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.

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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:

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Picking a Composer at Random: Teodorico Pedrini

I’m bored and can’t sleep, after having had a touch to drink in Westherspoons, so I thought it would be a fun distraction to pick a random composer to write some first impressions on.

To pick one I went onto Wikipedia to list composers by name. Using an online letter dice, I narrowed the list alphabetically. I kept rolling the dice until I got a composer. The first roll was P, then E, then D, then R, and finally rolled an I. Pedrini, Teodorico Pedrini.

Born in 1671, Pedrini was an Italian composer — but also a missionary in China. According to Wikipedia, he ‘is the author of the only Western Baroque music compositions known in China in the 18th century’. This surely makes him a highly important figure in the early export of western classical music.

So, onto YouTube I go. First video:

Forgive me, but I did not listen to the whole hour. Instead just the first two pieces. It’s certainly very Chinese, the first piece sounding like it could have been written for the erhu. It’s not strictly pentatonic, but it’s quite obviously the scale on which it’s centred.

The second piece is more interesting, and more recognisably baroque, basso continuo and all. Each movement is short and delightful. It doesn’t sound especially remarkable to my ears, but one can only imagine how alien it must have sounded to audiences in early 18th century Beijing. I notice, however, that the portrait of Pedrini included in the video suggests that he successfully assimilated into Chinese culture. The music is perhaps fascinating in this one sense, Pedrini being the only Chinese (or near enough) baroque composer I can think of. He clearly borrows from Chinese traditional music, giving it a personality distinct from any other music of the time.

Becoming a bit more curious, I’m skipping to half way through, around the 27 minute mark. More pentatonic scale on the cello. Now at 30:15, it gets much better. The cello starts playing an attractive minor-key melody, and the accompaniment is quite good. It does go on a bit though, losing focus somewhat. The allegro is sounding very monotonous to me.

Next video:

I think I prefer this. The lute, or whichever instrument it is, is particularly pleasant. It doesn’t sound quite as oriental, but the harmonies work well. The flute is the solo instrument, and texturally seems a better fit than the cello. Much lighter, more endearing.

I would be interested to read about Pedrini’s inspirations. Did his Catholic faith (recall his status as a missionary) inspire his writing? Did he become more interested in Confucianism, as his assimilation into Chinese culture might suggest, and did this affect his music? Regardless, an interesting composer, at least historically, and definitely worth a listen.