The lute’s musical versatility, giving one musician the ability to play several polyphonic parts over a wide and increasing pitch range, made it once the most popular instrument in Europe, the ‘prince’ of all instruments. From the Arabian oud to the medieval, renaissance and baroque lutes, this article briefly charts the development of this versatile, beautiful and enduring instrument, featuring 8 videos illustrating the changes and developments of the lute and its music.
From the oud to the medieval lute
The medieval European lute is directly descended from the gut-strung Arabian oud. Indeed, the name lute is derived from the Arabic, al ‘ud, meaning the wood. The first evidence of an oud being played in Europe is from the 9th century, with the arrival of Ziryāb from Baghdad, a musician in the service of the Caliph of Córdoba, Spain. Evidence for the oud being played more widely and by Europeans doesn’t appear until the 13th century, in the beautifully decorated book of songs in praise of the Virgin Mary, Cantigas de Santa María, composed 1257–83 in the court of Alfonso X, King of eight regions in modern day Spain and one in Portugal.
By the early 14th century, the oud in the west was being developed into a distinct western lute. Below is possibly the earliest image of the oud being reshaped into a distinct European lute, from the embroidered Steeple Aston cope, England, c. 1310-40. We see this lute is still fretless, as most ouds were.
Lutes did not appear in iconography in any numbers until 1380-1400, so we can assume it was not widely popular until then. Medieval lutes were usually played with a plectrum of quill cut in a variety of ways, as we see above, and there is also evidence of lute plectrums made of a gut string or of ivory. (For more on plectrums, click here.) No music survives for the medieval lute, or for virtually any individual medieval instrument.
For the tuning of the 4 course medieval lute, we turn to the gittern. In his De inventione et usu musicae, 1481-83, Johannes Tinctoris describes the gittern thus: “It is very clear that the instrument invented by the Catalans, which is called by some the guiterra and by others the guiterna, came from the lyre.” This is entirely in keeping with medieval and renaissance music theorists, who linked all stringed instruments, plucked and bowed, to the lyre of ancient Greece and Rome. Tinctoris continues: “For this one [the gittern] takes the shape of a lute (although it is much smaller than that) and the form of a shell and the arrangement and contact of the strings.” In other words, both gittern and lute have the same tuning and the same manner of contact with the strings, i.e. played with a plectrum. Tinctoris must have meant the same relative tuning, since the gittern was, as he stated, smaller than the lute. This same relative tuning may be one reason that gittern and lute are often seen duetting in 14th century depictions.
The tuning itself is described in the Berkeley Theory Manuscript, probably written by Johannes Vaillant, a 14th century Parisian music teacher, who died in 1361. As we see above, the drawing of a gittern (below) gives a tuning (highest to lowest) of c’’ f’ b e, which is most odd, and is clearly wrong, since it is contradicted by the text. The citole (above) is shown with a tuning of c” g’ d’ c’, followed by the comment that the gittern tuning is the same, but with the 4th course loosened to a fourth below the adjacent course, clearly giving a gittern tuning of c” g’ d’ a.
How was the mistake made on the drawing? If the c’’ f’ b e tuning is reversed to e” b’ f’ c’ then we have a tuning entirely in fourths, as described in the text, if we also flatten the e” and b’. It appears that the author knew the gittern was tuned in fourths but became confused: in the drawing, he forgot that in the text he had written c” g’ d’ c’ for the citole and therefore the tuning c” g’ d’ a for the gittern; calculated the gittern tuning in fourths from the top course as if it was the bottom course, giving a tuning of eb” bb‘ f’ c’, but then omitted to write the flats and again reversed the tuning, writing it backwards as c’’ f’ b e on the drawing. Reading the text alone makes gittern tuning unequivocally clear.
Medieval lutes appear in various sizes, but the principle is clear: 4 courses in fourths, giving a tuning most likely at the pitches of g’ d’ a e. The fact that the Arabian oud, predecessor of the western medieval lute, was tuned in fourths, further strengthens the case for this tuning.
The renaissance lute
The renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century and spread across Europe in the 15th century. During the 15th century, three changes happened to the lute: it increased the number of courses, changed its tuning, and began to be played with fingertips rather than plectrums, creating what we now term the renaissance lute.
In the 1420s, the lute gained a 5th course, though this was not entirely universal: as we see below, 4 course lutes were still in evidence in the late 15th and even into the 16th century. The lute gained a 6th course, evident in iconography from 1475, and again we see that 5 course lutes were still portrayed into the 16th century.
With the addition of the 5th course there was a new tuning, introducing the interval of a third among the fourths between open courses. However, we cannot say with certainty that the ‘new’ interval of a third between two of the courses was introduced at the same time as the 5th course. It is possible that the 5 course lute (and gittern, which also gained a 5th course in the 15th century) continued to be tuned in fourths before the advent of the new tuning. A 4 course lute tuned g’ d’ a e would have a 5th course of B if it remained in fourths, and a 4 course gittern tuned c’’ g’ d’ a would have a 5th course of e, both of which are serviceable and argue theoretically in favour of the continuation of tuning in fourths when the 5th course was added, as indeed happened with the Arabian oud in the 15th century.
Different sizes of lute are evident in the medieval and renaissance periods. A smaller 4 course lute in a’ would be tuned a’ e’ b f#, with an additional 5th course of c#. In an unequal temperament, with sharps and flats being different notes, having two courses tuned to accidentals may have been problematic. Raising the 4th and 5th course by one semitone, creating the ‘new’ interval of a third between the 3rd and 4th courses, resolves this problem, giving the standard renaissance tuning for a lute in a’ of a’ e’ b g d, or its relative equivalent at a different pitch, with a 5 course lute in g’ lute tuned g’ d’ a f c.
All medieval plucked chordophones, including the lute, were played with plectrums. Medieval plectrum instruments were capable of polyphony because the voices were of a similar pitch, meaning polyphonic music could be played almost entirely on adjacent courses. During the first half of the 15th century, under the influence of English composer John Dunstaple, the new style of renaissance polyphony spread voices wide apart in pitch. Lutenists found a way of playing it solo, first by playing with a combination of plectrum and outstretched fingers, then by playing with fingertips alone, using three independent fingers and a thumb on the right hand (presuming a right-handed player), with the little finger anchored on the soundboard. Thus a musical revolution began. (For a detailed account of this change from plectrum to fingertips, click here.)
Lute music was written in a new style of notation created in c. 1460: stringed instrument tablature. This is a system indicating which course to play, which fret to play and what rhythm to play, and by this means it is far more specific and instructive for the instrument than the treble or bass clef staff notation most common today. Lute music was written exclusively in tablature in handwritten household books and in print. Four different systems developed.
German lute tablature, adapted from organ tablature, was the earliest and most complex, using numbers to indicate courses and alphabetical letters to indicate fret positions, with rhythm flags above. It remained specific to Germany and German-speaking countries, used from c. 1470 until the early 17th century, when French tablature became favoured.
French tablature was used in the French and English speaking world, but it was probably created in Italy, as the first evidence for its use is in the Italian Pesaro manuscript of c. 1480s–1511. Six lines represent the six courses, with the first course at the top. (When extra bass courses or diapasons were later added to the lute, these notes appeared underneath the lines.) Alphabetical letters show you where to place the left hand – a for an open string, b for first fret, c for second fret, and so on – and rhythm flags above the letters show the rhythm for the plucking hand. Where a note lacks a rhythm flag, you play the last value of note indicated. Extra symbols show ornaments or grace notes and, in some cases, dots under the fret letters show which right hand finger to use – one dot for finger one, two dots for finger two, occasionally three dots for finger three, a vertical stroke for the thumb.
Italian tablature appears, from the evidence of the Bologna and Thibault manuscripts, to have developed in Italy contemporaneously with French tablature. French tablature was quickly favoured elsewhere and fell out of favour in Italy, whereas Italian tablature firmly established itself in Italy and Spain. Italian and French tablature work to the same principles, except that in Italian tablature the sixth course is written on the top line down to the first course on the bottom line and, instead of letters for fret positions, there are numbers: 0 for an open course, 1 for the first fret and so on.
There was a fourth system, little used: Neapolitan tablature, in which the first course is shown as the top line, as in French tablature, and fret positions are shown as numbers, as in Italian tablature.
The lute inspired musical masters to new heights of musical beauty and inventiveness: in Italy, most famously Francesco Canova da Milano, Vincenzo Capirola and Joan Ambrosio Dalza; in Germany, Hans Gerle and father and son Hans and Melchior Neusidler; and in England, father and son John and Robert Johnson, Anthony Holborne and, most esteemed of all, John Dowland.
The lute’s wide appeal and versatility is shown in its use in such a wide range of musical styles and playing contexts: solos and duets; song accompaniment; household entertainment; religious and secular music; patronage by royalty; and an integral part of the mixed consort, an ensemble of lute, cittern, bandora, bass viol, treble viol or violin, and recorder or flute.
The sound of the lute
Part of the renaissance lute’s great appeal is its sound. This is partially achieved by its very light construction; and partially by its style of playing, known as thumb inside or thumb under. The hand is roughly parallel to the strings, not at a right angle, like the modern guitar. The effect is to give a round, mellow sound, as at this angle it is the soft flesh of the fingers making contact with the strings. It also enables great proficiency in fast passages by using a forearm movement, a practice which appears to be directly descended from quill technique, but with the thumb on the downstroke and index finger on the upstroke instead of a plectrum held between the fingers.
There is evidence that the sound of the lute in the early 16th century was quite unlike the clean, pure sound expected of early music revival players today, but was related to the more strident sound of the bray harp, with which the lute is sometimes pictured duetting, as we see on the right. The bray harp was the standard European harp from 1400 to the 1670s. The pins holding in the strings were L shaped, turned to make contact with the strings when they vibrated, giving a frisson not unlike the sympathetic strings of the sitar or a distorted electric guitar. The sound of the bray harp can be heard here.
The beautifully decorated Capirola lute book, a manuscript written in Venice 1515-1520, states that a player should “make it so that the first fret almost touches the strings, and so on to the end, because as the frets are nearer to the string, the strings sound like a harp, and the lute appears better.” In other words, lute strings should buzz against the frets, giving the sound of a bray harp.
The lute began to be fretted in around 1400, the same time that brays began to appear as standard on harps, and the earliest image of a fretted lute I can find – shown below, from 1400 – illustrates it clearly with triple frets, the only purpose of which is to add further to the braying effect created by a low action.
The braying effect of strings close upon frets described in the Capirola lute book of 1515-20 is painted again in the 1520s with triple frets, as we see below.
The anonymous artist who painted A concert, a Venetian work from the mid-1520s (above left), paid great attention to detail. We see music being held that is readable (detail, above right), a 5 course lute with clearly-shown octave stringing on the third, fourth and fifth course (detail, below left), and the triple fretting designed to give the bray lute effect.
At some time, lute players must have ceased to make their strings buzz, but when that was is difficult to say. The only indication I am aware of is in Musick’s Monument by Thomas Mace, 1676, in which he describes using single rather than double frets on his lute, which he preferred because compared to double frets it gives a “Clearer Sound from the string stopt” which “cannot but Speak Clear“, whereas a string upon a double fret “must needs Fuzz a little … and thereby, takes off something of Its Clearness, especially if the Fret be a Thick-broad-Double-Fret” (page 70). It is debateable whether Mace had any notion of braying frets in this passage, but he was certainly an advocate of the cleanest possible sound.
The development of renaissance lutes
Over time, the number of courses (a course is a string or strings played as one, separated spatially from the adjacent course, grouped at the same pitch or an octave apart) and the overall range of the instrument increased. The medieval 4 course lute gained a 5th course seen in art in the 1420s, then a 6th course is seen by 1475 (though, as we observe above, some were still playing 5 course lutes into the 16th century). A 7th course is mentioned by Sebastian Virdung in 1511 (Musica getutsch und außgezogen) and needed for one piece of music in the Italian Pesaro manuscript of c. 1480s–1511, though the 7th course does not appear again in written or published music until 1569, when Giulio Cesare Barbetta’s music required it (Il Primo Libro dell’ Intavolatura de Liuto), after which it became more common. 8 course music was printed from the 1580s, 9 course music from 1600 (the first being Antoine Francisque, Le trésor d’Orphée), and 10 course music from 1611 (Robert Ballard [the younger], Premier livre de tablature de Luth). Beyond the 6th course, the diapasons or basses were played open rather than fretted. Assuming a lute in g’ (i.e. the top course is tuned to g’), the 7th course was tuned to F or D, depending on the piece, and the 7th and 8th course of the 8 course lute had both notes. The 9th course added a C below, and the 10 course lute added a diatonic step, the diapasons being F, E or Eb (depending on the piece), D and C.
The aforementioned Sebastian Virdung stated in 1511 that 6 course lutes were strung in octaves on the 4th, 5th and 6th courses. Johannes Tinctoris explained why in his De inventione et usu musicae (The invention and use of music), c. 1481–87: “in order that it [the lute] should have a louder sound, to each of these strings one is conjoined that is tuned to the octave with it.” In other words, thicker and lower-pitched gut strings sounded dull, so they were brightened by being paired with a string an octave higher.
Octave courses slowly receded through the 16th century so that, on a lute of 6 or more courses, at first the 4th course down was in octaves, then the 5th down until, by the early 17th century, octave stringing was often used only on the 6th course down or only on diapasons. By the time John Dowland wrote Other necessary Observations belonging to the lute in his son John’s Varietie of Lute Lessons, 1610, he observed when discussing a 9 course lute that “on your Bases, in that place which you call the sixt string, or r ut, these Bases must be both of one bignes [the same thickness, i.e. unisons], yet it hath been a generall custome (although not so much used any where as here in England) to set a small and a great string together [i.e. octaves], but amongst learned Musitions that custome is left, as irregular to the rules of Musicke.” In other words, John Dowland stated in 1610 that only the diapasons should be strung in octaves, not any of the 6 main melody courses, as octave stringing on a melody course produces parallel octaves, which is “irregular to the rules of Musicke”.
The move from octave stringing on lower courses to unisons on all 6 melody courses was accompanied by a change from the thumb inside (described above) to the thumb out plucking position, in which the plucking hand is not parallel to the strings, as with thumb in, but at a right angle to them. In his Stammbuch (c. 1600), German lutenist Johann Stobaeus described thumb out: “The right hand is to be held close to the bridge, and the little finger firmly placed and held down. The thumb is to be stretched out strongly, so that it stands out almost as a limb to the other fingers. The fingers are to be pulled cleanly inwards under the thumb, so that the sound resonates cleanly and strongly. The thumb is to be struck outwards, not inwards like the people in the past used to do [i.e. now move the thumb over the hand, not into the hand] … it sounds purer, sharper, and brighter”. To add weight to his argument, Stobaeus lists “[t]hese famous lutenists [who] used the thumb outside”, including “Dowland the Englishman, who at first used his thumb the other way.” This necessitates a difference in technique, with running passages now played not by the thumb and forefinger but by alternating the index and middle fingers.
There was significant overlap of players using thumb in and out. Iconography shows thumb out was used by some lutenists from the 1570s, while thumb inside continued with some players until the first decade of the 17th century, after which it faded from use.
There were also structural changes. In his son Robert’s A Varietie of Lute Lessons, 1610, John Dowland commented that “these frets of late years were but seaven in number, as witnesseth Hans Gerle Lutenist, Citizen and Lute-maker of Nurenburge (for so he stileth himselfe in his booke of Tableture, printed 1533.) … Yet presently after there was added an eight fret: for my selfe was borne but thirty yeeres after Hans Gerles booke was printed, and all the Lutes which I can remember used eight frets, and so ended at the Semitonium cum Diapente. But yet as Plautus saith, Nature thirsting after knowledge, is alwayes desirous to invent and seeke more, by the wittie conceit (which I have seene, and not altogether to be disalowed) of our most famous countriman M. Mathias Mason Lutenist, and one of the Groomes of his Majesties most honourable Privie Chamber, (as it hath ben told me,) invented three frets more, the which were made of wood, and glued upon the belly, and from thence about some few yeeres after, by the French Nation, the neckes of the lutes were lengthned, and thereby increased two frets more, so as all those Lutes which are most received and disired, are of tenne frets.”
The lengthening of lute necks referred to by Dowland was achieved by removing the neck and replacing it with a longer one. This also had the effect of lowering the overall pitch, as the longer the same density string at the same tension, the lower the note. This, in turn, had the effect of making the delicate first course more liable to break, so 10 course lutes were fitted with a treble rider, as were later baroque lutes (see picture right), so that the first course did not have such a sharp angle from the nut to the peg. (The nut is the piece of bone with grooves in to keep the strings in place.)
Other changes had been taking place in Italy before the turn of the century. In c. 1580, the chitarrone was created, distinguished by its extra peg box to facilitate a lower pitch of basses beyond the 6 melody courses. Due to the large size of the chitarrone, the first two courses could not be tuned up to pitch and were therefore tuned down an octave. This may or may not originally have been the same instrument as the theorbo (tiorba) in the same tuning – 16th century writers contradict each other on the matter – but by 1600 the two names were synonymous. The chitarrone or theorbo was visually similar but distinct from the arciliuto or archlute, designed in 1594 by Alessandro Piccinini. The archlute retained standard lute tuning, and Piccinini recommended that it be played with nails rather than flesh on the right hand, creating a sharper, thinner, more trebly sound. Piccinini stated that the differently-named liuto attiorbato was a misnomer, as the name suggests it is related to the theorbo, whereas it is, he wrote, a synonym for the archlute he invented.
The French baroque lute
During the renaissance and until around 1620, the 6 main melody courses of the lute consistently had a standard tuning, known as viel ton, relatively speaking the same as a modern guitar but with the third course a semitone down. The pitch of a whole instrument depends on its size, from the large bass lute to the small treble lute. The ‘standard’ or most favoured size gave it a pitch of g’ on the top course, a minor third above a modern guitar, giving it a tuning, 1st to 6th, of g’ d’ a f c G.
As John Dowland noted in 1610, changes were afoot in France to enlarge the size of the lute and thus lower its pitch, an idea that was to spread; and, by the 1620s, French, Swiss, Polish and English lutenists were experimenting with different ways of tuning the instrument. By 1650, D minor tuning and its close variants, which first appeared in 1638, had become the norm for French lute players: now the top 6 courses were tuned, 1st to 6th, f’ d’ a f d A. The 4 basses then followed down the diatonic scale: G F E D. When this D minor tuning made playing in some keys awkward, tuning modifications were made to some courses to fit the key. Soon an 11th course of C followed, then up to 13 courses by 1720. The new D minor tuning and overall lower pitch created a completely different instrument to the renaissance lute, with old ways of playing now impossible: a new sonic world had opened up.
While Italian lutenists retained viel ton renaissance tuning (and its necessary variant on the theorbo) on their double-headed lutes, French lutenists changed to D minor tuning and retained their single-headed lutes. In this divergence, the centre of the lute world was shifting: the main focus had moved to France. Foremost were Ennemond Gaultier (c. 1575-1651), known as “le vieux Gaultier”, ‘the old Gaultier’; his cousin, Denis Gaultier (c. 1602-72); and Charles Mouton (1617-before 1699 – pictured above right). And, since French players had developed this new way of tuning and playing, the D minor lute was called the ‘French lute’ in England.
French lute style became hugely influential beyond the lute. The style brisé was an arpeggiated way of playing where the tune was deliberately somewhat hidden by breaking up chords into their individual notes. French musicians on other instruments then used the technique, calling it style luthé – lute style.
In Scotland, lutenists used the French lute to play French music and, much moreso, traditional Scottish and English tunes. Thanks to the surviving late 17th century Balcarres lute manuscript, we have some of the earliest versions of these traditional cultural treasures arranged for lute by a variety of Scottish musicians.
The German baroque lute
By the close of the 17th century, the chief focus of lute composition had moved again, now to Germany and Austria, where lutenists were developing a more melodic style which continued to flourish in Germany long after the ‘French lute’ had ceased to be popular in France. German luthiers developed a Germanic version of the French lute and Sylvius Leopold Weiss became its greatest exponent in the 18th century. Weiss’ beautiful and impressive music was the last chapter in the history of the instrument’s cultural significance.
© Ian Pittaway. Not to be reproduced in any form without permission. All rights reserved.
Dowland, John (1610) Other necessary Observations belonging to the lute. In: Robert Dowland, Varietie of Lute Lessons. Lithographic facsimile published in 1958 by Schott and Co., London.
Eastwell, Martin (2012) 21st Century Lute Technique: A Compromise Too Far? Lute News, Number 101 (March 2012), pp. 16-21.
Lewon, Marc (2017) Transformational Practices in Fifteenth-Century German Music. Thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. Available online by clicking here.
Mace, Thomas (1676) Musick’s Monument. Reproduced in facsimile by Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, 1966.
Page, Christopher (1980) Fourteenth-Century Instruments and Tunings: A Treatise by Jean Vaillant? (Berkeley, MS 744). The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 33, March 1980, pp. 17-35. Available online by clicking here.
Shepherd, Martin (2008) Dowland’s Lutes: Setting the record straight. Available online by clicking here.
Smith, Douglas Alton (2002) A History of the Lute from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Massachusetts: Lute Society of America.
Spencer, Robert (1976) Chitarrone, Theorbo and Archlute. Early Music, Vol. 4, No. 4 (October 1976). Available online by clicking here.
Spring, Matthew (2001) The Lute in Britain. A history of the instrument and its music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tinctoris, Johannes (c. 1481–87) De inventione et usu musicae. Available online by clicking here.
Van Edwards, David (undated) An Illustrated History of the Lute. Available online by clicking here.
Witmer, Talitha (2018) The Can of Norms: Expanding the Modern Lute Plucking Technique. Available online by clicking here.