Chris Wilke is used to the strange looks. The adjunct professor of music at the University sees those expressions every time he takes the stage carrying his theorbo.
“Most people have never seen anything like it,” he says.
At least not for the past 200 years or so. The theorbo, a relative of the lute, originated in Italy and enjoyed wide use in Europe from about 1600 to the 1780s. It features 14 strings and a rather unusual shape, with eight of the bass strings running from the bridge to an extra pegbox built onto an extension of the neck. This gives the theorbo its most striking feature—its length. Wilke has two theorbos, one of which measures a whopping seven feet.
The instrument was originally used for accompanying singers, Wilke says. But soon, composers like Robert DeVisee and Giovanni Kapsberger began producing solo works for theorbo. It found its way into larger ensembles as well, its extra bass strings and multinote capabilities making it well suited to the figured-bass accompaniments of the baroque period. Perhaps not surprisingly, Wilke is the only person in the region who plays the instrument. The Hamilton, Ohio, native took up guitar at age 14 and cut his musical teeth on the work of rockers Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page. But he soon began studying classical guitar.
Wilke earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the College of Mount St. Joseph and spent several years playing and teaching privately before entering the University of Cincinnati’s prestigious College-Conservatory of Music. There, he earned a master’s degree in guitar performance.
Along the way, he became fascinated with music from the 1600s, which set him on the trail to the theorbo. But finding an instructor for the instrument wasn’t easy. “I did it mostly on my own,” he says. “I had lessons from a few people passing through town. Personally, I find it quite a difficult instrument to play. For me, it was a lot to get used to the string spacing, and there are a lot more strings. For the left hand, it was a pretty gentle transition, but the right hand was a handful.”
Wilke now treks to Bloomington, Ind., every couple of weeks to study with Nigel North, a renowned performer and instructor at Indiana University. And in between his teaching assignments, he composes symphonic pieces—some of which have been performed by local orchestras—and is creating a CD of guitar music. He also picks up about a half-dozen extra playing jobs each semester because of the theorbo. Strange looks aside, exclusivity does have its advantages.