What is a Lute?

engraving of a Renaissance lute in white on red background

The lute is a stringed musical instrument plucked with the fingers or a plectrum (pick).  Widely recognizable for its round shape and softness of tone, it originally evolved from the Middle Eastern oud, was brought to Europe through Spain in the 8th and 9th centuries, and was later heard throughout Europe from about the twelfth century CE until well into the eighteenth century. After a period of disuse lasting more than a hundred years, interest in it slowly revived during the twentieth century, and is extending well into the twenty-first. Visit our YouTube page to hear the lute in action!

Brief History

The history of the European lute is rooted in a mythology and symbolism that stems back to ancient Greece. The Greek lyre held an esteemed position among the instruments at the time, which later inspired the musicians, philosophers, and theorists of the Renaissance and Baroque eras. Ancient Greek musicians used the lyre, as well as the kithara, a larger string instrument, to accompany the recitation of poems and epics. These were the instruments of Homer, and were strongly associated with music, dance, poetry, legend, and the gods. This correlation was so strong, in fact, that later theorists and musicians tried desperately to revive the kind of magical powers that these plucked instruments imparted. They felt that their own music was lacking the same kind of inspiration that the mythical Greek lyre players like Mercury or Apollo had, so the lute was used as a vehicle for the later humanistic revival of the Greek myths through music. The very shape of the lute may have originated through these myths: Mercury was supposed to have invented the lyre when he found a dead tortoise on the banks of the Nile River and plucked the nerves left stretch in the shell, according to the Homeric Hymn to Mercury.

The same prominence that the Greeks held for their lyre was held by the later Arabs for the oud. Within a century after the death of Mohammed, the oud was considered to be the “Sultan” or the “Shah of Instruments.” The Arabic writer on music Al-Kindi called the oud the “instrument of the philosophers,” and used it to illustrate theoretical aspects such as modes and intervals, much like the ancient Greeks, whom he was intimately familiar with. The term oud is usually understood to have come from the Arabic term al-‘ud, meaning “wood,” as opposed to a number of other Arabic instruments of the time which had bellies of leather rather than wood. It was this instrument that later traveled to mainland Europe through the Berber conquest of Spain, and was to eventually become the European lute.

Middle Ages

During the 500-year period of its historical popularity, the European lute underwent a considerable evolution.  No instruments have survived that were built in Europe during the Middle Ages, but a certain amount of information can be obtained from paintings, sculpture, and written descriptions from that time.  It is likely that most lutes during that period were relatively small and were plucked with a quill or plectrum. A typical medieval lute has 4 courses—single strings or a pairs of strings, usually tuned in unison or octaves, plucked as one single string. Attempts at reconstructing medieval lutes necessarily involve a significant amount of speculation, as do performances of music of that period.

The Fifteenth Century

Based on secondary evidence rather than surviving examples, the lutes made in Europe during the fifteenth century were predominantly five-course instruments. Late in that century we also see the lute played more commonly with the fingers directly instead of with a plectrum.

The oldest examples of lutes that exist in museum collections date from early in the sixteenth century, and by that time they were made with six courses. The first book of printed music for lute, published by Petrucci in Venice in 1507, is also for an instrument with six courses. Its multitude of independent melodic lines suggest that this music was not played with a plectrum, but with the fingers. By that time the tuning had been standardized to the “fourth, fourth, major third, fourth, fourth” interval pattern that was commonly used for more than a hundred years.

The Sixteenth Century

Over the course of the sixteenth century, the lute, as with other period instruments such as the recorder and the viola da gamba, grew into a family of instruments of various sizes. Surviving Renaissance lutes range in string length from about 44 cm to around 90 cm. During this period the size of the instruments most frequently used for solo performance ranged from about 54 cm string length to around 66 cm. Lutes of other sizes were used to accompany singers or instrumentalists as a way of adapting to different pitch ranges or tonalities but while also remaining within a comfortable area of the fingerboard. These were also used in ensembles of two, three or four instruments of different ranges. 

Near the end of the sixteenth century, three new trends made their appearance. The first of these was the addition of one or more courses to the bass of the instrument, extending the range farther downward. The regular use of a seventh course by about 1590 was then followed fairly quickly by adding an eighth, then a ninth and a tenth course. The tuning of these additional bass strings was not strictly standardized, and they may even have been re-tuned between pieces, according to the requirements of the music.  On ten-course instruments, enough pitches are available that a simple scale-wise tuning of the basses became the norm, i.e. C, D, E (or E-flat) and F.  Since all of the commonly-used notes of the scale are playable on these added strings, it is not necessary to change the pitch of these strings by stopping or fretting them, so most music for ten-course lute employed the added basses only as open strings.

The second trend was the addition of a second pegbox for the unfretted bass strings, which was placed on an extension of the neck of the instrument.  This came about due to the inherent deficiency in the tone quality of relatively short gut strings that were tuned to these low pitches. The modification was initiated in Italy, where a large lute made with this long neck extension was given the name chitarrone, or tiorba, the latter of which was adapted to the English term “theorbo.”  A related instrument, the archlute, has a shorter neck extension while retaining the double stringing and the tuning scheme of the Renaissance lute.

The Seventeenth Century

The third trend, taken at the beginning of the seventeenth century, particularly in France, was the introduction of novel, experimental tuning patterns for the six fretted courses. This experimentation lasted for more than 50 years, but by the last quarter of the seventeenth century, players had generally fallen into one of two camps. In England and the Italian peninsula, the “Renaissance” tuning scheme (4th, 4th, major 3rd, 4th, 4th) was maintained, though normally on extended instruments with eight unfretted courses.  In France and northern continental Europe, a “d-minor” tuning system was most commonly used.  For this the fretted strings are tuned ADFadf (4th, minor 3rd, major 3rd, 4th, minor 3rd).  Initially, these d-minor Baroque lutes were built with five additional unfretted courses tuned scalewise down below the lowest fretted course for a total of eleven.  Before 1720, two more courses had been added, and these 13-course Baroque lutes were required for most lute music of northern Europe from the mid- and late-18th century. This late Baroque lute design has two pegboxes, with the second one on a curved extension of the neck sometimes called a “swan neck.” It had 13 courses, eight in the main pegbox and five in the second one. Only the strings from the main pegbox pass across the fretboard. The length of this shorter set of strings is usually a little over 70 cm.

After 1700

Interest in the lute and its music died out fairly quickly after 1700 in France, England, and the Italian-speaking states. But, in German-speaking areas and some parts of eastern Europe, the 13-course lute in d-minor tuning was cultivated by a number of talented players and composers until near the end of the eighteenth century.  J.S. Bach designated a few pieces for this instrument, but the majority of its music was written by specialists like Silvius Leopold Weiß (1687–1750), who worked primarily as a lutenist. Others who wrote primarily for this late form of the instrument include Ernst Gottlieb Baron, Adam Falkenhagen, Jacques Gallot, Denis & Ennemond Gaultier, Joachin Bernard Hagen, David Kellner, and Charles Mouton.

The Nineteenth Century

After a long period of relative neglect, the lute experienced a revival in general interest, ignited by Arnold Dolmetsch (1858–1940).  Beginning near the end of the nineteenth century, he began collecting a variety of antique instruments, teaching himself and his family to play them, and presenting performances of them in his home. He built his first lute in 1893, and in 1925 founded the Haslemere Festival, an annual event for the study and performance of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. Around the same time, Walter Gerwig (1899–1966) began building his own instruments by consulting copies of historical designs, and learning to play his produced instruments.  Both of these men then mentored a number of talented and enthusiastic students who sparked a renewed interest in the lute throughout Europe and North America, which then led to the founding of the Lute Society, located in England, in 1956, and the Lute Society of America in 1966. The spirit of these pioneers lives on today among a wide variety of practitioners and hobbyists who are devoted to playing, researching, and lutes and related instruments, and disseminating this knowledge to a wider public.

Composers and Repertory

Lutenists typically play music drawn from the repertory of the Medieval, Renaissance, or Baroque periods. Over time, the lute has amassed an extensive and unique literature, primarily by composers who were themselves lute players.  The best of these lutenist composers, such as Francesco Canova da Milano, John Dowland, or Silvius Leopold Weiss, certainly earned reputations during their lifetimes to rival those of, say, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, William Byrd or Johann Pachelbel. However, the lutenists composers are much less well known today.

Lute music from the Renaissance and Baroque periods falls generally into one of five broad categories:  free-form pieces, either written down or improvised, dance pieces, transcriptions of vocal pieces, song accompaniments, and ensemble music.

Free-Form Pieces

The free-form pieces that appear in manuscript or printed collections bear titles such as Ricercar, Fantasia, Fancy, Prelude, Toccata or Tiento (all with a number of variations in spelling).  The name Ricercar is related to the word “research,” and the form may have arisen out of the contemporary practice of “testing” the lute’s sound or “initializing” a tonality before launching into a more elaborate piece. Ricercars and Preludes soon became elaborate pieces in their own right, and were occasionally based on musical material from other composition, often popular songs, with which they could be associated in a print or manuscript.

Dance Pieces

As the name suggests, the dance pieces for lute were generally written, and were frequently played, for dancing. But, as the musical style developed during the Baroque period, these pieces gradually became more complicated, more stylized, and more suited for listening instead. These pieces often occur in groups: early Germanic sources, for example, often include a Tanz in duple time followed by a Nachtanz, Proporz or Hupfauf in triple time that usually employs the same melodic and harmonic material. In Italian or English sources, a Pavan would often precede a Galliard. Attaingnant’s 1529 Parisian dance collection often combines a Basse danse (which may be in duple or triple time) with a triple time Recoupe and sometimes a Tourdion.  These early small groupings developed during the Baroque period into suites of four to seven or more different dance movements. These were often preceded by a Prelude and were related by a common tonality.

Transcriptions of polyphonic vocal music appear in many of the printed and manuscript sources for lute from the sixteenth century.  They are frequently called intabulations because the vocal parts were written in a unique notation for the lute called tablature, which can be played conveniently by a single player.  The vocal lines might be transcribed literally, but more commonly they were ornamented and altered to take into account the capabilities and limitations of the lute. As the style of vocal writing changed to a more homophonic model, intabulations vanished from the repertory of lutenists.

Vocal Pieces with Lute Accompaniment

Some of the earliest printed sources of lute music include vocal pieces with lute accompaniment. These early arrangements may consist of strict intabulations of a few parts taken from a multi-part polyphonic composition, with the remaining part written out in pitch notation to be sung.  By the 1520s and 1530s, the accompaniments, now often incorporating three parts of a four-part composition, tend to be filled out with embellishments, similar to the way intabulations of complete pieces were done at the time. This general model was followed through much of the remainder of the sixteenth century, and to some extent into the seventeenth.  However, in the late 1580s, a new style of music known as monody was created in Italy, based on the idea that a single voice could express a text most clearly, and that it was best done while singing over a relatively simple harmonic support.  The lutenist, instead of being provided with a completely worked out accompaniment, was then given only a melodic bass line, written in pitch notation, from which she was expected to improvise a full harmonic structure.  This new framework for the construction of musical compositions, with one or a small number of important melodies supported by vertical harmonies, quickly took over instrumental writing as well, and accompaniment from a basso continuo line became a required skill for lutenists from that time through the middle of the eighteenth century.

From the earliest part of the lute’s history in Europe, lutenists enjoyed playing in small ensembles together.  Literature from the fifteenth century describes duets in which one player provides a slow-moving chordal accompaniment to another’s rapid melody, which may have been improvised during performance.  Artwork from the sixteenth century depicts groups of three or more lutenists as participants in festive events.  Nicolaes Vallet had a quartet of different sized lutes available for hire in Amsterdam in the early part of the seventeenth century, and some of their dance charts were published in Vallet’s second volume of the Secretum Musarum in 1616.  Lute duets continued to appear in manuscripts until the mid-eighteenth century, when the lute fell out of fashion and only a few isolated players remained.

Currently, a relatively small but growing number of composers have been producing original compositions and arrangements for the lute, either as a solo instrument or as part of a small ensemble, keeping this rich history alive.

Anatomy of the Lute

bowl of a lute made of wooden ribs extending lenghthwise from the neck to the end of the instrument
The ovoid body of a lute.

The lute is perhaps most notable for its deeply rounded, ovoid body fabricated out of thin strips of wood glued together edgewise.  The body is closed by a wooden soundboard or table to which the bridge is glued.  The strings are tied through the bridge and stretched along a neck, across a fingerboard which is fitted with a number of tied frets, over a nut and into one or more pegboxes, where they are tuned by adjusting the tension. The strings are stopped or fretted with one hand while plucked with the other.  On most lutes, the strings are in pairs, except for the highest-pitched string, known as the chanterelle, or the top two strings on later (Baroque) instruments, although on a theorbo or chitarrone all the strings may be single.  Each single string or pair of strings is called a course.  The pair of strings within a course may be tuned to the same pitch (unison), but the pairs in the lower-pitched courses are often tuned an octave apart.  The upper courses are normally tuned with the interval of a fourth or third between them, but on instruments with more than six courses, those courses below the first six may be tuned stepwise.

staggered pegboxes of a baroque swan neck lute
The pegbox of a lute.

The body of a lute is constructed of thin strips of wood, cut into a tapered shape, bent and glued together edgewise. There is a protective and decorative capping strip glued around the bottom end, opposite the neck.  The soundboard is glued to the front of the body.

The pegbox of a lute is at the end of the neck. Inside it each string is wrapped around a tapered peg that can be twisted to adjust its tension and thus control the pitch.  When there are multiple pegboxes, as in the case of the instrument shown, each pegbox normally has its own nut.

nut of a 7-course lute
The nut of a lute.

The nut terminates the vibrating length of the strings at the end opposite the bridge.  Small grooves are cut into it to set the locations of the strings, defining the spacing within and between the courses.  On historical instruments the nut was usually made of ivory; on instruments built today, it is made of bone or a synthetic material.

bridge of a 13-course lute with strings tied on in closely spaced pairs
The bridge of a lute.

The neck of a lute extends from the body to the pegbox.  It is often made of a lightweight wood, in order to improve the balance of the instrument.  On the front, the fingerboard or fretboard, where the strings are stopped or fretted, is then usually a thick veneer of a harder wood.  The reverse side of the neck may also be covered with a decorative veneer.  The frets are tied on and are movable, so that the tuning of intervals can be adjusted. 

The bridge of a lute is glued to the soundboard. There are small holes or slots drilled through it at carefully spaced intervals to allow the strings to be tied to it.

egg-shaped soundboard of a 10-course lute with wooden body frets, rose, and bridge
The soundboard or table of a lute.

The soundboard or table of a lute is typically made of spruce, planed and scraped to around a millimeter in thickness, reinforced with a relatively simple bracing pattern, and glued to the body. The bridge is glued to the soundboard.  Near the center of the soundboard the body cavity is vented through an elaborate geometric or floral pattern known as a rose.  Less commonly there will be a triangular arrangement of three proportionately smaller roses.

Building a lute requires a large amount of careful manual work by a highly skilled woodworker, so the instruments are expensive and are usually made to the specifications of the buyer.  There is no “standard” lute, and an advanced or professional player often owns several very different types of lutes, or even different types of closely-related instruments.

 

 

In the field of organology, the systematic study of musical instruments, the term “lute” is broader and more generic and includes, for example, the Chinese p’i-p’a and Japanese biwa, the Arabic ’oud, and gourd-based instruments of sub-Saharan Africa.  The activities of the Lute Society of America focus primarily on the historical European lute and its music, but there is also considerable interest among LSA members in plucked-string instruments that are related to the European lute in any number of ways, such as those that coexist chronologically, overlap geographically, or share some musical repertory or playing technique. These instruments include:

Bibliography

  • Smith, Douglas Alton, A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance.  The Lute Society of America, Inc. (2002)  ISBN: 0-9714071-0-X
  • Lundberg, Robert, Historical Lute Construction.  Guild of American Luthiers, Tacoma WA (2002)
  • Spring, Matthew, The Lute in Britain. Oxford University Press, Oxford/New York (2001)  ISBN: 0-19-816620-6
  • Luths et Luthistes en Occident.  Cité de la Musique, Paris (1999)  ISBN: 2-906460-98-2

Acknowledgements:  We appreciate the contributions of digital photographs provided for this page by Kenneth Bé, Dick Hoban and Ed Martin.