not know. From one paper on the subject:

      ‘..the lyre which Hermes gave to Orpheus was made from a shell. The story of its invention is told in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Offspring of Zeus and the nymph Maia, Hermes rivals even our own Solomon Grundy in precocity. On the morning of his birth, says the poet, he leapt from the immortal knees of his mother, and, finding a tortoise, saluted the unfortunate creature with the words:
      Better to be at home than out of door
      So come with me; and though it has been said
      That you alive defend from magic power,
      know you will sing sweetly when you’re dead.
      Removing the animal from its carapace, Hermes then covered the empty shell with oxhide and attached two horns and a bridge to carry seven strings of sheep gut. Thus it was that Hermes “first made the tortoise sing”.’

      The John Rose orpharion literally had a carved shell in its back. And there is certainly some variation in the shape of the instrument. Here’s some of the images I kept, if you’re interested:

      I hope that answers your question?


  2. Was sputtering inarticulately about the shape of the body of the instrument, not the pegbox. Not surprising at all if the body shape is meant to replicate the shape of the tortoise’s shell in Orpheus’s story– although quite how the scallop shell relates, I don’t know. Thanks, and thanks for the additional photographs. The bandora has the same number of strings as the orpharion? well, I ought to look at a larger explanation of the relationship between the early stringed instruments, I expect.


    1. Well, like the lute the number of courses seemed to increase over time. I don’t know if there is a general difference.

      The cittern, from which the bandora and orpharion seem to descend, more resembled the scallop shell. I guess things just got more ornate as time went on, to make the instrument look more ‘stately’, as William Barley described the orpharion. I struggle to think of any instrument that looks quite like it. It could be that John Rose invented the design by himself.


      1. I didn’t mean scallop shell… Mixed up my thoughts. I’m sure I read somewhere about the symbolism of the scallop shell but I can’t for the life of me remember where.


  3. Well, there is the scallop shell associated with Santiago at Compostella but John Rose’s? simply decorative perhaps.

    Or, on the other hand, it could be that he made his orpharion for the Countess of Sussex to whom Barley dedicated his New Book. She was a benefactress of writers and perhaps musicians also, and was obliged to leave her husband after he insisted on committing multiple adulteries. Perhaps the Old Religion played a role in that domestic drama and a pilgrimage to Compostella was involved….

    But, seriously, it is amazing that only two orpharions survive from the period, and some 30 citterns.


    1. Heh. Finally found the actual reason! Apparently the scallop shell was actually used because of its association with Venus. She being the creator of harmony and, as the goddess of love, the one who resolves the world’s discords. (Robin Headlam Well, Elizabethan Mythologies: Studies in Poetry, Drama and Music, pp. 153-158) Harmony did come from an adulterous relationship between Venus and Mars, so you were actually on the right thematic track…

      Yes, it’s quite astonishing. The orpharion was just too lowly an instrument to be cared about, one suspects. But I also think of the 11 course lute, which was predominantly used for French music, yet no French version of the lute survives. And there are only three surviving vihuelas.


      1. Oh of course, Venus. I noticed as I was meandering about yesterday that the reasons why the scallop shell is associated with Santiago at C. are many (i.e. nobody is quite sure which one or ones explains the use) but that there is also the pre-Christian use of the image… and that should have made the gears whirl. Venus Anadyomene– I wonder if the shell began simply as Renaissance accessory for modesty’s sake or…. The days when I studied the mythologies of the ancient world are long ago. Apparently, the pre-Augustan depiction of V. A. anyway, either nude or partially clothed, doesn’t utilize the scallop or any shell, and you would think that of any of her representations that’d be the one to do so.


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