Unusual Instruments: Coronation of Poppea

In the orchestra for Poppea you will see a number of instruments that we don’t often see any more even in baroque orchestras.  Two are slightly more usual instruments (the viola da gamba and the theorbo),  and two are very unusual instruments (the lirone and cornetto). Here’s a guide to these.

Lirone (or lira da gamba)

The lirone is the bass member of the lira family of instruments, popular in the late 16th/17th centuries. It is a string instrument played with a bow, has between 9 and 16 string, and a fretted neck. It’s held between the legs like a cello or viola da gamba. It has a flat bridge which means that it can play chords. This is it’s characteristic sound -  four- to six-note bowed chords, which player are able to control with (ideally!) all the same shades of colour and dynamic as if they were playing a beautiful melody on a violin. Other members of this family include the lira da braccio.

Laura Vaughan, who is playing the lirone for Poppea, wrote a lovely piece on the commissioning of the lirone when it was first played in our production of OrmindoYou can read this here.

You can also watch a video of Laura talking about the lirone here

Laura Vaughan on lirone.jpg

Cornetto (or cornett)

A cornetto is a conical wooden pipe, about 60 cms long, covered in leather. It has fingerholes and a small cup shaped mouthpiece. They are usually slightly curved and there are several different sizes, the most popular being the treble. It was much prized for it’s resemblance to the human voice (considered the most perfect of instrumets) and its heyday was the late 16th and first half of the 17th centuries. It is a difficult instrument to master; at it’s most popular it’s virtuoso players commanded impressive salaries and were very highly regarded, particularly for their ornamentation. It is not to be confused with the modern day cornet with which it has no connection.


Viola da Gamba (often called viols or gambas)


viola da gamba.jpg

The viol family existed side by side with the violin family from the late 15th century to the mid-18th century. Viols differ from violins in a number of ways – they usually have six strings (instead of four); their ribs (the sides of the instrument) are deeper; they are always played vertically, unlike some of the violin family which were initially rested horizontally against the arm, and were later tucked under the chin; and they have tied-on frets, like a guitar. The bow is also held differently – with the player’s hand underneath the hair rather than on top of the wood. They have a darker, more introverted sound than the violin family. There are four sizes of viols – soprano (treble), alto, tenor and bass. The double bass version is often called the violone, and this is what we are using for Coronation of Poppea.




The theorbo is a variation of the lute, with several extra bass strings attached to an extra pegbox halfway up the neck of the instrument. The most recognisable thing about the theorbo is its length – most instruments are around two metres tall or longer. Fourteen strings seems to be the usual number, though this can vary. The lute and its variants – the archlute, theorbo and chitarrone – were phenomenally popular in their time (from the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 18th) and much extraordinarily virtuosic music was written for them.


Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea

30 Nov - 6 Dec

City Recital Hall