Laura Vaughan on lirone.jpg

Building Australia’s first lira da gamba for Pinchgut


Laura Vaughan normally plays viola da gamba but when asked to join the orchestra for L’Ormondo she had an idea. She wrote this for us.


When I first heard that the Pinchgut Opera production for 2009 was going to be Cavalli’s l’Ormindo, my first thought was “wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could have a lira da gamba for the continuo section”!  A what?  As many of you would have read in the last newsletter, a lira da gamba, (or lirone, lyra, lira, liure, lyre, lire…) is an extraordinary looking fellow, a bit like a small bodied cello or bass viol upon which a veritable forest of strings has sprung up.  With a distinctive leaf-shaped peg box and up to 16 strings, including some ‘bordons’ (longer strings that are off to the side of the finger board) the lira da gamba was developed in Italy, and was rarely found outside its borders. Its job was, like the lyre of Orpheus, principally to accompany the human voice.  One can think of it almost like a lyre that is played with a bow.  The sound that results is unique, a bit like you might imagine would result if you were to throw a consort of viols, an organ and a piano accordion into a magic box and mix them all together.


Tuned in a very clever fashion, with a basic pattern of ‘down a fourth, up a fifth’ as you go up string by string, the lira is designed with a very flat bridge so the bow sits on four strings most of the time, or up to six if you press harder with the bow.  So, you basically constantly have four- to six-note bowed chords, which you as the player are able to control with (ideally!) all the same shades of colour and dynamic as if you were playing a beautiful melody on a violin. Teamed with theorbos, a cello, harpsichord or organ, the colouristic possibilities from the continuo section are heavenly.


So together with the fabulous Pinchgut team, the decision was made to procure a lira da gamba for us to use in l’Ormindo.  Hmmm, not so easy, these things are rare creatures!  There are only a handful of instrument makers worldwide who make liras da gamba, and there had never been one made in Australia before.  I decided to talk to expert Melbourne luthier Ian Watchorn, who expressed great enthusiasm for the project, and together we set to making the first Australian made lira da gamba.


Immediately it was apparent that deciding exactly what to build was not going to be easy.  Unlike most other historical instrument such as the viola da gamba, lute, recorder etc, there are very few surviving original liras da gamba - only about five in museums in total and only two that seem like they might possibly have been real working instruments.  Apart from these surviving instruments, liras da gamba are depicted in woodcuts within treatises such as Praetorius and Mersenne, and in a number of Italian paintings.  Ian was not convinced that the surviving instruments would be the best things to copy, as in many ways they did not seem to have been designed to be practical, working instruments.  We had some very interesting discussions about the issue of authenticity in original instruments.  I had no idea previously how many old instruments there are around that were either cannibalised from other genuine old instruments to fulfil 19th century collectors’ demands, or surviving old instruments made in the 17th century for almost purely decorative purposes. The upshot was, owing to things such as the arrangement of pegs (they would be physically almost impossible to tune) and body shape (too unlike the shape of any other working Northern Italian string instruments of the time) we decided not to copy either of the potentially viable surviving liras da gamba.


This, of course, left us with the question of what would we build? Ian came up with the suggestion that we look to the lira da gamba’s cousin, the lira da braccio for inspiration. Another chordal bowed string instrument, but one that was held on the shoulder, it was used by Italian poet-musicians in court to accompany their recitations of lyric and narrative poetry and was around a bit earlier than the lira da gamba.  Like the lira da gamba, it had a leaf-shaped peg box with front-facing pegs, numerous strings and bordons, and also had the added advantage for us of there being more surviving instruments around to look at.  Ian had drawings of a beautiful lira da braccio by Giovane Maria de Brescia that he thought had beautiful geometric proportions that could be modified and enlarged to create a lovely and historically appropriate lira da gamba


How many strings did I want?  Er, back to the books.  Liras da gamba were known to have anywhere from 9 to 16 strings, and there are historical (and quite varying) tunings for all of those different setups. I’d played on liras with 13 and 14 strings in the past, and we made the decision to go with 13 strings, as this would be enough to cover all the notes I’d need but not too many strings to clutter up the finger board.  We also needed to decide how many ‘bordon’ strings I’d want.  These are strings off the side of the fingerboard (you should be able to see the one on my lira in the photo)  and their use is quite mysterious. A number of different tunings (including some octaves) survive for these slightly longer strings that can just be tuned to a single pitch, like the big long strings on a theorbo.  Personally, I think the bordons were probably a hangover from the lira da braccio, where they would have been used like drones underneath the poetry or singing.  While we decided to set our lira da gamba up to leave room for potentially two ‘bordon’ strings (because I think some of the more whacky tunings that would give a big, booming sound to some common chords like C or G major could sound very cool!) we set it up initially with just one bordon string, as the most harmonically flexible choice.   For the arrangement of the pegs around the pegbox, we decided to put them all in a circle  -many of the paintings showed this arrangement.


All of our design decisions made, all that was left for me to do was wait and let Ian set about making it all happen.  About six months later, after a few visits along the way to check on the progress of our ‘baby lira’ Ian called me to say it was finished, and it was time for the real test – how was it going to sound?  Arriving at Ian’s studio I was a little nervous but thrilled with how the instrument looked, it had turned out just gorgeously.  We tuned it up, I took and deep breath and put my bow to the strings…..Ah!  Lovely! Beautiful!  What a pleasure – and huge relief!  It sounded just as good as it looked, resonant and ringing and with many subtleties of tone.  A most satisfying conclusion to our project, and one that I am really looking forward to sharing with everyone in the audience with l’Ormindo opens.


Laura Vaughan