A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance

by Douglas Alton Smith
Cover of A History of the Lute by Douglas Alton Smith

By the year 1500, the lute’s almost universal appeal throughout Europe had made it a unifying element of Western music and culture. Renaissance composers, singers and dancers all found in the lute a perfect tool for the musical development and maturation of their art. In fact, the lute’s unique musical and physical characteristics inspired artists and poets alike to elevate it to a place of such high honor that the lute’s image has come to symbolize music itself.

In his fascinating book, “A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance”, Douglas Alton Smith traces the lute’s development from the early instruments of Classical Greece to its glorious flowering in Renaissance Europe’s golden age of polyphony. His superbly illustrated and comprehensive book explores the historical and cultural reasons behind the lute’s importance as the preeminent musical instrument of the Renaissance. With its lengthy bibliography, index, 74 illustrations and 55 musical examples, the author has told the lute’s story with such a scholarly and visual depth that it will become a standard reference for this instrument for years to come. 


About the Author

Douglas Alton Smith received his Ph.D. in music from Stanford University in 1977 with a dissertation on music of the Baroque lutenist Silvius Leopold Weiss. From 1997 to 2006 he served as Editor of the Journal of the Lute Society of America, and was a Consulting Editor of JLSA until his death in 2018. Smith prepared multiple memorial issues honoring the memory of the late Patrick O’Brien. Since 1973 he has published many academic studies on the lute and its music, including the article “Lute” in The New Harvard Dictionary of Music.

A young Douglas Alton Smith smiling warmly at the camera

Words of Praise for A History of the Lute

“Musicologist Smith, editor of the Journal of the Lute Society of America, has succeeded at an enormous undertaking…”   

“The reader is given a clear overview of the instrument from its origin in central Asia, through its introduction to Europe by Arab invaders, to its prominence as the ‘king of Renaissance instruments’ in courtly circles.” 

“Highly recommended for medieval and Renaissance history and music collections in public and academic libraries.” 

Timothy J. McGee, University of Toronto

“A History of the Lute” by D. A. Smith reads like a novel on the lute and its music. Its content is chronological from antiquity till early Italian renaissance, after which each country receives its own chapter. There is also a chapter on lute making with beautiful illustrations. In the course of the different chapters many composers are given a small paragraph with details about their lives and works.

David van Ooijen 

Although covering the lute’s history only up to the end of the Renaissance period, the book’s scope is vast.  Ample discussion of lute music repertoire, biographies of important composers, the lute’s cultural and societal context, tablature notations are all included in chapters organized by geography throughout Europe.

Kenneth Be

In his brilliant and beautiful new book, A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance, Douglas Alton Smith has given us a wonderfully-written account of the rich history of that once seemingly extinct instrument.

Brian Johanson