A&S Journey

A&S Journey: Plundering the Lute, Part 1 (History)

This week and next will focus on the lute itself, its background and relevance, and how someone less familiar with the instrument might begin learning lute repertoire for playing in an SCA setting. Much of the research discussed here was incorporated into a class I introduced last Pennsic, “My Guitar’s Persona Is a Lute”.

The lute has become an iconic symbol of music itself, particularly in association with the Renaissance period, when, at its peak of popularity, it was for a time the dominant instrument of European culture. This is unsurprising–like its close cousins, the oud and the guitar, it fills a unique and powerful niche in musical repertoire. It allows a single musician to play a complete, rich, complex polyphonic arrangement, and sing along with it. It is lighter and more portable than a harp or acoustic keyboard instruments such as harpsichord or piano, and arguably more versatile than a lyre. It is a small wonder of ingenuity, beauty, and design to the eye, the hand, and the ear.

Lute or oud anatomy.

Accounts of the lute’s history and evolution often refer to it as a “descendant” of the Arabic oud, which was named for “the wood” (“al ud”) from which it was made. The name “lute” certainly comes from “al ud”, and during the Crusades, the design of the older instrument (which dates back to at least the ninth century) crossed over into Europe. “Descendant” can, however, imply a Eurocentric supercession of the lute over the oud, which continues to be played to this day and has outlived the lute’s popularity. The chief distinction that signaled the evolution of a new instrument was the addition of frets to the lute’s neck, forcing the instrument to produce the distinct semitones of Western music, instead of the subtler quartertones of Arabic. Much of the rest of the anatomy, as shown above, remained very similar. The rounded back and large soundboard, along with the paired-string courses, boosted the volume and created rich sound, compensating for the limitations of tension supported by the sheepgut strings and the wooden neck. The decorative rosette soundhole allowed sound out, and prevented dirt and stones from getting into the instrument.

Originally, the lute was played with a plectrum (generally a quill) like the oud, and the earliest lutes seen in illustrations, around the thirteenth century, have only four courses. Throughout the lute’s popular life, as the technology of construction the body and strings improved, courses would be added, allowing for a greater range of sound. The fifth course arrives in the fifteenth century. Around this time, the focus shifts from accompanying a singer to producing polyphonic music, and the plectrum is abandoned in favor of finger plucking. This leads to a sixth course added around the start of the sixteenth century, and a seventh before the end of it. The lute will continue to add courses as it evolves into the Baroque era, until it becomes a peculiarity with as many as 13 courses a tone apart, increasingly difficult to tune or maintain, and finally falls out of use around the turn of the nineteenth century.

The Elizabethan era coincided with the period when the lute reigned supreme, and much of the English lute music written by the likes of Dowland, Campion, Morley, and others, was for 7 courses. Lute music was composed to be played on its own, or with a second lute, but lute and voice pieces continued to be popular throughout. Another technology, the movable type printing press, had a lasting impact on the enduring popularity of lute music at this moment.

As I was learning lute repertoire, I was intrigued, but curious (not to say defensive) about how late in period the publication of lute songbooks arrived. 1600 is a very significant, if arbitrary, year in the SCA mind–essentially the end of “period”. The death of Elizabeth I in 1603 is a landmark we often reference. However, it is common practice to consider music published as late as 1650 acceptably “period” for SCA study and performance. Not everyone is aware of that practice outside the music community, and not everyone appears equally comfortable giving late-period music a “pass”.

So, given that Dowland’s First Book of Songs or Airs, the first popular book of lute music [EDIT: in English—thanks, Isabel da Costa!] is published in 1597, lovers of Elizabethan lute music have a quandary. Dowland’s is the first of a generation of songbooks that will be published in a 25-year period, and the only one that technically qualifies as “pre-1600 music!” Thomas Campion and Philip Rosseter’s highly popular A Booke of Ayres doesn’t hit the presses until 1601. Dowland, Campion, and others will publish more volumes, dozens of them, but alas! they were not aware that 400 years hence, their music would miss a significant deadline for a group of history nerds. What was wrong with these guys? Were they trying to make SCA lutenists’ lives difficult? Lute music was clearly widely enjoyed for centuries. Sheet music was being published decades earlier than this. What gives? Is there at least an explanation that a researcher could uncover that might account for this inexcusable lapse?

Yes, there was, actually. The answer is intellectual property rights in England. The British English Crown controlled the rights to all music publishing in the kingdom, which had been granted via a 21-year royal patent to William Byrd. Byrd’s patent expired in 1596; he did relatively little with his patent for the first 10 years, and eventually increased output in the second decade. When his patent finally expired, the patent was granted to Byrd’s protege, Thomas Morley. Morley worked with printer Thomas East, starting in 1597, to meet what had up to that point been a largely unmet demand for lute music, which Byrd had not focused on. Morley wrote for lute, and gave the instrument new focus. Dowland’s first book sold out rapidly and went into multiple printings (a reflection on the quality of the songs as well as the pent-up demand, since it would be the only lute book to get this treatment).

This historical tidbit is relevant if only to clarify that English lute music was highly popular before 1600, but artificial constraints prevented much of the repertoire from being printed during that timeframe. This is clearly historically appropriate music nevertheless.

Next week, we’ll focus on the guitar, and how and why it’s a fantastic and valid substitute for a lute.


(Note: A few people have responded to the previous “A&S Journey” posts, and that has been encouraging and helpful. Doing a series of 52 weekly posts on A&S topics is of course very different from doing a research paper or documentation for a competition or other event. The objective is to focus on different topics and works, in a manageable blog post length. Doing that and not falling behind on the commitment, means taking breaks from other activities to write for an hour or two. The risk is that details that could have been included in a given post might get overlooked, or that citations get missed. Please feel free to reach out–by commenting here on a post, by responding on social media to a share, via PM or email–with questions about a given post, or about something you’d like to learn more about. That can inform where the conversation goes in coming weeks. A shout-out in particular to Tommaso Franceschi, who had several questions about the mechanics of playing lute pieces on guitar, and inspired me to shift focus to that topic this week, instead of later on. Thanks, Tommaso! Though the details you want are still a week away, because history is a wonderful rabbit-hole.)


5 replies on “A&S Journey: Plundering the Lute, Part 1 (History)”

Hi Drake, just came across your blog and found it very interesting (I’m one of those guitarists who has a lute but keeps forgetting to get it out of its case).
One little historical blooper above:
“intellectual property rights in England. The British Crown controlled the rights”.
Sorry bud, but as a Scot I have to point out that Elizabeth was never Queen of Britain. There was at that date no British Crown, only English and Scottish..
James 6th of Scotland became King of England on Elizabeth’s death in 1603 and a year later called himself “King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland” but that title was never used in any legal document and Scotland and England (as is still the case today) kept their own separate legal systems.
Not until the Acts of Union of 1707 did we become the Kingdom of Great Britain.
BTW – in 1922 we became “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
Hope all of this doesn’t sound too picky, just pointing out a minor inaccuracy in an otherwise excellent article.
Just strike the word British before Crown and you’re good to go.
Anyway, you’ve got a new follower and I’ll pass the word.

Liked by 1 person

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