Orpharion
7-course Orpharion
7-course Orpharion

The Orpharion was mainly a late 16th and early 17th century phenomenon. The name is a conflation of the famous Greek musical heroes, Orpheus and Arion. It has a suitably ethereal, resonant sound, and was a popular alternative to the lute. A few notable composers (Anthony Holborne in particular) wrote specifically for it, but since it is tuned exactly like a lute, all the vast lute repertoire of that prolific period is accessible.

This instrument is based on an original by Francis Palmer, made in London in 1617, now in the Musikhistorisk Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark. The Palmer instrument has 9 courses, but I reduced that to 7, mainly to simplify construction and keep the price down. The other well-known surviving orpharion, by John Rose, has 6 courses.

Head and pegs
Head and pegs

The strings are a combination of brass and iron. That's what gives it its other-worldly tone. 16th century metallurgy had problems with getting sufficient range without strings breaking, so the orpharion resorts to the ingenious device of sloping the bridge and nut (and all the frets to correspond), to make the bass strings substantially longer than the trebles.

Even then, there is some evidence that it relied on a super-strong and secret wire developed by Jobst Meuler in Nurnberg. That hypothesis is disputed, though. It may be that the Palmer orpharion was simply at a much lower pitch than the G that's generally assumed.

In any case, an orpharion nowadays has to be able to operate with a top string at modern pitch G. Luckily, we now have steel strings which are quite happy and robust at that pitch, while retaining Palmer's original scale length. They work very well, and the sound is not drastically affected.

Rose
Rose
Back of Orpharion
Back view
Orpharion in case
Orpharion in case

Sound Clips


“Home again, market is done” from Margaret Board's Lute Book, c. 1620.
Played by Ian Pittaway


Untitled piece from William Mure of Rowallan's Lute Book, c. 1620.
Played by Ian Pittaway

Prices

7-course orpharion
£1850
 
Cases
Excellent cases can be ordered from specialist manufacturers such as Kingham MTM, but they're pricy. I can supply an attractive, custom-built plywood case, black with chrome fittings (see picture above), for £150 when ordered with an instrument.
Delivery
Delivery price depends on where you live. Please enquire.
Options
More courses, different head - please enquire.
To order or enquire, please contact me
shim