• Theorbo
  • 6 min

Programme Note

Giles Swayne: Groundwork, Op. 80 (1999)

In July 1998 I decided that I would use a theorbo in Havoc, a piece I was writing for the 1999 Proms (premiere September 8th 1999). Since my knowledge of the instrument was negligible, I contacted David (The Orbo) Miller and appealed for help, since I knew he would be playing in the Proms piece. He kindly and with admirable patience showed me how the instrument worked, and I began writing groundwork as a technical exercise - hence one meaning of the title. The other is that it is a set of variations over a ground bass.

Since the theorbo possesses eight diapason bass strings - which are plucked like those of a harp, not stopped with the left and - it seemed sensible to use these for the ground bass, which consists simply of a rising eight-note scale using all diapason strings in turn. This ground is stated at the beginning, and developed through 16 variations. Nos 1 to 7 are straightforward, except that some of them compress the ground into itself. Nos 8 to 16 are in stretto: they are gradually overlapped with each other, the new ground beginning one note earlier each time. The climax of the piece comes at variations 10 to 11; variations 12 to 14 bring it gradually down to earth; no. 15 is quiet, and puts the decorated ground in relaxed canon with itself (in octaves, using the top and bottom strings of the instrument). Variation 16 strips the ground of decoration, putting tight scrunchy chords over it, and the piece ends with the lowest diapason string (G), a quiet raspberry ripple of the other seven diapason strings, and a final harmonic G to tell us that our little journey is over. I hope you enjoy the scenery.

© Giles Swayne