Forgotten instruments: the “Chitarra Pomposa” or “Bach-Ukulele”

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dr. Martin Schuft

A couple of years ago two German musicologists, dr. Martin Schuft and Professor Hermann Lügner, did a remarkable discovery. On a flea market in Leipzig they found two boxes of old sheet music. Initially they didn’t think much of it, as markets like these are loaded with old junk paper like this. But when dr Schuft strolled through the box some pieces of tablature stood out. Clearly 18th century, but for an instrument he didn’t recognize; “Gitare Pomposa”

The seller couldn’t tell more about it than that he found them in

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Professor Hermann Lügner

the attic of his grandfather’s fishmongers store. And the price: 12 euros per box. office-overflow-smallWhile dr. Martin thought that was a fair price, prof, Hermann deemed it a bit steep for a box of old paper and he managed to talk the man down to 5 euros for the two boxes. They took them home and put them on the pile of “stuff to research”.

 

A year ago I got a call from dr. Hermann. Whether I would be interested to make a reconstruction of a forgotten instrument; the Gitarre Pomposa, an instrument from the late 17th, early 18th century. It was described as a small guitar-shaped instrument, with four courses in a re-entrant tuning. But there were also notions of players who would set it up with single strings. Tuned gg-cc-ee-aa

Never shy for a challenge and historical research, I said yes. We started to search for this enigmatic instrument. It proved to be hard to find examples in museums. But I remembered the little guitar-form in Paris. It was of a small guitar, even smaller than a ukulele, made by one of the great masters of his age: Antonio Stradivari.

I had made a reconstruction of this little instrument in 2014, as a part of my Stradivari research project. A small 5-course guitar, known as “Il Canino”. Could this be what we were looking for? But this was clearly a guitar, or wasn’t it? Recently the researchers who found Stradivari’s last will, also published an article about a couple of letters of the old man. Two were to his son Omobono, the good for nothing son who only was interested in wine and woman.

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Chitarra Pomposa from the Katzen Museum in Ost-freierbach.

The other was to a mr Giovanni Bacco in Leipzig. In this letter he apologized that the delivery of the two “Chitarri Pomposa” was delayed because his son Omobono didn’t take them directly to Leipzig, but took a detour trough Milan where he pawned them at a local brothel. Antonio had gone to Milan himself, and six months later, his son still had the imprint of the violin makers boot on his backside…

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Mr. Bacco playing the Chitarra Pomposa

Mr Bacco had expressed his disappointment in another letter, because the  main partis in his ‘passione di matteo” now had to be played on ordinary lutes and violins. When we looked further in the archives of Leipzig to look for this Bacco figure, nothing was found, exept for a portrait on which he plays his beloved instrument.

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Modern editions of original Chitarra Pomposa music…

I am currently working on a reconstruction of this very special instrument. It will be especially suited for ukulele players, as the tuning and size are very similar. In the meantime we are looking for music that was written for this instrument.

Beside the German pieces by mr Bacco, we also have Italian titles like “Oltre l’Arcobaleno”, “Scala a Cielo” and “Che Mondo Meraviglioso”. All masterpieces in their own right. It is a pity this instrument was forgotten, especially since it was one of the most beloved instruments of composers. In Germany they were surpassed by the Waldzither, while in Italy the Accordion and Mandolin gained popularity. In France they were abandoned after the French Revolution, the instrument was deemed too bourgeois. They shortly tried it with a headless version, but it ultimately ended up on communal bonfires as a symbol of the ancien regime, warming the frigid bones of the revolutionaries.

Burning-Uke

As you have probably guessed by now, this whole story is complete and utter nonsense.
Happy April Fools Day!

 

 

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