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Musical Instruments in Vermeer's Paintings: The Lute

by Adelheid Rech

The Divine Lute1

Now divine aire, now is hi soule ravisht, is it not strange that sheepes guts should hale soules out of mens bodies?

William Shakespeare, Much Ado about Nothing

Lute (It.: leùto, liuto; Gr.: laute; Sp.: laúd; Fr.: luth)

Shakespeare was only one of many writers of his day who attributed to the lute the power to transport the listener into a kind of ecstasy; for throughout the Renaissance the lute's ravishing tone made it the most esteemed and admired of all musical instruments. The fame of the greatest players spread through all Europe, and the doors of royal courts and palaces were open to them (a number were consequently employed as spies) while instruments by the most famous makers could fetch astronomical sums.

kitharafig. 1 Apollo Citharoedus with kithara

It is not hard to see the appeal of the instrument. Light and portable, a harmonizing instrument far cheaper and easier to maintain than keyboards, it was (and is) enormously versatile; it was used to play dance music, popular tunes, arrangements of vocal music and song accompaniments, and soon generated a solo repertoire of its own, in the form of preludes, passemezzi (a sort of Renaissance twelve-bar blues) and the most refined and expressive fantasias. It was seen as the heir of the ancient Roman cithara (fig. 1) or lira, which gave it a further boost in an age obsessed with Classical literature. Above all, it was the lute's ravishing sound which made it so admired.

Over its long history a truly enormous repertoire was created for the instrument. American scholar Arthur Ness has estimated that 25,000 pieces survive for the Renaissance lute, and probably as many for the Baroque instruments—and that is only the music specially notated in lute tablature, not counting music from the Mediaeval and Baroque eras which is written in normal staff notation.

The "Painter's" Lute2

lute Early Baroque Lute
Michael Praetorius,
Syntagma musicum II

The lute's seductive appeal, combined with the challenge of depicting it correctly, was as strong among Dutch painters as it had been for previous generations of European painters. Examination of Dutch genre works in particular show that a number of painters clearly kept it as a studio prop and, naturally, a few (certainly Jan Steen) must have actually played it. In some cases, the same artist featured the same lute in several paintings. Lutes or even theorbos appear as part of studio furniture in self portraits as well. For example, in Michael Sweerts An Artist's Studio (fig. 2), a lovely Italian theorbo lies propped in one corner.

Micaeil Sweerts, An Artist's Sudiofig. 2 In the studio
Michiel Sweerts
Oil on canvas, 73.5 x : 58.8 cm.
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit

The lute, other than being a continual source of iconographical inspiration, was frequently used as a training ground for learning the intricacies of linear perspective (fig. 3). There exist many sixteenth-century engravings which show the lute being drawn, usually in the difficult three-quarter or end-on views (the full face view of the soundboard is relatively straightforward to draw). The lute was also an important ingredient in vanitas painting which represented the transient nature of life. At times the ephemeral nature of heard music was conveyed in an even more graphic manner via a broken string or two, or the instrument portrayed face down with obvious finger marks in heavy dust on its normally glossy back (fig. 4).

lute drawing in perspective
fig. 3 La pratica di prospettiva
Lorenzo Sirigatti
Venice, Girolamo Franceschi
Vanitas still life with musical instruments, Evaristo Baschenisfig. 4 A Still Life with Musical Instruments (detail)
Evaristo Baschenis
c. 1660
Oil on canvas
95.5 x 129 cm.
The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

The Lute in Vermeer's Paintings

Under the influence of the successful young Leiden painter Frans van Mieris, Vermeer frequently chose the theme of a young woman playing a musical instrument alone in a room. Vermeer painted the lute two times, once in the Woman with a Lute (fig. 5) and another time in the late Concert (fig. 6). At first glance, other stringed-instruments which appear in his works might be mistaken for the lute. In reality, they are citterns, a close relative of the lute. Only in Woman with a Lute did Vermeer portray the lute in a prominent position. Unfortunately, due to the poor state of conservation of this picture, none of its details, which were so lovingly portrayed by a host of Dutch painters, can be made out. All indications of the instrument's strings or frets have entirely disappeared and the delicately carved ornamental soundhole has been reduced to a few unintelligible smudges of paint.

Woman with a Lute (detail), Johannes Vermeerfig. 5 Woman with a Lute (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1662–1665
Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 45.7 cm.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Concert, Johannes Vermeerfig. 6 The Concert (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1663–1666
Oil on canvas, 72.5 x 64.7 cm.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

As the player sits with his back to the viewer, only the instrument's tuning head is visible. This is bent back from the neck nearly a right angle, so it is evident that the man is playing a lute.

Despite the poor condition of the painting, lute expert Lynda Sayce notes that the projecting peg for the treble string (in its little rider) of the lute in the Woman with a Lute most likely indicates an instrument with 10 or 11 courses. An 11 course lute would be the expected type for the date, but if the lute was a studio prop owned by the painter, it might be rather out of date. The exact number of strings cannot be counted and thus it is not possible to determine if it is a 10 or 11 course instrument. "Perhaps the young woman with the dreamy expression on her face is awaiting the return of a suitor from a journey. The map may allude to such a circumstance. Or is her self-forgetting attention devoted solely to the sounds emerging from her instrument?"3 In fact, it should be noted that the young lady is not actually playing the lute, she is tuning it. Since it was a well-known fact that the lute goes out of tune often, it may be that it had subtle bearing on the meaning of the painting which was evident to contemporary observers. The open books that lie before her on the covered table are presumably lute song books which had been published in incredible numbers not only in the Netherlands but throughout Europe as well. A sense of longing, of something incomplete, pervades the mood of the whole painting subtly "in tune" with the lute's delicate tone.

The young lady tuning the lute

"Quid Non Sentit Amor" from Jacob Cats, Proteus
"Quid Non Sentit Amor"
from Jacob Cats, Proteus

The young lady in Vermeer's painting is not in reality playing her instrument but rather tuning it. The lute goes out of tune easily and it is tedious if not difficult to tune. Thus lutenists share a joke "We spend half our time tuning and the other half playing out of tune."

Vermeer has not given a precise explanation for the woman's meditative attitude, preferring instead to suggest a mood that has universal resonances. However, he provided two indications that the woman's musing revolves around a distant lover: the map of Europe, which may well allude to foreign travels; and the bass viol dimly, visible under the table. The presence of this second instrument relates to an emblem by Jacob Cats, which describes metaphorically how the resonance of the strings of one musical instrument are felt in another, just as the heartstrings of two lovers sound as one, even when they are separated.

The Concert, instead, shows the rear view of part of what we now call the 12 course double-headed lute, which is the archetypal lute of the seventeenth-century Dutch painters. Here, the painting's thematic content is quite different. The air of perfect calm and spiritual harmony is intensified by the two Arcadian landscapes portrayed, one in an ebony frame and the other on the harpsichord's opened lid. Vermeer did his best to sustain the sense of thematic harmony by establishing a well-proportioned composition in which each element is carefully balanced by another.

Dutch: luit
French: luth
German: Laute
Italian: liuto


According to the Sachs-Hornbostel system, the lute is a "composite chordophone" which means a string instrument in which a string bearer and a resonator are "organically united" and cannot be separated without destroying the instrument. The plane of the string runs parallel to the soundboard. The sound is produced by plucking the strings with a plectrum or with the finger tips and thumb.


The name and form of the European lute derives from its early ancestor, the Arab "al 'Ūd" which literally means wood, most likely because the instrument was almost entirely made of various kinds of wood.

The first depictions of the lute's ancestors were found in the former Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (c. 2nd millennium B.C.), later in Egypt. The short-necked lute appeared at first as the P'i-p'a (Biwa) in East Asia (China, fifth century A.C.) and as the Ūd in Arabia (7th-8th century). It was brought to the Iberian Peninsula (8–9th century) probably by the Moors, and later (c. 1100) to Sicily by the Saracens. The form of the European lute with the turned back pegbox as a substantial characteristic (presumably to help hold the low-tension strings firmly against the nut) had been developed in Spain during the thirteenth century. By the 14th century the lute was widespread throughout Italy and had made significant inroads into the German-speaking areas.

The lute really came into its own in the late fifteenth century. At first, it had been employed to accompany the singing voice, but with the appearance of the great lutenists and composers (Vincenzo Capirola, John Dowland, Thomas Mace, Valentin Bakfark, Alessandro Piccinini or Nicolaes Vallet) and the publication of numerous lutebooks, it was also used as a solo instrument since musicians found that it could be played with fingertips as well as with a quill.

"Lutes continued to evolved at the end of the Renaissance and into the Baroque period. At the end of the seventeenth century, in France, the lute regained popularity as an instrument ideal to accompany vocal music as well as a soloist in court performances. This spurred a new series of modifications, including a completely new way of tuning the strings, and the addition of an eleventh course. In the first decades of the eighteenth century, lute music was revolutionized in Germany by lute player and composer Silvius Leopold Weiss. His musical ideas made it necessary to extend the number of strings, giving birth to the thirteen-course lute. To meet these new standards, most of the old instruments were modified by changing the bridge and adding small protruding extensions, called riders,' to the pegbox. Another type of thirteen–course instrument, the swan-neck lute, developed simultaneously; it utilized an extended pegbox, often of a swooping shape, to accommodate additional bass strings. As lutes continued to acquire supplementary strings, they became more difficult to tune and maintain. These hindrances, along with the rising popularity of violins and keyboards, pushed the lute almost to extinction. The second half of the eighteenth century saw the decay of the lute. An important number of old lutes were transformed into guitars by narrowing the neck, adding metal or bone fixed frets, and replacing the bridge and pegbox to allow only six single strings."4

With the introduction of the harpsichord (and later the piano) and the larger orchestra, the lute, with its soft voice, gradually fell out of favor and it disappeared from the musical stage for two hundred years. Thanks to the early music movement of the last decades, the lute has enjoyed a modern revival. Increasing interest in practical performance and research have given birth to national lute societies and international lute symposiums. Following the early music craze of the 1970s and the recordings of Julian Bream the standards of both making and playing are now high. Today, lute players and makers approach the lute and its music from an academic standpoint, and lute making has become a cottage industry throughout the world.

Renaissance and Baroque lutes –the various kinds of tunings and use

by Michael Lowe

Launch video

Sarabande from Partita in G minor
Sylvius Leopold Weiss (1687–1750)
Performed by: Nigel North

"We have, on the one hand, the 10-course lute which, being generally tuned in the "old tuning" is regarded as a "renaissance" lute, and we may play the works of Ballard and Vallet upon it. We then move to the "baroque" lute in "D minor tuning" on which we may play the works of Les Gaultiers and the German repertoire. This separation is reinforced by the serious lute student who, usually, begins his studies on a lute tuned in the "old tuning" and later acquires a "baroque lute," often a 13-course lute, on which he will play the music of Bach and Sylvius Leopold Weiss.

Historically, of course, things were quite different. The "D minor tuning" originated as one of the many "transitional" tunings which were used on the 10-course lute. There were earlier examples of the use of variant lute tunings but it was in France during the second and third decades of the seventeenth century that efforts were made, by the use of different tunings, to enhance the resonance of the lute in particular keys. – The surviving repertoire of this period presents us with composers writing in more than one tuning, both 'old' and 'transitional' (including D minor), though some of the composers had strong associations with particular tunings. This immediately raises the question of transcription from one tuning to another.

There is quite a large repertoire of pieces in the transitional tunings: - Anyone with a 10-course lute will then be able to acquire an understanding of the seventeenth-century French style by experiencing its development from the pieces in "old tuning" via the transitional tunings to the final adoption of the D minor tuning as the standard lute tuning.

What of the actual lutes themselves? It would appear that the normal practice in Northern Europe was for the 10-course lute to have a single pegbox, most often with a chanterelle rider for the first course. We know from Piccinini [...] that nearly all the old Bologna lutes of the first half of the sixteenth century had been bought up by the French, and the long, slender body-shape which we associate with these instruments is certainly seen in Northern European paintings of the early seventeenth century [...], but not to the exclusion to the other forms. We may never know how these various forms, and indeed sizes, were evaluated at the time, i.e. whether particular shapes and sizes were associated with the solo repertoire, ensemble work or an accompanying role, but it would be interesting for someone to examine exhaustively the surviving iconography of the period, in order to see whether there is any apparent consistency in the use of the various forms of the lute."

"Renaissance and Baroque Lutes: A False Dichotomy," in Proceedings of the International Lute Symposium Utrecht 1986, eds. Lous Peter Grijp and Willem Mook, Utrecht 1988, 124–139.


Launch video

Historical 13-Course Baroque Lute Construction
Tom Blassick

The Western lute, as it is traceable from the Renaissance time, has a rounded body that could best be described as being the shape of a longitudinally sliced half pear. Its vaulted back is made up of a number of separate ribs of wood (maple or yew as local woods, later rosewood, sycamore, cedar, or cypress), bent over a mould and glued together edge to edge to form the deep rounded body. These ribs are often no more than one-thirty-second of an inch in thickness. Wooden bars are glued underneath the belly to strengthen it and add to the resonance.

The neck is made of hardwood (sycamore or maple), later very often veneered with decorative hardwood like ebony, or even inlaid with strips of ivory. The fingerboard is fretted by means of tying gut around the neck at the appropriate places. Visually, the lute is easily recognizable because of its characteristically angled pegbox.

Although the greatest repertoire for the lute is from England, the best makers were Germans who lived in Italy. The delicacy and expressiveness of Renaissance lute music is mirrored in the light construction of the instrument. Stringing is light since the body is not able to withstand twelve or more strings at high tension.5

At the back of the top end of the neck the housing for the pegbox is cut out, with the slender tapering hardwood tuning-pegs inserted from the sides. After about 1595, various branches of the lute family developed different and characteristic pegbox forms in order to accommodate the longer bass strings needed to extend its lower tonal range.

From c. 1580 onwards, almost all surviving lutes have separate ebony fingerboards, set flush with the soundboard and usually with separate 'points' decorating the joint between the fingerboard and soundboard.

The soundboard is a flat thin plate of softwood, often made from two halves joined along the Centrex line. Several pieces were used for larger instruments. An ornamental soundhole—the "rose"—is carved into the soundboard, a few rare instruments may have several small roses.

The bridge underwent a rather slow evolution. It was consistently made of a light hardwood (pear, plum or walnut), sometimes stained black, and was glued directly to the surface of the soundboard. Its cross-sectional design was cleverly arranged to minimize stress at the junction with the thin and flexible soundboard. Holes drilled through the bridge took the strings, which were tied so that they were supported by a loop of the same string rather than by a saddle as in the modern guitar. This has a remarkable effect on the tone and contributes to the sweetness of the lute's sound.

The strings, made of gut, are arranged in pairs—the courses, being tuned either in unison or at the octave. The highest-pitched course, called the "chantrelle" (from French singer) usually consists of only a single string and is the first course in the count. Thus an 8-course lute usually has 15 strings. Medieval lutes had at first four, later five courses. In the last decades of the Renaissance the number of courses grew to six or even more courses. Together with the various kinds of tuning it might be comprehensible that the tuning of a lute takes some time, apart from the fact that the natural material the lute is made of, is very sensitive to the changing climate of the room.


The Duet, Ter Brugghenfig. 7 The Duet
Hendrick ter Brugghen
c. 1628
Oil on canvas, 101 x 81 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

This picture shows a 'thumb out' right hand position
on a 10-course lute.

As in painting, the training of professional lute players took place in a system of apprenticeship. Thus, there exist few written instructions specifically regarding playing technique. The more conscientious authors lamented the "extreme Shie of many masters in revealing the Occult and Hidden Secrets of the Lute" (Thomas Mace). Among these authors of instruction books were Vincenzo Capirola (resp. one of his pupils of Venice who prepared the lavishly illuminated Capirola-Lutebook, 1517), John Dowland, Thomas Mace (Musick's Monument, 1676, a complete handbook for the lute) and the German Hans Judenkünig who first codified a system of fingering for the left hand. Plucking is done with the soft part of the fingers and thumb (fig. 7), not the nails. The best lute players use little motion of either hand.

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Building a Medieval Lute
Yaron Naor
Performed by: Eitan Hoffer

In the Middle Ages, lute players plucked the strings with a strong quill and played principally accompanying chords to their songs. With the development of the polyphony during the Renaissance period, lutenists began to pluck the strings with the thumb (for the bass, playing downwards, for accenting beats) and the following three fingers (playing upwards, for the unaccented beats). The little finger had to be placed on the belly to support the hand. According to the Capirola manuscript (the first with instructions for the right hand), the thumb was held under the second finger, that is, inside the hand. With the increasing number of the courses, a new position and movement of the right hand became necessary; the hand had to be turned so that the fingers could touch the strings almost in a right angle. The thumb gained a greater stretch to reach all the bass courses. This "thumb-out-position" was of advantage for the lively bass lines in the new compositions. Many other, often difficult techniques both for the right and the left hand had been developed to extend the resources of the instrument and to meet the musical "fashion" of the time.

Various Kinds of Lutes

Due to the lute's popularity in the Renaissance, further structural developments of this instrument extended its tonal capabilities. "Music demanded additional low notes in order to play thorough bass. The new function of the lute as a continuo instrument prompted the need for longer bass strings, generating a number of experimental lutes. First to appear, without success, were instruments with small necks and enormous bodies; shortly after, lute makers built instruments with extensions on the neck and/or pegbox. This led to a variety of additions to the lute family, including archlutes, double-headed lutes, and theorbos. Silver wound strings, invented around the 1660s, enabled lutes to reach deeper and stronger bass notes with shorter strings. These strings with new technology replaced the lower gut strings and put an end to the ever increasing length of the lute."6

One of the most popular of the new instruments, which still appears in early music concerts or performances of early Italian operas (Monteverdi), is the theorbo (in Italy also called "chitarrone"). The theorbo was probably invented in Florence in the sixteenth century as it was first mentioned in a description of the Medici wedding celebration in 1589.

In M. Praetorius's Syntagma musicum we find two types of a theorbo (fig. 8). The theorbo has been developed by adaptation of a bass lute to a tenor lute. In addition to the strings which are stopped by the fingers on a fretted fingerboard, the theorbo has a separate nut and pegbox for a set of longer, unstopped bass strings (diapasons).

fig. 8 Lang romanische Theorba: Chitarron, and paduanische Theorba. woodcuts from
Michael Praetorius's Syntagma musicum II (1618–1619)
lute and archlute
A comparison of a normal G lute and a theorbo. This copy was made by David Van Edwards. Like virtually all surviving Italian theorbos, the original has 6 double courses on the fingerboard, and 8 single diapasons.

the theorbo information-page by British lutenist Lynda Sayce

Beyond the upper end of the first pegbox (for the stopped strings) the neck extends to a second pegbox for the additional bass strings. The extension is of the same piece of wood as the first pegbox, and the bass strings are kept from crossing the stopped courses by setting the extensions at a slight angle off centre. As the bass strings cannot be stopped (the fingers of the left hand would not reach them without problems) they are tuned to a scale and are played by the plucking right hand. So the theorbo has normally 14 courses: 6 double for the stopped strings and 8 for the single bass strings. The extended neck is necessary because, before the invention of wire-wound strings, increasing the length was the only way to obtain a clear and sustained sound from low bass strings, sometimes 90 cm. and longer. Some surviving instruments are around two meters long! The image to the right shows an excellent comparison between a "normal" lute and a theorbo.

The stopped courses of the theorbo are much longer than those of the ordinary tenor lute and need a different tuning. The first course, and usually the second, was tuned down an octave, so that the third course was then the highest and became the melody course. This is the so-called "re-entrant-tuning.".

During the seventeenth and part of the eighteenth centuries the theorbo was very popular as an accompanying instrument, but a certain amount of solo music in tablature was also written for it (especially by the famous theorbo players Giovanni G. Kapsberger and Robert de Visée). The theorbo was likewise used as a virtuoso bass instrument for obbligato accompaniments in festive church music (Gabrieli, Monteverdi) or early operas (Monteverdi, Rossi). The great esteem which the theorbo enjoyed was also manifested in the works of painters such as Gerrit ter Borch and Frans van Mieris, sometimes showing a mixture of lute and theorbo.

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Prélude et Allemande
Robert de Visée (1650–1725)
Performed by: Jonas Nordberg, theorbo

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Intavolatura di chitarone
Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger (c. 1580–1651)
Performed by: Jonas Nordberg, theorbo


Archlute by Martinus Harz, Rome 1665 (Collection of Musical Instruments, Edinburgh University)

in: Robert Spencer, "Chitarrone, theorbo and archlute," Early Music vol. 4, October 1976, p. 417

Click here for the essay by R. Spencer

Another kind of lute, rare in our times, is the archlute (It.: arciliuto, Ger.: Erzlaute). In the preface to his Intravolatura di liuto (two volumes, 1623 and 1629) the Italian lutenist Alessandro Piccinini described a type of arciliuto that he claimed to have developed and had made in Padua in 1594 (which others falsely called "liuto attiorbato," as he said). The structure is similar to that of the theorbo with the additional bass strings but with a smaller body.

Therefore the stopped strings were shorter and could retain at lute pitch (usually tenor G tuning), so that the instrument could be used both for solo music and continuo accompaniment and became a preferred alternative to the larger theorbo (but did not gain the theorbo's sonorous bass sound). Piccinini gave full instructions for its playing technique in his Intravolatura, and both he and, later, Silvius Leopold Weiss (1723) mentioned using the right-hand fingernails for plucking. Solo music in tablature for archlute was also published by Saracini (1614), Melli (1614–1620) or Gianoncelli (1650).

lute tableture from: "Anthologie van muziekfragmenten uit de Lage Landen" (An Anthology of Music Fragments from the Low Countries), ed. Eugeen Schreurs, Leuven – Peer: Alamire Foundation, 1995

Expert Opinion - Lynda Sayce

The Concert: Singer and Theorbo Playerfig. 9 The Concert: Singer and
Theorbo Player
Gerrit ter Borch
47 x 44 cm.
c. 1657
The Louvre, Paris

Defining the differences between the chitarrone, theorbo and archlute has always been difficult and, at times, traditional titles of given to paintings do not take into consideration progress made in recent musical history scholarship. Gerrit ter Borch's painting (fig. 9) represents such a case. Although the title given by the Louvre suggests that the instrument is a theorbo it might be better called a double-headed lute, or a theorbo-lute, the same kind which can be made out in Vermeer's Concert. This type of lute varied significantly in size and shape, for the simple reason that they were often conversions, from a wide variety of earlier instruments—so we might find long narrow "Bologna" lutes, rounded Paduan lutes, broad-ribbed instruments, multi-rib instruments, etc; all of these kinds in various paintings, all fitted with this very distinctive double pegbox. Musically they were rather diverse; we have music in the old renaissance tuning, and there's no doubt that they were often used for continuo playing in this tuning—in that guise they were most likely the "theorbo lutes" so often referred to in English restoration music prints. We also have solo music for 12 course lutes in various tunings typical of the mid-seventeenth century tunings which eventually settled into the all-pervasive D minor "baroque" tuning which became standard by about the 1680s.

Lute Tablatures

Over its long history a truly enormous repertoire was created for the instrument. American scholar Arthur Ness has estimated that 25,000 pieces survive for the Renaissance lute, and probably as many for the Baroque instruments—and that is only the music specially notated in lute tablature, not counting music from the Medieval and Baroque eras which is written in normal staff notation.7

The tablature is a system of notation for early instrumental music (14th-seventeenth century) in which the pitch and duration of a note is not shown with a symbol like in staff notation but with a system of letters, figures and certain symbols. One symbol shows how to produce a sound of the required pitch (which string to pluck, which fret to stop, which key to press etc.) and another to show its duration. While staff notation was primarily developed for single-line music, tablature's specialty is part-music. The most important categories of tablature are those for keyboards (usually the organ) and lute. A large quantity of the keyboard pieces copied between the early 14th and sixteenth century (many of them of German origin) survived in tablature form.

In the second half of the fifteenth century three principal systems of lute tablature had been developed: a German, an Italian/Spanish and a French. The German system (the earliest known printed in Sebastian Virdung's Musica getutscht, 1511) is probably the oldest. The system's basic principal was to guide the fingers of the player's left hand over the lattice, formed by courses and frets on the fingerboard. Each intersection of fret and course corresponded to a specific note and was denoted by a letter of the alphabet running across the fingerboard from bottom course to top. For higher frets the alphabet was repeated either in doubled letters or in letters with a dash above them (aa or ā etc.). The symbols intended to be played simultaneously were grouped in vertical columns of two, three or four at a time. Rhythm signs were placed above each note or group of notes. One inadequacy of the lute tablature is that the value of only the shortest of the notes to be played simultaneously could be notated precisely.

The various types of lute tablature represent a more direct form of instruction to the player and have been used for virtually all lute music from the early sixteenth century to the present time.

Click here for mp3 theorbo file:

Prelude in e minor (1,30 MB)
Robert de Visée (1650–1725)

Performed by: Yair Avidor

Click here for a MP3 audio-file of:

Giovanni Girolamo Kapsperger (1580–1651)
from the M.L. Lutebook, 26r,
Performed by: Thomas Bergham

Iconographic Meaning of the Lute

The lute is rich not only in repertoire but in symbolism. Its refined sound has given it courtly associations in East and West. Conversely, it could be an emblem of lust or lasciviousness: in the hands of an older man it symbolized scandal and degeneracy.

If the lute's sensuous and delicate tones evoked the pleasures of love, the fleeting nature of its sound, and the physical fragility of the instrument made it a fitting emblem of transience and death: it is often included, sometimes alongside a skull, in Dutch still life paintings of the Vanitas variety, illustrating the vanity of worldly existence.8

Click here archlute MP3 audio-file:

Chiaccona in partite variate
Alessandro Piccinini (1566–c.1638), from the book Intavolatura di Liuto, et di Chitarrone, Libro Primo (1623), p. 121.

Performed by: Robert Eklund

Throughout the centuries the lute is one of the most frequently depicted instruments with the largest variety of iconographical interpretation. Numerous illustrations of lutes appear in the emblem-books like Gabriel Rollenhagen's Nucleus emblematum (1611), Jacob Cat's popular Sinne-en Minnebeelden (1618) or Cesare Ripa's Iconologia (1644). The lute, with its ensemble of different pairs of strings, provided a perfect symbol for concord and harmony. The Roman philosopher Boethius associated in his work De institutione musica (c. 500) the thoughts of the ancient natural philosophers Plato and Aristoteles about the harmonious order of the universe or the spheric harmony with the term musica mundana and the harmonious order of the human body and soul with the term musica humana.9 These concepts were later of eminent significance for Renaissance ideals. Almost all depictions of the"celestial music" show angels playing the lute (fig. 10), as a part of the eternal Soli Deo Gloria, where it stands for the proclamation of "piece on earth and good will to all men" – the new won harmony (reconciliation) between God and mankind as the highest expression of the sacred love.

Angel with Lute, Looking Downfig. 10 Angel with Lute, Looking Down
c. 1480
Melozzo da Forli
| (fresco-fragment),
Rome, St. Peter's Cathedral.

With the new humanistic ideals of the Renaissance and their further development in the following centuries, the church gradually lost its privilege in the area of the arts. Paintings showed no longer only religious or mythological scenes but an increasing number of portrayals of the daily life—so-called "genre scenes" which enjoyed great popularity particularly in the arising class of the wealthy burghers in the seventeenth century. Many "Merry musical companies," which clearly displayed amorous intentions, were specially attractive for younger people. The lute with its soft seductive sound was the perfect accompaniment to love songs in numerous new songbooks. That explains why the lute is the preferred musical instrument in so many "brothel scenes," like Dirck van Baburen's Procuress (fig. 11).

Vermeer quoted Baburen's painting(which was very likely owned by his mother-in-law Maria Thins) twice as a so-called "picture-within-a-picture": in the Concert (c.1665/66) and in the A Lady Seated at a Virginal. The inclusion of Baburen's painting has led to interpretations of amorous intentions of the protagonists of Vermeer's composition, but we have to consider that brothel scenes may sometimes to be understood as the "Parable of the Prodigal Son." Therefore, they should serve as a warning not to lose one's money (and good reputation) in such houses10 and consequentially as an encouragement for temperance in the daily life.

The Procuress, Dirck van Baburenfig. 11 The Procuress
Dirck van Baburen
c. 1622
Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 107.6 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Last but not least, the lute could symbolize the concord and harmony in matrimony and family made evident by numerous family portraits with musical instruments. The Portrait of the Family (fig. 12) Van Berchem by the Flemish master Frans Floris (1561) demonstrates this concord and harmony in double sense: both husband and wife play an instrument (lute and a polygon spinet) with pairs of strings which stand for two different people "tuning" their hearts to an harmonious "sound" (life) like the strings should be well tuned to produce harmonious chords.

Portrait of the Van Berchem Familyfig. 12 Portrait of the Van Berchem Family
Frans Floris
Oak on panel,  130 x 225 cm.
Stedelijk Museum Wuyts-Van Campen en Baron Caroly

This concept was praised in a moving poem by Constantijn Huygens, private secretary to two Dutch Stadtholders and perhaps the most prominent figure in the Dutch musical life of his time: Twee ongepaerde handen op een clavecymbel ("Two unpaired hands on a harpsichord"), dated 23 February, 1648, with the conclusion that [two concordant souls] "in a heavenly way will give birth to a joy, a delight, only known by few who carry flesh and bones. It is part of angels' singing." Commenting on this poem the musicologist Frits Noske wrote: "Concord (eendracht) between husband and wife is described here not as serene co-ordination or fusion but as a bond of two unequal, though equivalent, individuals... ."11

Constantijn Huygens: A poem to the lute

Constantijn Huygens

Constantijn Huygens and his Clerk (detail)
Thomas de Keyser
1627, National Gallery London<

(The instrument on the table- a theorbo - is half covered by the sheet of paper.)

Luit, getuige van mijn tranen,
Luit, getuige van mijn vreugd,
Van mijn' onbevlekte jeugd:
Luit, toekomende verblijden,
(Als 't het de Hemel wel mag lijden)
Van mijn' dorren ouderdom
Luit, mijn' stille Treves-trom [treves: 12-jarig bestand]
Luit, mijn' fluit, mijn dove trompen,
Luit, mijn' feest mijn' druiven-dompen,
Luit, mijn heus onnozel spel,
Mijn vermakelijk gekwel.

(Iets boertigs, regel 6-16)
Lute, bear witness to my tears,
Lute, bear witness to my joy,
Of my untarnished youth:
Lute, future enjoyments,
(If heaven will suffer this)
Of my arid old age,
Lute, my silent Treves drum, [Treves: 12-year armistice]
Lute, my flute, my deaf muzzles
Lute, my party, my grape-bruising,
Lute, my genuinely witless play,
My amusing warbling

(Something Farcical, lines 6–16)

The Lute on the Web:

Lute Resources:

  • Grove Music Online:
  • entry 'Lute': Ian Harwood; Diana Poulton/David van Edwards; Diana Poulton/Tim Crawford.
  • entry 'Theorbo': Ian Harwood, Robert Spencer, James Tyler.
  • entry 'Archlute': Lynda Sayce.
  • see also Robert Spencer, 'Chitarrone, Theorbo and Archlute', in: Early Music vol. 4, October 1976, 407–422.
  • entry 'Tablature': Thurston Dart/John Morehen/Richard Rastall
  • Das neue Lexikon der Musik, 4 Bände, Stuttgart-Weimar 1996
  • Erich Höhne, Musik in der Kunst, Leipzig, 2nd ed. 1973


  1. Chris Goodwin, Secretary, The Lute Society, http://www.lutesoc.co.uk/about-the-lute.html, 2001.
  2. The information in this section and other in following sections was kindly provided to the author by the lutenist and lute, archlute and theorbo history expert Lynda Sayce, whose personal website can be visited at: http://www.theorbo.com/index.htm.
  3. Peter Forster, Visitors' Guide, to the exhibition Senses and Sins /"Der Zauber des Alltäglichen," Rotterdam, Frankfurt 2005.
  4. Santa Maria Bouquet, Jonathan. “The Lute.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lute/hd_lute.htm (April 2010)
  5. Chris Goodwin, 2001.
  6. Santa Maria Bouquet, Jonathan. “The Lute.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lute/hd_lute.htm (April 2010)
  7. Chris Goodwin, 2001.
  8. Chris Goodwin, 2001.
  9. See Karsten Erik Ose, "Die Frau, das zartbesaitete Wesen. Ikonographie als Sittengeschichte "(16.-18. Jahrhundert) in Ikonographische Zeugnisse zu Musikinstrumenten in Mitteleuropa. 18. Musikinstrumentenbau-Symposium in Michaelstein 21. bis 23. November 1997, hrsg. v. Monika Lustig et al. (Michaelsteiner Konferenzberichte 58), S. 112
  10. Norbert Schneider, Vermeer. Sämtliche Gemälde, Köln, London et al. 2004, S. 23–24
  11. Frits Noske, Music Bridging Divided Religions. The Motet in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic, vol. I, Wilhelmshaven 1989, 29, and in "Two unpaired hands holding a music sheet. A recently discovered portrait of Constantijn Huygens and Susanna van Baerle," in: Tijdschrift van de Vereniging voor Nederlandse Muziekgeschiedenis XLII-1, 1992, 135.

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