Created | Updated Mar 14, 2016
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And so the British struggled on into the Middle Ages. For a while, this was a time of courtly love when it was possible to get laid simply by owning a pair of stripy tights and a lute.
That's according to Richard Curtis in his introduction to Blackadder - The Whole Damn Dynasty (a compilation of all the television scripts).
This view is borne out by none other than Shakespeare himself, in the opening speech of Richard III:
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
Lutes were certainly a very popular instrument in the 16th and 17th Centuries. In 1633, the Puritan lawyer Whitelocke threw a party for King Charles I and his queen. He says that he 'engaged forty lutes, besides other instruments and voyces'.
What is a Lute?
A lute is a string instrument like a guitar, with a body the shape of half a pear. It has a wide neck which is bent backwards at a sharp angle to form the peg box. The pegbox holds the tuning pegs, which are like the tuning pegs on a violin. The lute has a large number of strings. It has a round sound hole like a guitar, but unlike the guitar, the hole is filled with an elaborate piece of fretwork called a 'rose', this strengthens the body while letting the sound out.
You can see a very good example of a lute in the painting The Lute Player by Caravaggio. The artist actually painted two copies of this work. The one linked to here is in the Hermitage Art Gallery in St Petersburgh, Russia. The other, which is identical except for the foreground details, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA. The picture shows a musician playing the lute. The figure is ambiguous - is it a boy, a woman or even a castrato? Whoever the singer is, the lute is clearly shown.
Another good example is the picture The Concert by Lorenzo Costa which hangs in the National Gallery in London, UK. This shows a group of three singers, one of whom is playing a lute.
The lute has a delicate construction - it doesn't do to bash it off walls, chairs, tables etc the way you might with guitars. The thin, curved surface of the back cracks very easily. The lute can even be broken by tuning it up too quickly without giving it time to adjust to the tension. Most ancient lutes have not survived the years.
The lute came from the Arabic world. The name in Arabic was 'Ud meaning 'wooden one', probably because it had a flat wooden front - many other instruments of the time had a tightened skin for a front, like a modern banjo. The word Al in Arabic means 'the'. The L of Al got incorporated into the name, so Al 'Ud became 'Lud'. From there it was a short step to lute.
A lute player is normally called a 'lutenist' (occasionally a lutanist). A manufacturer of lutes was called a 'luthier', but the name spread to a maker of stringed instruments in general and is now used for a maker of violins, cellos and such like.
Strings and Tuning
Most lutes have at least ten strings and some have as many as 20. The strings are normally grouped into pairs, called courses. A course may have 1 string or 2 strings close together. All the strings in a course are tuned to the same note, so they act as and are treated as a single string. In general, we talk about the number of courses a lute has, rather than the number of strings.
The lute uses strings made of sheep gut. These are similar in tone to the nylon strings used on a modern Classical Guitar, but go out of tune much quicker. A lute player will always retune at the start of every song, and sometimes in the middle of long songs. It has been said that a lute player who plays the lute for 80 years spends 60 of those years tuning up.
The lute has frets like a guitar, but they are gut rather than metal. The combination of gut strings, gut frets and the pear-shaped body gives the lute a very pleasant tone which is sharper and lighter than the classical guitar.
The normal tuning for a six-course lute is G2 C3 F3 A3 D4 G4, higher in pitch than a guitar, but the same pattern of intervals, except that the A-string is a semitone flatter. Right-hand technique is slightly different from a guitar; the player strums the lowest pitched three strings downwards with the thumb and the highest pitched three strings upwards with the fingers in a 'grasping motion'.
The earliest lutes, dating from 2500 BC in Babylonia, probably had a skin top like a banjo, with the back made from either a turtle shell or a gourd. The Arabs developed the lute, producing one with a wooden front but no frets. Such instruments are still used in the Arab world. The lute was introduced into Europe in around 1300. Over the next 200 years it underwent a number of changes, with the addition of frets and extra strings. By the time of the Renaissance it had become the standard instrument for accompanying singers.
This lute, with six courses, had its heyday in the 16th Century. The English composer John Dowland wrote huge numbers of songs with lute accompaniment. Music was written in lute tablature rather than standard musical notation. There is probably more music written for lute than for any other instrument except the piano and recorder.
In the 17th Century, the lute continued in popularity and developed further, with the addition of extra courses to make a 7-course, 8-course and eventually 13-course lute. Not all of the extra strings were fingered; some of them were beside the finger board rather than over it, and were strummed without being fingered to provide bass notes for chords. One such instrument with many strings was the archlute or theorbo. It had so many strings it needed two separate pegboxes for the tuning pegs, at different places along the neck of the lute. Another lute with many strings was the chittarone, a sort of double-bass of the lute world, as tall as a man and with metal strings. A baby lute, the Mandora, eventually developed into the mandolin.
By the 18th Century, the lute was in decline. Bach wrote a few songs for it, and included it in his St John Passion in 1722. Handel used it in his last opera, Deidamia, in 1741. After that, the place of the lute was taken by the guitar and the up-and-coming piano.
The Wandervogel movement started in Germany around 1900 and had its greatest popularity in the 1920s. As a reaction to the industrialisation of Germany, the movement preached a return to nature and simple values. Music was central to this: the image of a wandering minstrel was close to the heart of this philosophy. The lute enjoyed a brief revival, but these lutes, in fact, were little more than glorified guitars, with metal frets, six strings tuned like a guitar and using guitar-style tuning heads rather than the bent-back peg box of the true lute. Many of these lutes still occupy a dusty spot in the corner of an attic in Germany.
The 20th Century Revival
Later in the 20th Century, a revival of the true lute took place, along with an increased interest in all forms of 'early music'. People like David Munrow unearthed all sorts of strange early instruments and figured out how to play them. Julian Bream led the revival of the lute, although he later went on to be a renowned classical guitarist.
Even now there are lute-playing societies and newly-made lutes can be bought from specialised suppliers.