Wired for sound: the bandora and orpharion

In the early music revival, many renaissance and baroque instruments have received their due recognition: the lute in its various forms, the viol family, early violins, recorders, guitars and keyboards, for example. Less familiar and less played are two related instruments, the bandora and orpharion. Both were strung with wire and plucked, they shared the same scalloped shape and fanned frets, and both were particularly popular in England. The deep pitch of the larger bandora made it eminently suitable as the plucked bass of the mixed consort, while the orpharion shared the tuning and repertoire of the renaissance lute and was considered an interchangeable alternative.

This article gives a brief history of both instruments, with indications of their respective repertoires, the descriptive testimonies of contemporaneous writers, some lost related instruments, and videos of both the bandora and orpharion being played.

Click picture to play video – opens in new window.
Anthony Holborne’s compositions for bandora, A Preludium A H and A Ground A Holb,
as they appear in the manuscript, Dd.2.11, c. 1590-95, played by Ian Pittaway on a 7 course
bandora by Peter Forrester. The first piece is certainly a prelude, but the second is not a
ground as the title suggests, having more the character of a two-part pavan.

The creation and popularity of the bandora

In the late 16th century, John Rose was not only the most well-known luthier in England, he had an international reputation. The Bridewell Court Record Books, where his lease of apartments at Bridewell Palace was recorded, stated on 8th August 1561 that “Rose hath a most notable gift given of God in the making of instruments even soche a gift as his fame is sped through a great part of Christendom and his name as moche and now both for virtue and conning commended in Italy than in his natural contery.” According to Edmund Howes’ 1631 revision of John Stow’s Annales, originally published in 1580, “In the fourth yere of Queen Elizabeth, John Rose, dwelling in Bridewell, devised and made an Instrument with wyer strings, commonly called the Bandora, and left a son, far excelling himself in making Bandoras, Vyoll de Gamboes, and other instruments.” Since Elizabeth I succeeded in November 1558, this dates the creation of the bandora – sometimes pandora – to 1561 or 1562.

The front cover of William Barley’s
A new Booke of Tabliture, 1596.
(As with all pictures, click to open
larger in a new window.)

It quickly found favour. Only one or two years after its invention, Sir Humphrey Gilbert sought “one Teacher of Musick … to play on the Lute, the Bandora, the Cytterne, &c.” to teach in his new educational academy for royal wards and the children of nobility. Music for the bandora was soon included in printed publications for the lute, the most favoured of all renaissance instruments. The first English print for solo lute was William Barley’s A new Booke of Tabliture, Containing sundrie easie and familiar Instructions, shewing howe to attaine to the knowledge, to guide and dispose thy hand to play on sundry Instruments, as the Lute, Orpharion, and Bandora: Together with diuers new Lessons to each of these Instruments, 1596. It is presented as three volumes in one, the lute, orpharion and bandora sections each having their own books and title pages. Remarkably, though the lute was the high renaissance instrument par excellence, Barley’s publication gives the lute only 7 pieces, while the orpharion has 14 and the bandora 10, the latter being 6 solos and 4 songs. Barley, an independent bookseller and publisher, clearly wanted to catch a popular wave. The second English print of solo lute music, Thomas Robinson’s Schoole of Musicke, 1603, mentions on its title page that it contains the perfect method, of true fingering of the Lute, Pandora, Orpharion, and Viol de Gamba. Robinson’s book includes no pieces for the bandora and nowhere in the text does he even mention it again: his reference to finger technique for the bandora was a marketing strategy, testament to the instrument’s popularity.

The cover of Thomas Robinson’s Schoole
of Musicke, 1603, with his marketing ploy
trading on the popularity of the bandora: the
title page mentions the perfect method, of true
fingering of the … Pandora, but the book
includes no bandora music nor even a
reference to the instrument.

Soon after its creation, the bandora began to be listed among the instruments in household inventories, including the most famous houses of England – the Leicesters of Kenilworth, the Cavendishes of Hardwick, and the Kytsons of Hengrave House. For a short burst of around 20 years, handwritten household manuscripts of lute music included some solo pieces written for bandora, signifying its use in private entertainment: the lute books of Marsh (c. 1580) and Dallis (c. 1583), Dd.2.11 (c. 1590), British Library Add. 31392 (c. 1595), Dd.9.33 (c. 1600) and the Browne (formerly Braye) bandora and lyra viol manuscript (c. 1600).

Most English bandora solos are anonymous. The largest number of pieces by a named author are by Anthony Holborne (c. 1540–1602), composer, maker of lutes, citterns and bandoras and Queen Elizabeth’s “Gentleman Usher” (as described in Robert Dowland’s Varietie of Lute-Lessons, 1610, though what the term means isn’t clear). Two of his 19 surviving bandora pieces are played in the video which begins this article, examples of the distinctive Holborne style. Other composers for the instrument include Alfonso Ferrabosco (1543–88), Bolognese musician in the service of Elizabeth I; Francis Cutting (fl. c. 1573–1603), about whom almost nothing is known, but whose New Hunt for bandora indicates such idiomatic skill on the instrument that there must be some very fine lost pieces; and the same can be said for the lost pieces of Richard Alison (fl. c. 1580–1606), whose bandora parts in consort are exemplary creations. There are lutenist-composers, such as John Johnson (c. 1540–94), John Dowland (?1563–1626), and Thomas Robinson (c. 1560–1610), who did not compose for the bandora, but whose solo lute pieces were anonymously transposed for it in private manuscripts.

The bandora was used in public entertainment, too. In 1566, only 4 or 5 years after its creation, it is listed for playing incidental theatrical music in the play, Jocasta, “doleful & straunge noyse of violles, Cythre, Bandurion and such like … sounde for the dumme show”, which shows that it soon became established as an integral part of the broken consort. The broken or mixed consort, different instrument types playing together, otherwise known as the English consort, was a mixture of blown, plucked and bowed instruments, typically treble viol or violin, lute, tenor flute or tenor recorder, cittern, bandora, and bass viol. The bandora played a double role in providing what came to be known as basso continuo or continuo, performed by a group who together can play both chordally and in the bass register to realise the music’s harmonic structure. Since the bandora can play both chordally and in the bass, then with the cittern it formed a pair of chordal plucked wire instruments at different pitches, and together with the bass viol it performed the plucked and bowed bass.

The bandora is often named as a continuo instrument on the title page of 17th century music collections, and English musicians travelling in Europe exported the idea of both the mixed consort and the bandora, as we see, for example, in the Königsberg manuscript, c. 1605, representing music at the Brandenburg court, showing that English lute music, bandora music, and mixed consort music had found its way to the Baltic region. This is the only non-English source of solo bandora music, and all the bandora pieces in it are English. Its swooningly-beautiful solo repertoire seems, as far as surviving records tell, to have been a distinctly English phenomenon.

The bandora in mixed consort.
Above left, a detail from the anonymous English Life of Sir Henry Unton, c. 1597, showing (clockwise from the top), lute, cittern, bass viol, bandora, violin, flute.
Above right, a detail from a Dutch engraving by Simon de Passe, Musical Society, 1612, showing (left to right) cittern, violin, a man arriving with a recorder or flute, bandora, bass viol (and, oddly, no lute).
Below, a detail from Music-making Company in the Open by David Vinckboons, Flemish, c. 1576-1632, showing (left to right) lute, singer, virginal, flute, dancer, bandora, singer, and dancer.

The sound of the bandora

Though the surviving exclusively English solo bandora music spans only the 20 years from c. 1580 to c. 1600, the instrument was clearly an important component of the mixed consort in England through much of the 17th century. In 1656 Sir Philip Leycester wrote in his commonplace book that the bandora and orpharion were among the “several kinds of Musical Instruments now of most use in England”. In 1695, Roger North, an English lawyer, biographer, and amateur musician, described the harpsichord, archlute “and above all the pandora” as instruments “which rattle plentifully” and “give a fullness as well as elegance to the sound, and thereby attracts an attention.”

North’s description, “rattle plentifully”, is particularly interesting and instructive. The very low tension of the bandora’s strings means it is easy to make the strings rattle. William Barley, in his A new Booke of Tabliture for the Orpharion, 1596, made a comment about the related orpharion (more of which below) which applies just as well to the bandora, that it “is strong with wire strings, by reason of which manner of stringing, the Orpharion doth necessarily require a more gentle and drawing stroke than the Lute, I meane the fingers of the right hand must be easily drawen over the stringes, and not suddenly griped, or sharpelie stroken as the Lute is: for if yee should doo so, then the wire stringes would clash or jarre together the one against the other, which would be a cause that the sounde would be harsh and unpleasant.“

North’s choice of words, “rattle plentifully”, 99 years after Barley’s publication, suggests that by then players considered the rattle of strings to be just part of the instrument’s sound. He goes on to describe that “divers of the pandoras were used … struck with a quill … by way of the thro-base, had a better and more sonorous effect … than now may be ascribed to harpsichords.” Certainly none of the solo bandora repertoire can be played with a quill, the music requiring independently-moving fingers. The use of the quill would sharpen the timbre and raise the volume, which was clearly the intended effect, as North describes “a company of itinerant musitians fitted for a consort equall with any of the same numbers now celebrated: consisting of 2 violins, a base, one loud hautbois [successor to the shawm and predecessor of the oboe], and 2 wire pandoras … the pandoras had a better effect to fill and adorne the sound, than any harpsichord I ever heard since … the touch with a quill strong and guittar fashion, full accords at every stroke, and not a little arpeggiando [rolled chords], and all open and above board [clear in sound].”

Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne’s Allegory of the Truce of 1609 between the Netherlands and Spain,
1616, seen complete above, includes, seen below, a comical consort scene involving a bandora
player and a harpist, both looking at a lutenist who looks disdainfully at an errant xylophone player.
(As with all pictures, click to open larger in a new window.)

The architecture of the bandora

The cover for the bandora section of William Barley’s A new Booke of Tabliture, 1596.

No bandoras have survived (though see the discussion below about the “Cymbalum Decachordon”), but its architecture is clear from iconography and from the related surviving orpharions (discussed below). It had pairs of wire strings, iron for the higher pitches, brass for the lower, with hitch-pins on the bridge to secure them; fixed frets of ebony and metal; an undulating scalloped body; a decorative rose (standard for instruments of the time); and a decorative carving on the tip of the pegbox. As we see on the right, the bandora originally had 6 courses, with the frets, bridge and nut parallel, as one would expect on any fretted instrument. However, despite the straight-fretted 6 course image on Barley’s cover, by the time he published his bandora book in 1596, this instrument had been succeeded by a new model: some of Barley’s music requires 7 courses, and with the 7th course came fanned frets.

The tuning given in music sources is consistent, 7 double courses tuned a–e–c–G–D–C–GG, probably with the lower courses in octaves, the rest in unisons. The earlier 6 course bandora was tuned likewise, but without the low GG.

This painting by Eglon Hendrick van der Neer
(Amsterdam, 1634-1703), Woman playing bandora,
shows a bandora that doesn’t seem large enough,
more likely to be its smaller cousin, the orpharion.
It may, however, be one of the higher-pitched
bandoras described by Michael Praetorius.

With the addition of the deepest 7th course, to achieve the highest and lowest pitches the bridge (glued to the soundboard to hold the strings) and nut (holding the strings on the far end of the fretboard) were slanted in opposite directions, meaning that frets had to be gradually fanned along the neck to maintain correct tuning. A letter from Francis Derrick to Henry Wickam in c. 1594 signals the change, sending a request “by Throk … to buy him a bandora or orpheryo[n] of the new fashion, which hath the bridge and the stops [frets] slope … and also procure some principal lessons for the bandora of H[o]lborne’s making”. This is Anthony Holborne, instrument maker and composer for the bandora, cittern and lute, whose compositions are played in the video above, and whose bandora in Throk’s ownership was presumably of the old fashion, 6 course and straight frets.

In his Syntagma Musicum, De Organographia, 1620, German composter and musicologist Michael Praetorius gives an alternative 7 course tuning: d’–a–f–c–G–D–C. This is a fourth higher than the tuning given in other sources, and instead of having the interval of a second between the 5th and 6th courses, as was usual, there is a fourth between the 5th and 6th courses and the interval of a second is moved down, between the 6th and 7th courses. Since Praetorius is the only source for the higher tuning, it is not possible to corroborate whether this was an alternative tuning for which no music has survived or, as seems more likely, Praetorius made an error and the tunings should be identical in relative terms, differing only in pitch.    

Bandora tuning and lute tuning are directly related in a way that is not at first obvious. When playing from tablature, what matters is not the actual pitch but the relative pitch relationship between courses. The pitch relationship between the open courses of a 6 course bandora is exactly that of the 2nd to 7th courses of a 7 course lute with the 7th course at F (rather than D – the 7 course lute had both options). The pitch relationship between the open courses of a 7 course bandora is exactly that of the 2nd to 8th courses of an 8 course lute (on which the 7th was always at F) if we drop the 8th course a tone.

This is demonstrated below. The first line is 8 course lute tuning; the second line is 7 course bandora tuning; and the third line shows that if we treat the lute’s 2nd course as the bandora’s 1st, the lute’s 3rd course as the bandora’s 2nd, and so on across courses, and we transpose bandora tuning up a fourth, the two tunings are identical except the 8th course of the lute needs to go down a tone to C. On a 9 or 10 course lute, the lowest course is already C, so bandora music can be played without retuning on a 9 or 10 course lute.

Clearly, the pitch of bandora music played on the lute would be different, but when playing solos this is of no consequence. The relationship is so close that it does not seem credible for it to be coincidental. This appears to be further confirmed in the writing of Michael Praetorius, as we shall see below.

The bandora’s cousin, the orpharion

Click the picture to watch the video.
tarletones riserrectione Jo: Dowlande from the handwritten Wickhambrook lute book, c. 1595,
played by Ian Pittaway on an orpharion by Paul Baker, with Ian’s divisions second time through.

People of the renaissance loved their classical references. It may be that the bandora or pandora was named after the first mortal woman of Greek mythology, Pandora, formed out of clay by the gods. What is certain is that the name orpharion is a combination of Orpheus, legendary Greek musician and poet, who could charm all living things and even stones with his music, and Arion, Greek poet, singer and dancer for Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility. The scalloped shape of the bandora, and likewise of the orpharion, is an allusion to the birth of the goddess Venus from the sea, symbolising the bringing of harmony and the banishment of discord since she married Mars, the god of war.

Left, a Roman fresco from the House of Venus in Pompeii, 1st century BCE.
Right, The Birth of Venus by Italian renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485.

But the origin of the silvery-sounding orpharion was English and Tudor rather than Greek. Like its cousin the bandora, the orpharion was an invention of John Rose. A hybrid between the shape of the much larger bandora and the tuning of the lute, the wire-strung orpharion could play lute tablature without any modification and, like the lute, it had different sizes and pitches. Michael Praetorius gives two tunings. The first is 6 courses in g’, g’–d’–a–f–c–G, which is identical to lute tuning. The second is 8 courses in a’, a’-e’-b-g-d-A-G-D, which differs slightly from 8 course lute tuning as on the orpharion the 8th course is a tone lower than the lute. This is significant as, based on my observations above about the relationship between lute tuning and bandora tuning, Praetorius’ tuning is for an orpharion that can play bandora music without any modification by treating the orpharion’s 2nd course as if it were the bandora’s 1st course and so on down the courses, as well as being able to play 9 course lute music – basses G–E–D on an instrument pitched in a’– and 10 course lute music – basses G–F#–E–D – if it was practical to reach down and fret the usually open low D to play E or F#. This tuning would therefore be a neat compromise, enabling the musician to play the full range of available lute/orpharion and bandora music of the time on a single instrument.

The first evidence of the orpharion is a surviving instrument dated 1580, 18 or 19 years after the creation of the bandora – that is, if we conclude that the instrument is an orpharion. It bears the label, “Johannes Rosa, Londini fecit. In Bridwell, the 27th of July, 1580.”, and has “Cymbalum Decachordon” carved on the ribs, the first word being Latin for hollow vessel, the second word being an ancient Greek instrument with 10 strings. Rose’s instrument has 10 strings, made of wire and organised in 5 double courses. It was later altered and now has 6 double courses.

The 5 course “Cymbalum Decachordon”, a probable orpharion, made by John Rose in 1580,
with its unusual shell back and a rose with a jewelled centre. It is now owned by
Lord Tollemache and kept in Helmingham Hall, Suffolk.
(As with all pictures, click to open larger in a new window.)
An instrument made c. 1590 by Wendelin Tieffenbrucker, Padua, now in the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna, Austria.

This instrument was allegedly given as a gift to Queen Elizabeth I, sometimes mistakenly referred to as “Queen Elizabeth’s lute”. It may be this very instrument that 17th century musician and publisher John Playford referred to in An Introduction to the Skill of Musick, 1687: Queen Elizabeth “did often recreate herself upon an excellent Instrument called the Polyphant, not much unlike a Lute, but strung with wire”. This is likely to be Rose’s “Cymbalum Decachordon”. It cannot be a polyphant (or poliphant, poliphon or poliphone), an attempt to combine elements of all the wire-strung family, including the clarsach (wire harp), because it is far more complex than Playford’s description. On the right we see an instrument made c. 1590 by Wendelin Tieffenbrucker of Padua, now in the Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna, Austria, sometimes identified as a polyphant, though this is disputed. It shares some of the characteristics of the polyphant, described by Sir Francis Prujeane in a letter to the Countess of Rutland in 1655 as “an instrument of so different a stringing and tuning that it’s impossible to play what is sett to it on any other hand instrument. There are three rows of strings one under another, eight or ten small short trebles which ly under the frets, there are onely five strings stopped, and there are on it above forty single strings. Nothing can resemble the harp so much as it.” This description is very close to, but not identical to Tieffenbrucker’s instrument, combining the characteristics of all wire-strung instruments, but there is no agreement today as to whether it is a true polyphant. While John Rose’s 5 course “Cymbalum Decachordon” of 1580 is generally agreed to be an orpharion, this has been debated, too, and is further discussed below.

The national instrument of Ukraine, the torban (not to be confused with other instruments of the same name), also played in Poland and Russia, first appeared in 1690-1700. Though the torban is gut-strung and Tieffenbrucker’s polyphant(?) of c. 1590 was wire-strung, they otherwise bear striking similarities. A torban can be seen and heard here.

The first evidence of the name, orpharion, is in English author Robert Greene’s Perimedes the Blacke-smith, 1588. In the introduction, headed To the Gentleman readers, Health, he writes that he hopes the work meets with the reader’s favour, but if not, “I vowe to make amends in my Oepharion, which I promise to make you merry with the next tearme”. This refers to Greene’s Orpharion, wherein is discoursed a musical Concorde of pleasant Histories, a tract predicated upon a musical instrument of this name. The work was clearly imminent in 1588 and was licensed in 1589, almost certainly published the same year, though the earliest surviving edition is from 1599.

The new instrument quickly gained great popularity in England. Of the 29 books of English renaissance lute ayres published, 12 specify the orpharion as an alternative to the lute, and it is the named instrument or noted as an alternative to the lute in 19 out of 63 music books published between 1588 and 1630 where an instrument is specified. In 32 surviving examples of English household inventories between 1565 and 1648, in which musical instruments of any kind were mentioned, bandoras and orpharions are listed as often as lutes.

Both the bandora and orpharion gained a sloping bridge, nut and frets. The effect is to shorten the vibrating string length of the higher-pitched strings and lengthen the vibrating string length of the lower-pitched strings, resulting in higher pitches at the top and lower pitches at the bottom than with a standard parallel bridge, nut and frets. There is no record of the reason for this novel arrangement. One explanation is shortcomings in wire-string technology compared to the desired string pitches, the design making higher and lower pitches possible that the strings alone could not reach. This is not, however, a credible explanation: it goes against the historical fact that Irish harps had been made with wire strings since the 12th century, so the notion of significant shortcomings in wire strings by the second half of the 16th century doesn’t seem credible; and the amount of extra higher and lower pitch gained by sloping the bridge, nut and frets is minimal. The effect it does have, and the more likely reason, is to change the tone of the instrument: shortened higher pitches are brighter; lengthened lower pitches more sonorous.

As an increase in the number of unstopped diapasons in the bass became popular on the renaissance lute in the late 16th and early 17th century, and instruments in general increased their pitch range, so the bass courses of the orpharion also increased. A surviving orpharion by English luthier Francis Palmer, made in London in 1617, has 9 courses. Though partially eaten by woodworm, it remains in remarkable condition and is the basis for modern reproductions.

The 9 course orpharion by Francis Palmer, now housed in the Musikhistoriska Museum, Copenhagen. (As with all pictures, click to open larger in new window.)

There are three other surviving orpharions. The first two are German. The Städtisches Museum, Brunswick, holds a small 9 course instrument with a treble string length of only 425mm. This suggests that, like lutes, orpharions were made in a range of sizes and therefore pitches. This is confirmed by Michael Praetorius and by the second German instrument, also with a treble string length of 425mm and 480mm in the bass. This has 8 courses and is held in the Historisches Museum, Frankfurt am Main. It is unsigned and therefore undated, and has been speculatively dated to the early 17th century. However, its decoration resembles work by Joachim Tielke (1641–1719) and his school of makers of viols, violins, guitars, bell citterns and lutes. If this identification is correct, the instrument must date to at least 1669, the year of his earliest known instruments.

The unsigned 8 course orpharion held by the Historisches Museum, Frankfurt,
possibly by Joachim Tielke.

There is also an instrument by an anonymous Italian maker, dated to the late 16th or early 17th century, in the Musée de la Musique, Paris. In common with some other extant instruments, it was modified and adapted. This instrument was bought in 1874 by Charles Davillier, guitarist and antiques collector, who converted it into a guitar. In 1883 it was donated to the museum, restored by the workshop of Parisian violin makers Charles Nicolas Eugène Gand and brothers Gustave and Ernest Bernardel. Their restoration involved sculpting a lion’s head for the pegbox and slanting the bridge, as they assumed it originally was. They slanted the bridge, however, without changing either the nut or the positions of the modern frets, thus rendering the instrument permanently out of tune and unplayable. Whether the nut and bridge were originally slanted and the frets fanned on this instrument is doubtful. It remains in this semi-‘restored’ state now, as we see below.

This magnificent late 16th or early 17th century Italian orpharion in the Musée de la Musique,
Paris, has an unusual carved back, with a musical scene set in classical mythology.
The current semi-restored arrangement of straight nut and straight frets with a
slanted bridge renders it permanently out of tune and unplayable.

Artists’ errors and painters’ problems

This faulty restoration mirrors faulty depictions of bandoras and orpharions by artists who clearly were not players and had difficulty believing or painting what they actually saw. The detail uppermost below of Woman playing bandora by Eglon Hendrick van der Neer (Amsterdam, 1634-1703), seen in full above, shows a slanted bridge but a straight nut. The artist somewhat fudged the frets, but those that are shown are painted straight, in line with the nut. With the slanted bridge, this would render any real instrument hopelessly out of tune.

(As with all pictures, click to see larger in new window; click in the new window to further enlarge.)

Bottom left (above) is an illustration from Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis, published in two volumes in Rome in 1650. His “Cythara Communis” is Latin for common stringed instrument. Cithara, from the Greek kithára (κιθάρα), the Assyrian chetarah, and from the Latin cithara – a lyre for which there is evidence dating back to 1700 BC – was the same name used indiscriminately by many writers for lyres, harps, psalteries and, it sometimes seems, for almost any instrument, open-stringed or fretted. In this case, it is Kircher’s name for the orpharion, with 17 strings and 17 pegs, making it a 9 course instrument. The illustration makes the same mistake as van der Neer: a slanted bridge but straight frets and a straight nut. Next, Dutch artist Leonard Bramer’s painting of an orpharion, c. 1630–40, represents an instrument with a simpler outline. We see the same mistakes van der Neer and Kircher made in depicting an unrealistic and unplayable instrument. Next, Danish painter Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrecht’s 1672 depiction shows a slanted bridge with the frets and nut covered, so the artist does not have the problem of painting them accurately. Lastly, Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst in The Concert, 1623, hid the bridge. Nevertheless, as we see in the two details on the right, he painted the frets slanting from the sloped nut and then gradually slanting towards the unseen bridge sloping the other way. In this short survey of art depicting orpharions, this is the only truly accurate portrayal besides the cover of William Barley’s A new Booke of Tabliture for the Orpharion, 1596, seen below.

William Barley’s accurate portrayal on the cover of A new Booke of Tabliture for the Orpharion, 1596.

Is John Rose’s “Cymbalum Decachordon” an orpharion?

The “Cymbalum Decachordon” (discussed above) was made by John Rose in 1580. I have written above on the basis that it is an orpharion. There is not a complete consensus on whether this instrument, now in Helmingham Hall, Suffolk, is a bandora or orpharion.

If we go by dates alone, we may conclude the instrument is a bandora. Edmund Howes’ 1631 revision of John Stow’s Annales, originally published in 1580, date Rose’s creation of the bandora to 1561 or 1562, and the orpharion was later, an instrument mentioned in print by 1588, so the “Cymbalum Decachordon”, made in 1580, was created when the bandora was established and the orpharion was yet to be evidenced in writing.

But while it is the case that early bandoras had straight frets, like the “Cymbalum Decachordum”, later to be slanted, the other features of the instrument are unlike a bandora: 5 courses instead of 6 or 7, and much too small to reach the sonic depths usually expected of the instrument. In 1620, Michael Praetorius described a bandora a fourth higher, with a top course of d’ rather than a. This may be possible on the Helmingham instrument, with wire strings and a vibrating string length of c. 60cms, but Praetorius gives a tuning with 7 courses, not Helmingham’s original 5 courses. Therefore the John Rose instrument of 1580 doesn’t fit the criteria for the already-established bandora, but is before the first written evidence for the orpharion.  

I am unconvinced by the idea that the bandora originally had 5 courses, supposedly evidenced by this instrument, as it is a circular argument: Why do we think the bandora originally had 5 courses? Because this instrument has 5 courses. How do we know it is a bandora? Based on the assumption that it is a bandora, and on the assumption that the early bandora had 5 courses. This is tautology, speculation without evidence. If the bandora originally had 5 courses, why is no renaissance writer known to have mentioned this, and no renaissance artist known to have depicted it?

My own conclusion (always open to being revised with new evidence) is that the John Rose “Cymbalum Decachordon” is unlikely to be a bandora due to its smaller size and lack of evidence that any bandora had 5 courses. It may be, and is more likely to be, an early prototype for the orpharion, before it became a marketable instrument. It may also be a sui generis instrument, and perhaps the story that it was given as a gift to Queen Elizabeth strengthens the case for it being a unique specimen. Since we don’t know how it was tuned, we can only speculate how the 5 courses functioned musically – as a very late 5 course lute? Maybe, if it was a show piece for the Queen, to be seen and admired as superb craftsmanship rather than heard for its music (as has been justifiably speculated for surviving vihuelas), then it wouldn’t have mattered too much how it was tuned – until someone decided they wanted it as a functioning instrument, and added the 6th course.

The rise and fall of the bandora and orpharion

The playability of a wire-strung instrument such as a bandora, orpharion or cittern depends on available and reliable wire – iron and brass – of adequate tensile strength. The reason for the gradual demise of the bandora and orpharion has been attributed to the death of superior wire string-maker Jobst Meuler, leaving players with only inferior and ultimately inadequate products with which to string their instruments. But the idea of Meuler’s high-tensile wire is disputed. There are currently two versions of the story.

Version 1. The leading metal-workers of Europe were in Germany. Jobst Meuler of Nuremberg created wire strings of extra tensile strength, and his doing so from c. 1590 was the reason bandoras and orpharions flourished. The loss of his extra tensile strength wire after 1621 spelled these instruments’ demise. Meuler’s wire was so good it resulted in commercial skulduggery. In 1609 and 1610 Friedrich Held tried to close Meuler’s wire production down. In 1613 Held confiscated Meuler’s tools on the pretence that he was owed money. Nuremberg Town Council arrested Held, but he was soon released as in 1592 he had obtained the privilege, i.e. the monopoly, from Nuremberg to produce some types of wire, and in 1608 he had received an additional imperial privilege from Vienna. In 1621, Held received a third privilege, also from Vienna. In the same year, German organist Heinrich Schultz, court composer to the Elector of Saxony, wrote to his employer on Meuler’s request, a letter of recommendation for Meuler to continue producing his “staline” (steel?) wire. After this, Meuler’s wire ceased production. The orpharion and bandora could no longer be effectively strung and they began to be abandoned.

Heinrich Schütz,
painted c. 1650–60
by Christoph Spetner.

Version 2. The earliest record of Meuler in the Nuremburg archives is 1609, when Friedrich Held tried to close his wire production down, 20 or so years after the supposed invention of his special wire. Heinrich Schultz’s letter in 1621 on Meuler’s behalf is the only evidence of the special quality of Meuler’s wire and it does not say, as version 1 requires, that the wire was stronger and able to withstand higher pitches, only that it was not plated (and therefore did not contravene a Nuremburg wire-making monopoly) and was, in Schultz’s view, better than other wire. The earliest proposed date of Meuler’s wire is therefore without evidence, and the bandora and orpharion continued to be played well after their proposed extinction following the end of Meuler’s wire in 1621. As we have seen, the orpharion was painted by Leonard Bramer in c. 1630–40, described by Athanasius Kircher in 1650, and painted by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrecht in 1672; in 1656 Sir Philip Leycester described the bandora and orpharion as “now of most use in England”; and as late as 1695 Roger North described the “pandora” giving a sound of “fullness as well as elegance … and [it] thereby attracts an attention.” The reason for these instruments’ demise was the same as for any other: changing fashions.

The orpharion had a reason of its own to fall out of use, being tuned the same as the renaissance lute. From 1610, changes were afoot in France to enlarge the size of the lute and thus lower its pitch, an idea that was to spread. By the 1620s, French, Swiss, Polish and English lutenists were experimenting with different ways of tuning the instrument. By 1650, the new D minor tuning and its close variants, which first appeared in 1638, had become the norm for French lute players, by now the international leaders of lute style. The top 6 courses were tuned f’–d’–a–f–d–A, the 4 basses of the 10 course lute then followed down the scale: G-F-E-D, with more diatonic basses later added. When this D minor tuning made playing some pieces awkward, tuning modifications were made to suit. This new way of tuning the instrument required changes in the positioning of frets to avoid playing out of tune using an unequally tempered scale. On a lute, this is as easy as moving tied frets this way or that. The fixed frets of an orpharion make this impossible and so, as the renaissance lute morphed into the baroque lute, the orpharion would potentially have been left behind. When a luthier makes a new instrument s/he can place fixed frets according to the tuning required, or an existing orpharion can be modified by refretting, but in either case it would still lack the extra diapasons of the lute in the new style without major modifications, such as a wider neck and/or a second pegbox.

Woman with cittern, 1677, by Pieter van Slingeland. The cittern was a small, narrow-bodied, wire-strung instrument, popular across social classes.

Between 1685 and 1701, James Talbot, Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University, produced a 241 page manuscript describing musical instruments (Christ Church Library Music MS 1187), which he probably intended to publish. While Talbot includes a small amount of information on the family of wire-strung instruments compared to the volume given to lutes, bowed strings, and wind instruments, he does include a description of the “Bandore”, “a Bass to the Cittern carrying 7 ranks [courses] whereof 4 Bass & 8ves [4 bass courses strung in octaves] 3 Unison [3 courses strung in unisons] = 14 str[ings]”, with its “Bridge & Fretts oblique”. The date of Talbot’s writing demonstrates the bandora’s continued existence at the end of the 17th century, affirming Roger North’s enthusiasm for the “pandora” in 1695. Talbot’s details about the bandora, such as they are, simply affirm previous descriptions.

A detail from Gerrit van Honthorst, Musical Group
on a Balcony, 1622, showing a theorbo.

Not so with the “Orpheoreon”: Talbot’s description reveals an innovation. “Tis a kind of tenor to the Cittern carrying 9 double ranks [courses] sometimes (7.)” Remarkably, Talbot describes a design of orpharion intended to keep pace with the new fashions of its cousin, the lute, and he is the only witness to do so. “Some like the English Theorbo carrie 5 double 8ve ranks of open Basses on 5 Nutts on long Head besides those (7) on the Plate (made at Brussels).” The theorbo is a form of lute with an extended neck and a second pegbox to enable longer vibrating string lengths on diapasons (open or unstopped basses) and thus a wider pitch range and a deeper, more sonorous sound. It was tuned in several ways, related to the old renaissance tuning rather than the new baroque D minor tuning. Because of its size, with a vibrating string length of 75 cm or more on the melody strings, the top 2 courses had to be tuned down an octave, as an attempt to tune them up to pitch would take the strings beyond breaking point. Tuning down the top 2 courses creates a re-entrant tuning, i.e. the strings do not follow the usual low to high sequence of pitches since some strings re-enter that sequence.

English theorbos differed from their Italian counterparts in four important respects: they were smaller in size; thus only the first course at its usual octave would go beyond breaking point, and so on English theorbos only the first course was tuned an octave down; the English theorbo bass courses consisted of paired octaves instead of the Italian single strings; and, instead of having a neck extension with a single nut to keep the bass strings in place, English theorbos had a series of small nuts to accommodate each paired diapason, as we see illustrated below. Thus, as Talbot described, the English Theorbo has “5 double 8ve ranks of open Basses on 5 Nutts on long Head besides those (7) on the Plate”.

Right, Lady with a Theorbo by John Michael Wright, c. 1670, a rare depiction of the English theorbo.
The string arrangement, as described by James Talbot, is clearer to see on the reproduction of
an English theorbo made by David van Edwards above. Left is a visual representation of one of
the standard re-entrant theorbo tunings, with diatonic diapasons (basses) and the top 2 courses
tuned down an octave. On the smaller English theorbo, only the first course is taken down an octave.
For those not used to reading tablature, the first course is on the top line, the second course on the
second line, and so on; the a represents an open, unfretted course; the first a below the line is
the first diatonic diapason (unfretted bass course), each successive stroke above the a representing
another course down and, since more than three strokes would be difficult to read,
4 strokes onward are represented by numbers.
(As with all pictures, click to see larger in new window.)

James Talbot describes a new type of 12 course orpharion, “made at Brussels”, that features precisely the string arrangement of the English theorbo: 7 courses on the first nut, 5 more extended basses in octaves, each with their individual nuts. His measurements for the standard orpharion are almost identical to that of the surviving Palmer instrument. Unfortunately, he gives no measurements for the ‘theorbo-orpharion’, so its size and therefore the question of its re-entrant tuning is left open to speculation.

The short space given by Talbot to the wire-strung family of instruments in comparison with other instrument types is a sign of their demise. Despite their inclusion in his manuscript, with the revelation of a new type of orpharion, and Roger North’s contemporaneous fulsome praise of the attractive “fullness as well as elegance” of the bandora in 1695, it would only be 2 years later that William Turner would write, “Certain it is, That several old English Instruments were laid aside, as the Orpharion … the Bandore … Cittern, &c.” The English broken consort, so popular in the high renaissance, had fallen out of favour during the 1620s, and the bandora, an integral part of its sound, had to some extent fallen out of favour with it. Yet despite this, and despite the bandora’s surviving solo music being written only in the years c. 1580–c. 1600, depictions of the instrument and accounts of it being played and admired continued through the rest of the 17th century until William Turner’s eulogy in 1697.

The penorcon

“Bandoer”, “Orpheoreon” and “Penorcon” in plate XVII
of Michael Praetorius, Syntagma Musicum,
Theatrum Instrumentorum, 1620.

The penorcon, an instrument of the bandora/orpharion family, is mentioned only once in surviving accounts. German composer and musicologist Michael Praetorius, in his Syntagma Musicum, De Organographia, and its supplement of illustrations, Theatrum Instrumentorum, 1620, wrote of the “Pandora or Bandur” or “Bandoer”, “devised in England”, and the “Orpheoreon”, a scaled-down bandora in shape but tuned like the lute “in chamber pitch”, in the old renaissance tuning. He also considered the “Penorcon”, and since his description is brief and unique it is worth quoting in full.

“The Penorcon is an instrument of almost the same kind [as the bandora], only its body is a little broader than that of the bandur, and its fingerboard is quite broad, so that nine courses of strings can be strung over it. In length it is somewhat shorter than the bandur and longer than an orpheoreon.”

As we can see from Praetorius’ plate XVII above, the “Bandoer”, “Orpheoreon” and “Penorcon” look so alike that one could easily mistake one for the other, except by attention to size and proportion.

Whereas the bandora has a relatively small but highly rewarding solo repertoire and the orpharion can play any renaissance lute music, no music has survived for the penorcon. Praetorius’ second bandora tuning, a fourth higher than standard bandora tuning and slightly modified (as discussed above), is d’–a–f–c–G–D–C. His penorcon tuning is very similar, d’–a–e–c–G–D–C–AA–GG, differing only in the third course being dropped a semitone and two extra basses, which means the penorcon has the same relative pitch relationship as a 9 course renaissance lute, making it essentially a 9 course bass orpharion which could therefore play lute repertoire and, as described above, bandora repertoire using courses 2 to 7 and 9 as the bandora’s 7 courses, and indeed at the same pitch as the bandora.

Fanned fret guitars 

In modern guitar lutherie, the idea of fanned frets with a nut and bridge facing opposite ways as on the bandora, orpharion and penorcon has re-emerged several times since the beginning of the 20th century. In 1989, guitar maker Ralph Novak even patented the term “fanned fret” as if the idea that emerged in the 1590s was his. Though the patent has now expired, he still has a trademark on the term “fanned fret”.

On a modern guitar with steel and overwound bronze strings, the effect of shortening the vibrating string length on trebles and lengthening it on basses is to make the trebles more bell-like and the basses richer. Below is a video of great Irish guitar-maker George Lowden talking about his “fan fret” guitars (notice “fan”, not “fanned”) as if the idea is novel – “When I decided to design this” – without any reference to the bandora, orpharion, penorcon, or John Rose.

Click picture to play video – opens in new window.


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© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Wired for sound: the bandora and orpharion

  • 2nd October 2020 at 2:06 pm

    John Rose carved a large scallop shell on the back of the orpharion given to Queen Elizabeth. Do you have any information on whether he was a pilgrim to St James?

    • 2nd October 2020 at 8:46 pm

      Hello, Syl.

      I would imagine that by the time Queen Elizabeth’s orpharion was made, being a pilgrim of Saint James would have been seen as too Catholic for royal tastes. As the article says above, the scalloped shape of the bandora, and likewise of the orpharion, and the scallop shell on the back of Queen Elizabeth’s orpharion, was an allusion to the birth of Venus from the sea, symbolising the bringing of harmony and the banishment of discord since she married Mars, the god of war. Similarly, Sandro Botticelli’s painting, The Birth of Venus, shows her standing on a scallop shell, just as Roman images did. The bringing of harmony is an appropriate enough symbolic reference for a musical instrument, like all the medieval and renaissance images of harpists, lutenists, etc. tuning.

      All the best.



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