The Scotsman Sessions #275: Alex McCartney

Welcome to the award-winning Scotsman Sessions. With performing arts activity curtailed, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on, with introductions from our critics. Here, Glasgow-based theorbo player Alex McCartney performs a Prelude and Chaconne in A minor from the Saizenay manuscript by Robert de Visée

“A harp stuck onto a very long guitar, in a very weird tuning” – that’s how Glasgow-based Alex McCartney describes the theorbo, the instrument he plays in his Scotsman Sessions video.

“There’s plenty more of it than you can even see on the screen,” he says. “It’s an impossible instrument to film.”

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Though a mainstay of early music groups, the theorbo rarely enters more general consciousness – unlike its close cousin the lute, which McCartney also plays.

Alex McCartneyAlex McCartney
Alex McCartney

"In fact,” he adds, “you’re usually expected to play at least three different types of lute plus Baroque guitar, and sometimes to bring them all along to rehearsals just in case.”

Born in York, McCartney has lived in Glasgow for several years and enjoys being part of the Scottish music scene: “There’s plenty of very high-quality early music around in Scotland, but it feels like there’s space for new stuff to happen, too.”

He recently began his own performing ensemble, Scots Baroque, and following a solo recital as part of Music at Paxton in July has another coming up at the Lammermuir Festival in September.

“In some ways, the pandemic came at the right time for me," he says. “I needed a break: I’d been travelling a great deal, taking lots of flights, so I’ve been thinking again about how I want to do things, [looking] at new ways of working that don’t have such an impact on the climate.”

For his performance, McCartney has chosen a Prelude and Chaconne in A minor from the Saizenay manuscript by Robert de Visée, court guitarist to Louis XIV. “We know he played guitar while the King fell asleep, and he used to teach the King guitar too. They’re pieces I know well, and they’re very pleasing to play. Because the theorbo is such a difficult instrument, it’s very easy to write music that’s almost impossible to play. It’s even worse when the music isn’t really worth the effort anyway. With de Visée, the juice is really worth the squeeze.”

For more on Alex McCartney, visit

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