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
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.
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 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
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, a lovely Italian theorbo lies propped in one corner.
The lute, other than being a continual source of iconographical inspiration, was frequently used as a training ground for learning the intricacies of perspective. There exist many 16th 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), and at times with the aid of camera obscura or other optical devices employed by artists of the time. 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.
The Lute in Vermeer's Paintings
Oil on canvas, 39.3 x 44.4 cm.
Frick Collection, New York
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 and another time in the late Concert. 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.
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 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 17th 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.
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, 5th 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 13th 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 15th 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. With the introduction of the harpsichord (and later the piano) and the larger orchestra, the lute, with its soft voice, quickly 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.
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.4
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 (see right: Michael Lowe, Renaissance and Baroque lutes – the various kinds of tunings and use) 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.
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, not the nails. The best lute players use little motion of either hand.
Hendrick ter Brugghen
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.
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, further structural developments of this wonderful instrument extended its tonal capabilities. One of these special kinds, which still appears in exquisite 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 16th 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. 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).
Lang romanische Theorba: Chitarron (left), and paduanische Theorba (right). woodcuts from
Michael Praetorius’s Syntagma musicum II (1618-19)
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'.
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
During the 17th century and part of the 18th 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.
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).
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.5
The tablature is a system of notation for early instrumental music (14th-17th 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 16th century (many of them of German origin) survived in tablature form.
In the second half of the 15th 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 16th century to the present time.